Civil society today is working in an extremely tough environment. Covid-19 has both revealed and put new stresses on our increasingly unequal society. Political fragmentation, ‘culture wars’ and an often hostile government, has created political challenge. The urgency of the climate crisis pulls everything into sharp relief.
There are some positives: campaigners see public support growing; there is growing appetite to tackle deep, systemic problems together; and tech-enabled social movements are building pressure for change. To navigate the challenges and build on the positive drivers, civil society needs to be firing on all cylinders. Working at its absolute best. But it isn’t, for a range of reasons.
• The economic structure of the sector. Notably the long-term shift from grant funding to commissioning, and approaches to performance management, are pushing the sector into an increasingly transactional mode.
• The public and key stakeholders often don’t understand our role and value. Many equate us with a concept of ‘charity’ rooted in a notion of Victorian philanthropy, which is out of step with the complex, systemic way most in our sector work.
• Civic space is under threat. From overt measures such as the Lobbying Act, ‘anti-advocacy’ clauses, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, to less concrete but still corrosive threats like ‘culture wars’ tactics.
• As a sector, we lack ‘big picture’ capacity. This includes evidence about what is working in trying to drive change, spaces for collaboration, and the ability to collectively horizon scan and plan for the long-term.
• We are not sufficiently power-aware. We need to use our power to draw together the experience and energy of all in civil society. And we must get our house in order on issues of diversity, inclusion, and accountability.
• Norms in sector leadership and organisational culture can work against effective campaigning. They are often risk-averse, slow to move, and disinclined to collaborate.
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