Charities should take a lead in addressing social division, report says

Civil Society Futures has released its report after a two-year inquiry

Julia Unwin, chair of the inquiry
Julia Unwin, chair of the inquiry

Charities need to connect better with communities and should take a lead in addressing social divisions in the UK, a two-year inquiry into the future of civil society has concluded.

The report of the Civil Society Futures inquiry, published today, says that the UK is facing democratic, digital, economic and environmental turmoil, and charities can help to address key issues such as climate change, social divisions stemming from Brexit, racism, inequality and the automation of work.

The report also suggests a "PACT" for civil society would help the charity sector successfully tackle the issues it faces and make sure it is well prepared for the next decade.

PACT stands for power, accountability, connection and trust, and the report outlines a number of ways in which charities could improve in all four of these areas.

On power, the report says imbalances of power and feelings among the public of being ignored or unheard should encourage shared and distributed models of decision-making and control.

In practice, this could mean using distributed models of decision-making, such as citizen juries, community ownership and participatory grant-making, the report recommends.

For accountability, the report urges charities to focus on accountability to the public and communities, rather than to funders or the government.

This could mean co-designing accountability systems with beneficiaries and communities, and adhering to common public standards on critical issues such as safeguarding and health and wellbeing.

To address the issue of the loss of human connection in society, the report suggests creating a national "people-power grid" to energise and universalise social action across communities and the country at large.

This "power grid" would be made possible by "community organisers", who help communities come together, and "community connectors", who bring people into contact with others in their areas.

And for trust, which the report calls the sector’s "core currency", charities are urged not to take it for granted and to build trust among the people and communities with which they work.

The report suggests this could be done by speaking out about injustices in society and defending people’s rights, as well as trusting people and communities to make decisions about their lives and local areas.

The report also discusses inequality and diversity within the charity sector and concludes that many in the sector find it difficult to discuss the issues, particularly about inequalities within society.

It says that charities need to make diversity a priority and that "a lot of this comes down to personal skills, taking responsibility, and relating and talking to one another differently about this topic".

In a statement, Julia Unwin, chair of the inquiry, said: "Our world is changing fast and people’s expectations are changing too. From local planning decisions to national politics to global technology, people feel ignored and divided as the future is shaped.

"Civil society can and must lead the responses to these future challenges. But too often people feel civil society does not involve people in decision-making, is disconnected from communities, more accountable to big funders than to the people they serve, and in a year of headlines about sexual abuse at Oxfam, Save the Children and others, trust in civil society is in question."

The report was welcomed by both the Big Lottery Fund and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and the Charity Commission said it would be considering the inquiry’s findings.

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