For the last ten years charities have seen their prominence in the eyes of government fade. The Civil Society Directorate was shunted out of the Cabinet Office into the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Big Society turned into a big distraction, and since then, aside from some notable Charities Ministers, we’ve heard very little from government on how it intends to work with the charity sector to achieve its social goals. With the parties gearing up for an election, now is our chance to build our case for what our partnership with the next government should look like. But we will only achieve this if leaders from individual charities lend their weight to cross-sector ideas.
And the ideas are already coming. This week sees the publication of the results of the two-year Law Family Commission on Civil Society. The report provides a helpful insight into the challenges charities face day-to-day and offers some solutions which could make charities even more effective in making people’s lives better – solutions which are becoming ever more necessary as charities step up to be the social safety net that the state is failing to provide.
Some of the Commission’s solutions rightly focus on leveraging and expanding existing ideas or solutions, such as encouraging funders to give unrestricted long-term funding so charities can use their knowledge to spend it on what they’ve found to work best, rather than on what funders, removed from much of the action, decide to limit their funding to. The call to expand Data Labs outside of the Justice and recently-announced Employment sectors across government to help show what works and what doesn’t could help better direct money and effort. The proposed joint government and charity sector Civil Society Evidence Organisation for sharing evidence on what works builds on ideas we have floated like the Civil Society Improvement Agency.
In other areas the Commission calls for new solutions, such as the Financial Conduct Authority encouraging financial advisers to give more guidance on philanthropy, or more action in under-explored areas, most importantly how the charity sector can build more productive relationships with businesses.
There will be, and should be, great support for many of these solutions from those already working in the third sector. They offer sensible and workable solutions. But as history has taught us, being sensible and workable doesn’t mean they will happen. As NPC has suggested before, to get these types of changes, there needs to be some ‘teeth’ to them, a concerted effort to create change from leaders across the sector, proper backing from government and private funders, and a focus on the sector’s own impact. With politicians thinking about what policies will win them the next election, we need leaders from across the sector to act on and champion these ideas, and the ideas they build upon.
Firstly, we need a reason for both the government and the opposition to prioritise these solutions and, importantly, to give them the regulatory, funding and policy teeth needed to really make them work. Neither Conservatives nor Labour are focusing on this yet. Charity leaders need to show, with robust and representative data, how these changes could make people’s lives better, and why charities are key to delivering the changes. This work, and policy work in general, is often under-funded, so private funders must also support charities to do this well.
Secondly, we need charity leaders, and not just the sector umbrella bodies, to get behind these ideas and show they’re serious. Some charity leaders have already taken up the mantle on this. But they need to be the rule, rather than the exception. The case for a Civil Society Evidence Organisation and more Data Labs will also need charities to admit they need better evidence, and that they will use and act on it to make people’s lives better in a way no other sector could achieve.
And we can’t ignore the thorny issues. Campaigning remains key to how some charities create change that improves lives. Civil society can uniquely challenge government policy with and on behalf of the most marginalised people in society. We have to be clear that recent restrictions to the right to protest, combined with narratives on ‘wokeness’ and calls for charities in receipt of government money to be barred from calling for policy change is creating an environment which makes good policy making much harder. Charities need to be collectively pushing back against this political barrier and calling for further changes in government policy to help unleash the powers of civil society.
If charities and funders want to see these solutions and those they build upon come to fruition, they have just this year to make the case before their window of influence largely closes for what could be another five years. As the cost-of-living crisis shows, the people they serve can’t wait that long.
This blog was originally published by Pro Bono Economics to mark the publication of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society.