OPINION: Civic society changes shape

Lisa Harker, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

I'm sure most homes have one. A pile of unopened post that never seems to disappear, despite intermittent attempts to tackle it.

I've noticed that my to-do pile invariably includes requests for me to renew membership of the charities that I support. I get round to responding eventually, but I always return my annual subscription with a guilty conscience, knowing that signing a cheque has been the sum of my contribution over the past 12 months.

I doubt I am alone in feeling inadequate about the extent of my involvement.

As voluntary organisations have become more professional in the way that they are run, being a member of a charitable organisation has become less about active engagement and more about ticking the box marked "donation".

The decline in active participation in civic organisations has long been a topic of debate in the US where the Harvard academic Robert Putnam has documented the trends in his book Bowling Alone. His work has prompted concern about the impact that the decline in membership of civic groups has on community life.

Putnam's evidence is striking, but it tells us little about the way in which membership of voluntary organisations has changed. In a recent trip to the UK, Putnam's colleague Theda Skocpol presented her findings about the changing nature of membership of civic organisations in the US.

Skocpol's work has uncovered some interesting trends. As the voluntary sector has become more focused on advocacy and less on community activity, the power of membership has declined. Many civic groups still have mass membership, but members are more likely to contribute financially rather than taking part in local activities.

Here in the UK, we have a very different history of civic participation but many of Skocpol's conclusions nevertheless ring true. With members transforming into donors, the decline of active membership may not seriously threaten the sector's funding, but it prompts us to consider whether the third sector will be able to play such an active role in civic engagement in the future.

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