Trying to offer insight on the year ahead for a charity sector that is concerned with everything from breast cancer to basset hounds is difficult at the best of times. This year it feels positively reckless, as if making a prediction might invite another calamity onto us.

But nonetheless, I’m going to offer you one big, audacious prediction for the charity sector in 2021. It’s very much my own, and no doubt partial, but I hope it at least offers food for thought and indeed if you don’t agree let’s chat.

The power of narrative

I think the most vital thing for civil society this year and potentially for far longer, will be the fight for what the spirit of voluntarism and the compassion shown in the crisis means.

I think this because the winner of that fight will get to define a big part of the overall Covid-19 crisis narrative. A narrative that has the potential to be a powerful national story, both for good or for ill. The events of the last year could become a touchstone for unity and what is best in society, much like (and I am aware of the issues with this) the ‘sprit of the Blitz.’ Or, this period could become a mostly forgotten curio, a source of argument and recrimination when it is discussed at all, as is the three-day week in the 1970s.

Unusually for world events, charities and voluntary organisations find themselves at the heart of the story. What comes out in the short, medium and long term will affect our notions of what civil society is, what it is good for, and what its role in society will be going forward. Ultimately, I think a positive story coming out of all this would be a great boon for the sector and the country, but whether it will be is far from settled.

Ingredients for a national myth

We know that a lot of research is underway into the ‘mutual aid’ phenomenon. Indeed, some initial work is already out there, but the really big studies from academic institutions are yet to be published. My view is that currently we know very little about the phenomenon, particularly how and if the upswell in community volunteerism has been sustained into the second and third lockdowns.

There are also high-profile evaluations of the work of charities and funders in the crisis (one of which NPC is involved in) and the 360Giving data is also sitting, waiting to be analysed. We may find that this country dug deep (in terms of both time and cash) and people from all social classes, and religious and ethnic communities supported each other. Or we may find that the mutual aid phenomenon was overstated. That charities struggled to get funds to the communities that really needed them.

The potential of the vaccine drive

Of course, if evidence was all or even the main part of national mythmaking, it would be a very different world. Inspiring instances and individuals like Captain Tom affect perceptions of the civic spirit of the nation far more than a few well evidenced reports. That said, the disproportionate impact of the crisis on BAME communities started in research and has cut through to the general consciousness.

Looking ahead, in just five days 10,000 people signed up to the Sun’s Jabs Army campaign to get volunteers supporting the vaccine rollout. The vaccine drive could be the biggest civic engagement event since the London 2012 Olympics. It may dwarf the number of people that were involved in mutual aid work (as I said, numbers forthcoming) and it will certainly get people involved in volunteering in a way that is far more formal and charity like than what has been happening in the mutual aid space.

Direct involvement is, of course, restricted but hopefully the exposure that volunteering gets and the good that comes of it can create an upswell of volunteering and civic action that charities can capitalise on. It could help shift the national character in a positive direction, Britain as a nation of volunteers who stepped up in the pandemic and consistently step up to tackle problems and serve their communities.

A summer of love?

The success of the vaccination drive will have a major impact on another major civic event this year, Euro 2020. Football fans (such as myself) can, rather fairly, be accused of overstating the importance of sport to civic bonding. The England team in particular has negative associations, being more associated with rioting in foreign cities than creating community and civic pride at home.

And yet, all the home nations, bar Northern Ireland, have qualified for this year’s tournament. Matches will be played in Britain, in June and July, at Wembley and Hampden Park. This is a big deal. And the extent to which people are able to enjoy it (and of course all the other festivities usually associated with the summer) depends on the vaccine rollout. Something that, through volunteering, the British public will have direct involvement in.

One can almost imagine the sentimental adverts now: ‘Because we volunteered, because we pulled together; we can now stand and sing together again.’ It may seem trite, but I believe this stuff will matter.

Of course, and one does not want to dwell on this too much, there is another scenario. Where we are all still languishing at home in the summer­—prohibited from gathering in even modest numbers, watching dead rubber matches in empty stadiums on TV.

We are in a world in which possibilities are narrowed, and hope is dimmer. Many of the notions that have gained popularity around ‘building back better’ have, at their roots, the idea that we all deserve better after this—but this will not be uncontested. The narrative could turn to blame and recrimination (as it seems to have done around the three-day week).

So, civil society needs to use its voice, at national, local and personal levels, harnessing civic pride and (dare I say it) patriotism, to make the story of 2020/2021 a story of hope, compassion and change. This will mean properly working together. It will mean properly sharing evidence and data. And it will mean properly speaking as one. All against the backdrop of doing the day-to-day in the most challenging circumstances most of us have ever experienced. But we cannot give up our opportunity to steer the tone of what will be a national myth for decades to come.

The narrative of this crisis has the potential to be a powerful national story, both for good or for ill. Civil society needs to use its voice and harness civic pride to make the story of 2021 a story of hope, compassion and change: Click To Tweet

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