Opinion: Third Voice - We must cross every border and go international

Filippo Addarii, head of the international programme at Acevo

Shepherding chief executives onto a coach is never easy, particularly when they must leave a dinner in a hill-top village close to the Italian city of Urbino - the closing event of Acevo's first European summer school.

Acevo's core mission is to promote learning between voluntary sector chief executives. We can lead effectively only if we are committed to learning, but many limit this to the UK. How strange this is in a global economy.

We decided to promote learning across borders by holding a summer school.

Sixty civil society leaders from 10 European countries met at the University of Urbino to share concerns, promote good practice and, above all, learn from each other.

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, described the school as "a rare opportunity to network with leaders from other European countries and learn about the unique and challenging nature of the Italian VCS model. It helped to reflect on what works in the UK, but also to learn new ways of thinking about how we deliver our own work."

What now? Was this a single pleasant sojourn in a glorious Italian city, or might it herald a rethink of the way we work with European civil society leaders?

We hope the latter, and are holding our first international conference tomorrow. It will be addressed by Hilary Benn, the international development secretary, and a range of NGO leaders, including, for example, Nuria Costa Leonardo, leader of the Mexican Network of Rural Women. We have taken the title 'Leaders without borders'.

European and worldwide exchange between civil society leaders remains negligible. Do we think we have nothing to learn? Even within the UK, learning between the leaders of regional and international charities is limited. We have established borders that prevent UK bodies learning lessons from how international NGOs operate across communities worldwide.

If the UK civil society is, as Jeremy Kendall paraphrased Henry James, a "loose and baggy monster", then it is even looser internationally. But this cannot excuse an insular approach. Governmental links across the EU and through the UN are strong. We know the value and importance of civil society to truly effective democracies. The time has come to build our own international network of third sector leaders.

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