ARTICLES What we’ve learnt from over 60 independent conversations about the future of civil society

What we’ve learnt from over 60 independent conversations about the future of civil society

When we launched, we knew that the inquiry would only succeed if the widest range of people, collectives and organisations took part.

We believed this would be a key piece to the inquiry — not being ‘done to’ civil society, but an opportunity for civil society to self-reflect.  And we were excited to see 64 independent conversations to date, in 26 different cities and towns, with more than 850 people taking part altogether.

Across the board we heard a recurring message: that there’s a huge need for spaces for genuine dialogue and exploration.

So what did we hear?

…About civil society

  • People talk about having resources, such as time, skills, knowledge, access to networks or funding, but there is an uncertainty about how to best value and deploy them.
  • There is a recognition of the blurring of boundaries between business and charities (and a sense that this can be a positive force when done right).
  • There are many commonly used words (such as connect / collaboration / inclusion / power / privilege / co-design / co-commissioning ) and there is a recognition that these things are important for the present (and future).  However, they are easy to say/acknowledge and hard to practise. How do you live this out? Who is doing this really well?
  • There is a recognition that real collaboration requires dedicated resources – there’s a need to acknowledge and support this accordingly.

“The competition between groups for funding and profile has really undermined many possibilities for solidarity.”

“We’re pushed further apart by competition for smaller resources and a desire to find out uniqueness, not our common ground.”

  • There is a recognition of the role the media plays – blocking different voices and narratives from being shared.

“When the media talks about the pay gap, they are talking about the pay of white men versus white women.”

“Within media people of colour struggle to make careers for themselves, or are included and expected to focus on race.”

“It’s not easy to see how to change the discourse, but there should be a shift from the current mental model which measures success in terms of money to one which defines success as harmony.”

  • People are questioning of the role of technology – recognising its connecting force as well as the fact that it’s not all positive.

“The nature of technology is changing the way we relate to one and other and our social fabric.”

  • There is a need to create (safe) spaces for more nuanced debate and for disagreement or conflict.  Organisations are reluctant to speak out as they fear losing funding.  At a personal level, online backlash and trolling are adding to the pressures.

“Trustees also need to recognise that effective governance is not just about compliance and ‘behaving well’. At the right times impactful governance also demands disrupting established practice and ideas and being ‘positively unruly.”

  • Big social issues (e.g. loneliness, mental health) could and should be tackled collectively – but our habit is to emphasise which bit of the problem relates to our own group.

“Civil society is being crushed by unrealistic expectations.”

“Civil society becomes increasingly inward looking, focused on its own funding, structures, operations, systems, approaches, keeping itself going but not changing the world.”

Global capitalism is a barrier to civil society and positive change”

…About the conversation process

  • People really appreciated the time and space this process provided them to talk about these big ideas. It struck a chord and a moment in time. There has been a huge amount of value and time put into this.
  • Different people (with different motivations) were able to pick up this toolkit – to support internal changes, as part of wider external programs and it was picked up by people who wanted an opportunity to convene a larger group of people around a topic and theme.
  • There seems to be a dissonance about how change happens  – people tend to project  onto others how things need to change, rather than how they need to change as a consequence. There has been less of a focus on the personal implications and the tensions that arise from the incentives people have in the current system – which can, knowingly or unknowingly, prevent change from happening.
  • Hope is projected on the next generation – the phrase ‘young people’ came up a lot.
  • There has been a big focus on the organisational and structural elements that form civil society – the structures by which we organise, the legal forms, how we make decisions and distribute power.
  • General visions for the future are incremental – more of today, but a bit better.  There is little awareness of the potential for disruptive forces (external/internal) to completely redraw the map.

What’s next?

We will be working more with conversation hosts to identify ways in which we can build on these insights and turn them into action and change.

You can still download the Conversations toolkit if you want to use it.  And we’re creating a DIY toolkit for organisations and groups to respond to what we’ve heard in the first year of the inquiry – sign up here if you’re interested in hearing when it’s ready.