Congratulations on your recent appointment as Minister for Sport and Civil Society. Your job is one of the most interesting in government, and I hope that you are excited to get to grips with the social sector in all its anarchic, messy and life-affirming glory.
Under your leadership, the Office for Civil Society (OCS) has the potential to shape the government’s commitment to a more united, fairer society. I hope that you might have time in your diary over the next couple of months for us to meet and discuss how we at NPC (New Philanthropy Capital) can help you fulfil these aspirations.
NPC is the think tank for the social sector. We are committed to helping charities and others with a social-purpose focus on understanding and improving the impact they make. We inspire new thinking and complement a sector rightly dominated by a passion with rigour and analysis.
We work with a wide variety of charities—in all areas and of all sizes—as well as with many funders and philanthropists. This gives us a good feel for the barriers that hold charities, social enterprises and other voluntary sector organisations back, so we work with them to co-design and develop solutions to overcome these challenges. We have no axe to grind—only our own charitable mission of helping the whole sector achieve greater impact.
I have attached/enclosed a copy of our submission to the recent Civil Society Strategy consultation, and here I want to set out five key areas we think you should be considering as you start this role:
Increasing social impact through regulation, data and tools
Talk of regulation for charities has focused on its power to prevent and/or punish bad behaviour but it could do so much more. We call for the Charity Commission to ask for more about impact in charities’ annual reports. This would encourage charities to think more about how they work and how they could do what they do even better.
Smaller charities need tools to help them understand their impact. Initiatives like the Inspiring Impact programme (which we administer) help a great deal with this and they could do with your vocal support.
At any scale, understanding impact requires data. Extending initiatives that allow charities to access government and administrative data more easily—including extending the Justice Data Lab model, which we pioneered and which has been adopted by the Ministry of Justice—to other areas would be transformational.
Improvement and infrastructural support
A thriving civil society is of course about much more than regulation. Organisations of different sizes and maturities across the country—where levels of social capital vary—should have tailored support. It should be offered by people who are know what they are doing and are focused in their role. We therefore argue that the Charity Commission should focus on regulation and a new Improvement Agency should be created to promote excellence and help charities of all sizes. This would be sector-led, but at least part funded by government. In addition, government should review where its support for the sector goes and whether it is well matched to need, geographically as well as by cause.
Place and reform of commissioning
The Civil Society Strategy had a clear focus on place and community, which we hope you will take forward. Place is the prism through which a lot of the most interesting thinking in the social sector is happening at the moment. It’s also the area where government at all levels could have the most impact.
We are encouraged by the government’s recent tentative return to grant making but we urgently need it to review current commissioning practice. As it is, the commissioning system encourages organisations to become ever larger and use fundraised money to subsidise government contracts. Instead, it could allow for small and local groups to deliver services using their local knowledge and personal connections.
Digital and technology
Just as government recognised the need to promote digital technology to business with its digital strategy, we need one for civil society. Frankly, we need it more urgently than business does. While there are some incredible technology-led innovations being developed in the social sector, generally, there are low levels of adoption of basic technology and digital literacy is low. This could be a focus area for a dedicated Improvement Agency, or its own strand of work. But it is vital to bring the social sector up-to-date.
Brexit and social capital
Government wants to unite the nation after Brexit. Civil society needs to be at the forefront of this mission if it is to succeed. It is civil society that people recognise within their communities, and that they trust to have their interests, not politics, at heart.
A less divided society will be one that lets all of us have a stake in the social capital of the places in which we live. Often it is civil society that generates this social capital. It must be helped to do this in the nation’s ‘left behind’ places.
Brexit presents its own challenges to the sector the less EU staff, especially in health and care, and the loss of EU funding. We are concerned that the new Shared Prosperity Fund will be dominated by Local Economic Partnerships, where the voluntary sector has little influence.
These are some of the key issues for civil society and we want to work with you to tackle them. Thank you for reading and we look forward to coordinating with your office about a potential meeting.
New Philanthropy Capital