The biggest question facing civil society leaders today, as it no doubt has at every point in time where society has changed quickly, is ‘are we still relevant?’. That we are in a period of major change and disruption in how our economy and society democracy work is undoubted. What is less clear is whether people and their communities think that we are the organisations they want to get involved in to get to wherever comes next.
Why so? At our worst, we are seen as distant, offering yesterday’s solutions and ways of working to tomorrow’s problems. Analogue solutions in a digital world. At our worst, we’re seen as slowly moving in a fast-changing world, comfortable when many are precarious, monochrome when we should be multi-coloured. Perhaps most frustrating of all, people feel things are changing for the worse, and civil society is not making any difference.
The Inquiry documents such failings well. Arguably too well – for me, it underestimates our capacity and desire for change. We would do well to remember that over 400 years charities and beyond we have periodically reinvented how we benefit the public. We should remember that we have clearly remained relevant to a generous public who continue to give their time and money, and share their assets and skills. And we can learn from local and global organisations that are reinventing themselves for the digital age, such as the Rotary or the Scouts. We can build also upon our physical assets – village halls, parks and commons, homes and hostels – to revitalise the sense of connectedness that people are yearning for. And we can benefit from the abundance of time and talent, skills and resources, that people in this country put into doing good. Not all change starts from the position that we have got everything wrong.
Equally, we shouldn’t be complacent. In a world where sector doesn’t matter nearly as much, our challenge is to prove to people that we are best placed to address the causes that they care about. Can we? The Inquiry sends an important signal that people still want to make a difference to the world around them – or more likely, the place near them. It also reminds us that howpeople want to make a difference is an important, urgent change that we need to engage with if want people to work with us and through us. The mechanisms and opportunities for people to get involved are wider than ever – and those born after the baby boomers don’t think in terms of sectors, or at times organisations. They just want to make a difference.
So, where lies the road to relevance? The PACT framework is a starting point in terms of how we get there. It’s hard to argue against sharing power, or actively listening more to those for whom we were set up to benefit. I’m less convinced that trust is as big or as widespread a problem as the report makes out. Conversely, the argument for our role as connectors is, for me, one of the single most important take-aways from the Inquiry. Working for a national membership organisation, I don’t think we are good enough at this –too many of us in such bodies probably think a network and an email distribution list are the same thing. They’re not – we need something deeper, with the dial set at conversation, not at broadcast. We’re the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) – but maybe we need to be the Network for Change, the Network for Connection, for volunteers and organisations in places everywhere. NCVO retooled for the digital age.
We talk much about place these days. In a polarised, atomised world, civil society as the place where people come together, settle their differences and take collective action seems more relevant to me than ever.