Charities must change to keep trust, says chair of Civil Society Futures

They must listen to communities and help bridge divides in society if they are to remain relevant, Julia Unwin told MPs yesterday

Julia Unwin
Julia Unwin

Charities risk losing the trust of the public if they do not learn the lessons of recent mass movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and the Brexit vote, and listen to communities across the country, the chair of the independent inquiry into the future of civil society has told MPs.

Speaking at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering in parliament yesterday, Julia Unwin said that people across the country had a shared anxiety about losing their sense of "belonging" and shared spaces in their communities.

This anxiety ranged, she said, from concerns about increasingly "bedraggled" community centres, the loss of local amenities that encouraged people to meet others different from themselves, such as local pubs, and the increasing "churn" as people moved from job to job.

Unwin, whose inquiry is expected to report next month, said that this had created a more divided society with a loss of trust in national organisations, and there were challenges for the sector.

But she warned that charities risked damaging trust in the sector further if they continued as usual and did not respond to the changes society was going through.

"Trust is our biggest currency," she said. "It is the currency that is worth more than our brand names or our balance sheets.

"Trust is what keeps us going. It is what enables people to support us and come to us when they need help. It is what enables government to be hugely dependent on civil society and listen to us.

"We squander that trust in civil society at our peril."

She said that established and larger charities "need to pay really careful attention to some of the challenges that are coming our way", regardless of how irritating or disruptive those challenges might be.

Unwin added that issues such as Brexit and the Windrush scandal had shown that charities needed to step up, help rebuild faith in democracy, repair the "tattered social fabric" and embrace their role as places where people could discuss difficult subjects.

Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, told the APPG that charities needed to understand mass movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, including the limitations of those movements.

"Traditionally, we have all had to centralise to make it feasible to make decisions effectively and deal with some of the challenges around logistics," he said. "But technology is increasingly making it possible to operate in a more decentralised way.

"Perhaps what we as traditional civil society can help to do is backfill some of that slightly more unglamorous infrastructure onto the energy of these new movements."

Davies warned that charities were failing to adapt to the new technologies that were emerging and not understanding how this would affect every facet of their work.

"If we look back to any of the previous industrial revolutions we have had, civil society has played a vital role in minimising some of the harms while maximising the possible opportunities of technological development," he said.

"I think it is absolutely crucial that we do the same in this fourth industrial revolution, and my concern is that we are not currently as well placed as we should be to do that."

Kirsty McNeil, executive director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children, said that larger charities could be "platforms for others to stand upon" and should bring their experience to bear in helping achieve social change.

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