The Big Society is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for charities

By John Copps 1 March 2011

Today’s NCVO Annual Conference, the largest gathering of third sector leaders in the UK, asks ‘what does the Big Society mean for charities?’ One thing we do know is that, having weathered a blizzard of recent criticism, it is an idea that is here to stay. And whatever you think – whether it inspires action, confusion or derision – it has got everyone talking.

For the first time in my lifetime, charities find themselves centre-stage in a truly national debate. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. But like Colin Firth in the Oscar-crowned King’s Speech, the spotlight is pointing at us and we are hesitating.

The Big Society is there for the taking. As politicians and Big Society gurus fluff their lines, and civil servants flap around trying to understand what charities are and how they’ve managed to ignore them for so long, now is the time for the sector to take the lead. It’s a golden chance to cement the place of charities in the national consciousness.

To do this we need to be more vocal. It is an odd quirk of the last few years that the names of bankers are more familiar than charity leaders, but it tells us something. We need more figures like Camilla Batmanghelidjh, Shami Chakrabarti, Martin Narey and Esther Rantzen – people that the public recognise and associate with charities. We’ve got no shortage of characters within the sector that could speak out more, and be successful at it.

Of course we also need to talk about the right things – what makes us different and what value we create in people’s lives, all of which can be framed in the Big Society rhetoric. What we mustn’t do is fall into the trap of just talking about cuts, or our audience will quickly lose interest.

Despite what the politicians promise, the Big Society won’t be around forever. Charities have an unique window of opportunity and we need to make the most of it now.