Civil Society Futures: Have your say

Julia Unwin is chair of Civil Society Futures – the independent inquiry. Carnegie Fellow, consultant and non-executive. Formerly CEO of Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Charity Commissioner from 1998-2003, among other roles.


When I was appointed as the chair for Civil Society Futures the independent inquiry, I said that I was ambitious for the inquiry. I said that I wanted to make sure that we heard from as many as possible of the voices which form this rich and diverse world we call civil society. And I wanted to approach this in a humble way – finding things out, hearing discordant and challenging voices; really listening and making sure that we heard from all parts of civil society.

Each of us has specific experiences and unique lessons to teach. We all have our own kinds of expertise, our own histories and our own contexts – which lead us to our own conclusions. The more of these that we can weave together, the better we will be able to understand the whole.

That’s why we have been organising community workshops and encouraging civil society futures conversations across England – and have more to come. It’s why we’re interviewing a wide range of people, and figuring out exactly what kind of quantitative research would be most helpful. And it’s why we have gathered together research data and examples from a broad range of organisations in our initial research report.

What we’ve learnt so far

In this initial report, we identify a number of key concerns:

  • a democratic deficit and a series of public issue crises
  • an environmental crisis
  • a refugee crisis
  • health and housing crises.

All of these issues seem likely to continue as themes over the coming decade. We looked at some emerging forms of organisation, and some of the trends in our older institutions. We asked whether it’s possible for social stability and harmony to prosper where poverty and inequality are apparent, where society is still riven by so many intersecting fault-lines: young and old, black and white, religious and secular. And we have begun to look at how the changing shape of the English economy interacts with all of these.

We’ve written – controversially for some – about the fall in trust in NGOs picked up by the Edelman Trust barometer, and we’ve started to ask what that means for membership organisations, and for the kinds of charities and voluntary groups which rely entirely on the good will of the public.

Tell us your views, submit your evidence

As a panel we are united in recognising that people and groups will want to engage in different ways, and the one thing we are sure of is that we don’t know everything. And so we are launching a call for contributions. We’re asking you to think about the big questions we are considering and let us have your thoughts. Whether this comes in the form of a short video, a blog, a provocation or a lengthy analytic paper, I can assure you we will read, consider and engage with whatever you tell us.

It might be a piece of research that you or your organisation has already done, which will tell us something we should know, perhaps it’s a report you’ve published, which we really shouldn’t miss. It might be one observation that you’ve made about your corner of civil society. Maybe it’s an example of something great, which everyone should learn from, or a gap which you think desperately needs filling.

It is clear that the world around civil society is changing and changing fast. The assumptions that we have all learnt to make may no longer apply. Whether you prefer to read opinion polls or global temperature data; economic statistics or organisational membership figures, it’s clear that we live in turbulent times. And so, whether you are involved in a local voluntary group or a national charity, a trade union or a faith group, a sports club or a social enterprise – it’s clear that we need to work together to understand the shifting currents and do what we can to shape them.

Unless we hear from the breadth of civil society organisations we will not be able to develop the bold and challenging responses that are needed. Please do consider the questions we have posed, and those we haven’t even thought about, and make sure that we hear from you. After all, civil society belongs to us all, and this inquiry is a chance for us to chart our own future.

Find out more about contributing to the inquiry, the deadline for initial submissions is Monday 5 September 2017.


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