Inquiry into civil society calls for ‘widespread changes and radical reform’

A two-year inquiry into civil society has revealed the need for ‘widespread changes’ and ‘radical reform’ among the charity sector.

The Civil Society Futures inquiry, chaired by Julia Unwin, revealed the charity sector needs to reform to “urgently” take on societal challenges posed by a ‘cocktail of democratic, digital, economic and environmental turmoil’.

The report found the future of local communities, racism, social divisions around Brexit, inequality, the automation of work, and climate change are among the concerns raised by thousands of people across England.

Unwin said this highlights the coming decade as a time when civil society is ‘urgently needed to take on these challenges, and seize the opportunities of the changes ahead’, but that it can only do so if it ‘radically reforms’.

“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. They want much more power over their lives, they want to come together,” Unwin said.

“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.”

“Charities, voluntary and community groups need to get back to their roots and rediscover their enduring purpose which is to connect people and to shift power. We must be more accountable and build greater trust.”

The inquiry sees the coming decade as a period of opportunity and cites the #metoo movement, community responses to the horrors of the Manchester bombing and new unions for gig economy workers as examples of the vital importance of civil society in a changing world.

It is calling on individuals, charities and organisations in civil society to commit to a new ‘PACT’ in order to adapt to and shape the next ten years. This involves:

Power: shifting power and sharing more decision-making and control, being a model of inclusive participation for the rest of society.
Accountability: being primarily accountable to the people they serve - instead of putting funders and government first - and being accountable to future generations.
Connection: broadening and deepening connections with people and communities, bridging damaging social divides, and investing in a new ‘social infrastructure’.
Trust: devoting more time and resources to build trust in all civil society activity, earning trust by speaking up to politicians and corporations, trusting communities to make the decisions that affect them.

Read the full Civil Society Futures report here.

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