Civil Society Futures Inquiry: My suggestions on key themes, do’s and don’ts


  1. I have spent most of my working life in the organised part of civil society, having been Chair of 4 UK Charities and a senior or chief executive of NCVO, CPRE, Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and The Tropical Health and Education Trust. I have been a Board Member of The Charity Commission for England and Wales and a Member of the Parole Board and of its management board. I remain a Trustee of ActionAid International and of the OIA (the Higher Education Ombudsman), advise a grant-giving charitable trust and blog and lecture on charity related subjects.

Definitions and Values

  1. The wider the definition of civil society, the more difficult I believe it will be to say anything useful and interesting about it. I think you should therefore feel robust in selecting, in due course, a few key themes that seem to you really significant and explore them in some depth to make a mark, fully acknowledging that you have not tried to be comprehensive.
  2. I feel sure that you will not adopt the simplistic assumption that all civil society is a Good Thing. One could say that Breitbart and the alt right and tea party organisations are all part of the rich tapestry of civil society, and I assume that the inquiry will define some non-negotiable values and boundaries, and sometimes take sides. If the inquiry is not to be value free or neutral on points of principle, how are the values to be defined? I am sure you will want to go beyond the charity sector, but one advantage is that there are definitions of what objectives Parliament has decided are for the public benefit, so it’s not just anything that anyone feels like doing regardless of benefitting the public as defined by Parliament and the courts. I am not making points about charities, charity regulation and charity law in particular in this evidence as it is not yet clear to what extent such issues will be of interest to the inquiry with its much wider remit. Please consider issuing further guidance in due course on what evidence on those subjects might be useful.
  3. If you are not using the formal definitions of what is charitable and for the public interest, the inquiry will need to articulate its own value base. The Carnegie inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland (2010) led by Geoff Mulgan nailed its values and colours to the mast in a robust way that I commend for your consideration.
  4. Scandinavian comparisons might also be a helpful perspective on our own rhetoric about the inestimable value of civil society. The reason for choosing Scandinavians is that they come out top on many measures of contentment, happiness and relative cohesion, and yet they are not known (so far as I know) for a burgeoning civil society of the kind so enthusiastically promoted in the UK. This might help think through the limits, as well as the potential, of the role of civil society.

History and Futurology

  1. I urge a proportionate balance between distilling some of the key lessons of history, on the one hand, and futurology on the other. Futurology is the graveyard of much energy and effort. There are some trends that are already clear and must be taken into account, for instance the ageing population and demands on health and social care in this country and the very young average population in many developing countries, the threat of global warming, the shrinking of political space for democratic participation in many (but by no means all) countries as documented by CIVICUS, the growth of inequality in key dimensions and the concentration of power and wealth in very few hands in many parts of the world. There are also trends in lifestyle, opportunities and challenges related to the growth of digital technology that are already reasonably clear. I do not know enough about artificial intelligence to know what predictions are speculative and what are probable or certain. There are also some less reliable scenarios related to supposed levels of tax and spend in the future, or further digital change and automation which may be more treacherous territory and may be less fruitful than refreshing the enduring lessons from experience which will apply in shaping and responding to change whichever of the futurologists is proved correct.

Recommended themes for the inquiry

  1. I now give examples of the themes on which I hope the inquiry will decide to focus.
  2. One is the role of civil society in empowering people to have a voice and influence in shaping the world, so that change isn’t just something that happens to them. Julia Unwin is already familiar with a lecture I gave on the history of campaigning for charitable causes, accessible via this link:


  1. I hope that its documented claims for the essential advocacy and campaigning role of charities and other civil society organisations will be perhaps one useful anchorage point for your wide-ranging inquiry. For whatever the changes that time may bring, one of the core functions of civil society is to enable even the humblest and most disadvantaged people to have some agency, a sense of being able to make a difference and being part of something bigger with a purpose. I should be very happy to assist the inquiry with any further thoughts or work in this area (you will find some other case studies and thoughts around the political activity of charities on my website:
  2. Secondly, within that framework, I hope that the long struggle for women’s rights, led above all since the nineteenth century by parts of civil society, and the continuing need for the purposeful combatting of deeply entrenched patriarchy, will also be a big theme. While some parts of civil society may be strongholds of patriarchy, a more serious problem may be the widespread assumption in many other parts that in broad terms the battle is over and we can all move on to other business. The proposition that feminist ideas and models of leadership have an essential role in further phases of overcoming patriarchal assumptions and cultural behaviours will still frequently elicit bafflement, if not rolling eyeballs, even among those who regard themselves as progressive in such matters, and it would be a great gift if the inquiry illuminates both the history of this civil society struggle and how much further there is to go, offering pointers to help achieve this.
  3. Thirdly, the inquiry has an overview from which it can suggest how different parts of civil society can work together better for particular purposes, overcoming the silos that tend to split them up.
  4. Julia Unwin is already familiar with a study I did on Housing Associations in 2010, showing how the larger housing associations in particular seem to have lost their identity as part of civil society, gathered together in separate “housing” institutions and with only weak links to the wider institutions of civil society.[1]It is interesting to note the current calling out of universities by Andrew Adonis for having “forgotten” that they are supposed to be part of the charity sector, again seeing themselves as a separate HE sector for which being part of civil society is (in his view) no longer a strong part of their identity.
  5. It is good that faith communities are specifically mentioned as part of the inquiry’s call for evidence, and it will be a challenge to ensure that such a major part of civil society is truly integrated in its analysis and judgements. Quite a few organisations that use “Civil Society” or “charity” in their titles tend in practice mostly to exclude religious groups from their working definitions and interests. Religion is seen as different (which of course in some ways it is), with its own institutions and culture, and either embarrassing or divisive in a secular context, with the result that it is frequently side-lined. You would not necessarily guess, reading the literature of some civil society umbrella bodies or attending their meetings, that the advancement of religion accounts for at least one in six charities or that churches, mosques and the like are regulated as charities by the Charity Commission and have vital common interests on issues including freedom to advocate and campaign in line with their mission. Some academics, too, are prone to analyse trends in managerialism in the charity sector, for example, without reference to religious organisations, which in some cases would spoil their conclusions[2]. Will you succeed in convincing the enormous religious sector of civil society that the future of civil society is actually about them as well as secular organisations?
  6. Indeed, one of the recent trends in civil society worth exploring would be the more effective involvement of mostly (not exclusively) religious organisations and congregations in influencing current policy and power structures via Citizen Organising. The Living Wage movement is one of the most conspicuous examples of this. This is something new, crossing the boundaries between “religious” and “secular” in exciting ways, and it would be good if the inquiry were on the lookout for how the sector can innovate partly by finding more ways of getting out of its separate silos.
  7. Inevitably, a fourth theme must be the financial resources available for different kinds of civil society contributions. This in itself is an absolutely vast subject, and I shall pick out just two aspects. A significant trend over the last couple of decades has been the flourishing of many civil society organisations funded mainly by local government in recognition that such organisations can bring authenticity, local participation and empowerment, volunteer effort and, at least up to a point, a pluralism of influences on policy that comes from formal independence from the state. We all know that this model has weaknesses, especially that of excessive dependence on annual grants or contracts from local authorities, but the achievements and merits of this cadre of local voluntary partners of local government are not to be underestimated, and the demise of many such bodies as victims of cuts to local authority budgets and austerity (and in some cases preference given to bigger organisations with lower overheads and bigger capacity for risk) has been a sad loss that should be documented, and is not necessarily irreversible. There are also lessons to be learned by the sector, and by local and central government, which I hope the inquiry will consider summarising.
  8. A second funding issue to highlight relates to the apparently saturated condition of the market for recruiting donors and supporters of UK charities. It has now become so expensive to recruit an extra donor that – particularly now that more aggressive tactics have been called out – it is beyond the means of many organisations to grow in this way. The very big and rich ones can still invest heavily and scoop the pool. If something like this picture is approximately true, it has significant implications for assumptions that growth is good, for diversifying into social enterprise and new funding models, for re-thinking how best to achieve impact, and for independence, of which multiple individual donations is such a crucial condition for many organisations. I believe that the way in which the creation of a large cadre of, not very rich, but comfortably off middle class philanthropists, delegating their interest in particular broad outcomes to expert NGOs via direct debits and the like, is an underestimated, unsung aspect of the period since the 1970s, and I tried to describe them in this piece suggesting that the warm glow of “philanthropy” should not be colonised exclusively by the rich:


If this phenomenon has reached its limits, it is worth noting both what it has achieved and what are the best alternative routes for achieving similar goals in future for the significant part of civil society which has benefitted from it.

  1. Do not hesitate to ask if any more material on any aspect would be useful as the focus becomes clearer. Very best of luck.


Andrew Purkis,

17 August 2017


[1] Housing Associations in England and the Future of Voluntary Organisations, Baring Foundation 2010.

[2] I can give chapter and verse if this is sufficiently interesting.


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