Many people inside and outside civil society organisations are concerned they have lost their connection with those they serve and have become too focused on protecting reputations and income streams, evidence submitted to an inquiry into the future of the voluntary sector indicates.
An update on the work of Civil Society Futures, which is halfway into a two-year inquiry into the future of the voluntary sector in England, says civil society organisations too often perpetuate "patriarchal command-and-control" approaches and too frequently do things to and for people rather than giving them the ability to act on their own terms.
The paper questions whether civil society organisations should be leading the way in creating "deep democracy" that gives people the opportunity to have control over the things they care about and which affect their lives.
"But civil society is not yet fit for this purpose, and there are too many examples of charities and institutions being part of the problem," it says.
"Many people inside and outside civil society organisations are concerned they have lost their connection with the people they are there to serve, become too focused on protecting reputations and income streams.
"Too often things are done to and for people, when it could be about creating conditions for people to do things on their own terms. Too often it’s about perpetuating patriarchal command-and-control, holding power close, fighting your corner, rather than letting go, building alliances, allowing others to step forward.
"Some are already trying to change, but funding systems, organisational structures and culture often make it hard for anyone."
The paper gives a summary of what the inquiry, which is being funded by the Baring Foundation, has heard so far, which includes evidence from more than 1,500 people about their contribution to civil society and their hopes for its future.
It says trust in large civil society organisations and relationships between charities have worsened because they are having to compete for funding.
"Big changes are needed to allow smaller groups and more informal networks to flourish – but the large institutions need to change fastest and most profoundly, learning from the best of what’s new," it says.
"People are losing trust in large institutions, including charities, which are too often rigid, unaccountable and distant from the people they are meant to serve."
The report says civil society organisations must generate a "radical and creative shift" that will put more power in the hands of people and communities.
"Emerging from what we’ve heard, the big role for civil society in the coming years is to generate a radical and creative shift which puts power in the hands of people and communities – preventing an ‘us and them’ future, connecting us better and humanising the way we do things," the paper says.
In a statement published alongside the report, Julia Unwin, chair of Civil Society Futures, said the inquiry had consistently been hearing the same message across the country.
"People feel they don’t have control over their lives and future, and our society has become increasingly divided," she said. "Inequality, the rise of technology, racism and other issues are all playing a part.
"But civil society is so well placed to respond, its role and defining opportunity in the coming years is to generate a radical and creative shift which puts power in the hands of people and communities – connecting us better and humanising the way we do things."
Civil Society Futures is still seeking evidence for its work. To take part, visit https://civilsocietyfutures.org/.