ARTICLES Why a reinvigorated civil society now needs the ideas to match the size of its ambition

Why a reinvigorated civil society now needs the ideas to match the size of its ambition

The most challenging times demand the biggest ideas. That was true after the cataclysm of the First World War when so many of our charities emerged and it’s certainly true now. It’s in moments of crisis that the bravest and boldest step forward to deliver lasting change.

Asking challenging questions

Originally charities were the campaigners, the disrupters; those who asked the most difficult questions of society. The best of them proposed the most innovative solutions too.  

The publication of Civil Society Futures Inquiry represents a potentially seismic moment for us – but only if we deliver the ideas to match the size of our ambition. The new vision is based around the idea of a shared PACT (Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust). I welcome the tougher tone – the call to arms; the clarion cry to create a better and more egalitarian future, ‘by civil society, for civil society shared by us all.’ Yes, we stand stronger when we stand together.  

Why connectivity is key  

And for me, at the heart of this new PACT is connectivity. It’s the idea that unlocks everything else. We have over 640,000 members in Scouting, across more than 7,000 Groups. Our impact and power as a movement is created from the millions of connections being made and not just around a thousand twinkling campfires. Over the last five years we have been active in our communities creating alliances with like-minded charities who share our values, delivering real community impact – for example training over 23,000 Scouts to be Dementia Friends.

How do we foster connectivity? By giving young people and volunteers the confidence, empathy and other skills to work with different kinds of people.  By doing this, we have broadened our reach into 98 of the 100 county’s most deprived areas and have fostered powerful bonds with Muslim communities – we now have over 5,000 Muslim Scouts in the UK.

Taking people on the journey

This year we took some of our bravest decisions for 20 years, launching a new strategy and brand, reimagining Scouting for a digital age while preparing young people with skills for life. We challenged ourselves to think bolder in order to make an even bigger impact – extending our reach to younger ages and developing new delivery models to provide Scouting in schools, hospitals and prisons.

But this could not have happened without the support of our volunteers. As leaders in a charity with a federated structure we needed to have open, honest and challenging conversations.

We listened carefully, allowed the time and space for ideas to be shared and took people with us on the journey. When we gathered some 600 volunteers together for a summit last year, it was genuinely one of the exciting moments of my career. As the consensus gathered for change, you could feel the energy in the room. Technology makes this process easier too. Our regular live webcasts are joined by over 1,000 people and provide opportunities for volunteers to ask questions and challenge.  Our mantra is: ‘listen, then lead.’

Delivering cultural change of the scale I am describing is not easy. For power to be assumed by under-represented groups, power will need to be ceded by more dominant groups. It is not easy unpicking rules that have been accumulated over a hundred years. And we will need to reconcile the tension that exists between acting in an agile way in order to compete at a time of increased regulation and scrutiny. It could be argued that it is easier to play it safe than to take risks and incur the criticism of members, regulators and the media. Major systemic change will therefore require clear thinking, courage and sound communication to take people with us.

A moment for big ideas

So let’s welcome this new PACT. It’s a promise to the future; a moment for major reappraisal of how we deliver our services and how we work together.

And to do that we need to think bolder and champion great ideas, not just those that come from our own organisations. When I see the ground-breaking work the British Asian Trust are doing through new models of social investment, Street League’s ground-breaking approach to transparency through their online impact dashboard or how Citizens Advice have revolutionised their services through digital transformation it inspires me to learn more, share more and do more.     

When Michael Young, one of the founders of the Open University shared his pioneering vision for ‘a college of the air’ he transformed tertiary education. What’s our big idea, the giant leap that will transform civil society? For our generation this is both our greatest challenge and opportunity.