Charities might have to change radically, says chair of civil society inquiry

Julia Unwin, who chairs the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, tells a Charity Commission public meeting in York that social and technological challenges will lead to more fluid networks

Julia Unwin
Julia Unwin

Charities will have to consider radically changing the way they work to meet social and technological challenges over the next decade, according to Julia Unwin, chair of the independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society.

Speaking at a Charity Commission public meeting in York yesterday, Unwin said her inquiry, which will run for two years and will be launched next month, will focus on how the charity sector should respond to issues such as increasing job insecurity, the impact of new digital technology and a more divided and unequal society.

Unwin said she thought this would lead to a change in the way charities are structured and operate.

She said: "I think we will see more fluid networks. We will see, and are already beginning to see, new organisations that are not structured in the way that some of them are.

"I increasingly see new voluntary organisations that look very similar to ones I was involved with in the 1970s: mattresses in church halls, for example, because that’s the way to house homeless people immediately."

Unwin said that the wider erosion of public trust and confidence in authority was affecting charities, but this might not be a bad thing.

She said: "We can no longer assume that the words charity, or voluntary organisation or civil society afford immediate respect. I think that’s a very good thing: I think deference is a real problem, and it is important that people feel able to challenge us and question us."

During a question-and-answer session, Unwin spoke about the way some commissioners and funders were favouring larger charities over their smaller counterparts.

"I don’t think small is necessarily good, just as I don’t think big is necessarily bad," she said. "I think we will be judged by what we do and what difference we make.

"I do think there is a lazy approach from some national funders: that it is easier to fund big national organisations because you recognise them and it feels safer. I think as a sector we need to challenge that and the way decisions are made."

Her comments come after the Lords Select Committee on Charities published a report last week that said the commissioning landscape was "skewed against smaller charities".

Unwin was asked for her thoughts on whether there was a lack of diversity in the charity sector. She said the range of people working in the sector needed to be better reflected in leadership roles.

She said: "I think diversity is one of the major issues our sector faces, but not because of who is involved in our sector – I think that is as diverse and as welcoming as you can imagine. What matters is who represents and who is seen to be representing."

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