Sir Stuart Etherington’s new year letter to the sector 2018

Research published last week found Britons describing ‘the mood of the nation’ as ‘uncertain, anxious and divided’.

I want to tell you that our sector should help fix this. And that we can help fix this.

While I think we must be careful not to over-interpret such views — historians could show us examples of similar fretting from many points in time – there is no doubt that there is in the air a palpable feeling that things are not as they should be in our country and in our world. A sense of unease and fractiousness.

Belonging and fulfilment

People want a sense of belonging and connectedness. And our sector is central to providing this.

I see it as an integral part of our role that we place building connections between people and building community at the heart of our work.

Some of these things we’ve always done are now more important than ever. Your organisations connect people to causes, connect people to one another, connect them to something larger than themselves and give them a way to make a difference to the world around them.

Volunteering in particular has an important role to play. We know volunteering strengthens communities. We know people find it fun, rewarding and enriching. We know volunteering can be empowering, and even in trying circumstances it can make people feel better about themselves and the world around them. We know it tends to engender compassion and understanding.

Over the coming year we will see lots of debate on the outlook for our sector. The Future of Civil Society Inquiry will be working towards its conclusions to be launched in 2019. Whatever the sector looks like in ten or twenty years, there is no doubt in my mind that a core, defining part of our work will be these connections we build.

Your organisation, our sector, is crucial. Even, or especially, as we see vast changes in society and technology.

The web is a vehicle, not a destination

I fear it has become too easy to claim that spontaneous online actions or networks can replace organisations, institutions, or experts. That they might render us redundant. I think while they present a challenge and an opportunity, this is far from the case.

Take the Grenfell disaster. Without doubt, one of the most horrific sights of our country’s recent history.

Immediately, there was a spontaneous outpouring of giving.

It was a reminder of the remarkable impulse we have to offer help in such a situation. To people in distress whom we have never met, whether on the other side of a city, a country, or the world.

You will doubtless recall images of the piles of clothing taken to give to residents. Very quickly, the area was overwhelmed with such donations.

Online, hundreds of people created their own individual fundraising appeals using the various donation websites.

All of this was entirely well-intentioned and commendable, but it also created a vast logistical and legal jumble.

It took the global-scale capacity of the likes of the British Red Cross, the local knowledge of organisations such as the Portobello Rugby Trust and the experience of the London Emergencies Trust to turn these individual efforts into an outstanding coordinated response.

Much credit is also due to the Charity Commission for taking on the coordination of many of the disparate fundraising efforts and resolving the legal problems that had been inadvertently created by those starting their own online efforts.

Malicious claims that donations were misused gained little traction, in no small part due to the commitment to transparency from the organisations involved, showing exactly what had been spent, how and why. Such action stems from diligent, experienced governance.

None of this could be achieved by an online fundraising platform or a Facebook group. Much giving was facilitated by the internet, but it took real organisations to make the difference with that money.

We need trusted institutions

I fear that a healthy scepticism towards authority, combined with an empowering new ability for all of us to be able to do things online by ourselves – has led to a side-lining of institutions and organisations.

Who needs consumer regulations when you have online reviews to wheedle out scams?

Who needs a cab company when you have an app to find a nearby driver?

Who needs banks when you have Bitcoin?

Who needs charities when you have websites where you can give directly to those in need?

Fortunately I think that this is the year when people will realise that new technologies don’t have all the answers.

People need organisations they can trust. Organisations like yours provide the belonging people are looking for, they provide expertise, they provide focus and direction, and they ensure accountability.

Ironically, even when people do things online, such as donating on a giving platform, they assume a trusted institution somewhere is looking after their interests – even when this isn’t the case.

There are many big questions to answer about the future of the sector. But I am confident that, while we have powerful new online tools that some would suggest allow us to be bypassed, organisations like yours will always be at the heart of everything that is special about our sector and our society.

Building lasting communities

The internet was touted as a way to bring together those of different backgrounds. In practice, of late it has too often seemed to bring together those of similar backgrounds in opposition to others.

It has been used as much to create disharmony as harmony. Rancour and distrust have permeated through social networks which have seemed happy to operate with scarcely any of the standards we value and uphold in our offline communities.

After 2017, it is clearer than ever that the internet is not the solution to smoothing over the cracks of division in society.

It is living, breathing organisations which must step up to the plate to do this. Bringing people together and bringing out the best in them.

Organisations of all kinds, but of our kind in particular, are the glue that hold society together.

Building communities and connections can start online but it needs to go further. And we need an active effort to make it happen and strengthen social connections. We know that people who are connected to one another lead healthier, happier lives. This needs the dedication and the structure that charities and community groups provide.

I would like us all to think hard about the focus we put on this element of our work. Never has it been more necessary.

For my part, I have written about some of the ways we can stimulate community action and strengthen organisations in a pamphlet published last month. In it, I highlighted the recommendation from NCVO and others that dormant financial assets, which the government believes amount to £2bn, should be used to endow community foundations and provide capital for local community groups. I believe this would be a way to put smaller organisations on a sustainable footing for the long term. It is something we will continue to push the government for.

In any case, a new year is a time for new resolve. I hope we will all do more to make the case for community this year. For shared values. And for your crucial role in creating and sustaining them.

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Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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