Dame Mary Marsh: Refreshed and ready to start doing things differently

We must change if the big society is to emerge, says our columnist

Dame Mary Marsh
Dame Mary Marsh

As most of us return refreshed from some sort of escape or at least a break over the summer, there is a strong sense of a fresh start. This is helped by many things, including the way the weather suddenly feels different as the day starts, and the impact on most of our families, friends and colleagues of the beginning of a new school and college year. It is a moment not to be wasted.

We know it is going to be tough but we also recognise that there is a crucial opportunity for those of us in the social sector to engage determinedly and creatively together to secure our place as part of what Nick Hurd, in his recent Third Sector interview, called "a robustly independent and resilient pillar of a stronger society". And I am sure many of us will not want that to mean just supporting the status quo and setting aside our campaigning zeal.

The challenge before us is how to do this as individuals and in our organisations as well as working collectively. This will vary across the devolved administrations as the big society emerges in England. Even so, the outcomes are likely to have some similarities, given the current political priorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We need to focus on how localities - which could mean local authorities, parish councils, neighbourhoods, some combination of these, or even non-geographical communities of interest - can engage with individuals and communities. We have to learn to respond, to find approaches that work locally and do things differently. We will not meet the challenge if we simply carry on seeking to do more of the same with less resources.

The private and the public sectors are having to consider their part in the big society. We can help to shape their response if we demonstrate good initiatives with evidence of outcomes and impact. Already this is increasingly important for corporate partnerships and both philanthropic and social investments (including with foundations and trusts) as well as in contracts with the public sector.

There are big expectations of a significant growth in volunteering. We know this cannot be achieved for free, but it should involve using approaches that can be done at low unit cost, including partnerships for online search and recruitment. Sustaining our commitment to equality of access will be crucial to ensure that the big society does truly reflect the diversity of our communities.

Dame Mary Marsh is director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme

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