Beyond charities: Looking at wider civil society

What does the term ‘civil society’ mean to you? For some people it will conjure up images of charities and volunteers. For some, it means trade unions, political parties or pressure groups. Others may think of social enterprises or mutually owned businesses. Maybe to you it means universities, or religious groups.

We think civil society encompasses all these and more: whatever exists in the space between the state and the market, between individually and publicly owned.

While we do a rigorous analysis of the charity sector every year in our UK Civil Society Almanac, where we can, we also look at civil society as a whole.

Today we’ve published our latest briefing, Beyond Charities, which gives a fuller picture of the size, scope and finances of civil society in the UK. The full report is free to read online. This blog summarises the key trends we identified.

[1] Based on the work of Adalbert Evers and Jean-Louis Lavelle

A blurring of charity and business

Social enterprises are generally difficult to measure as there’s no single legal status for them. When asked which term best describes their organisation, social enterprises identify themselves as:

  • a social enterprise (33%)
  • a community business (31%)
  • a registered charity (only 11%).

The growth of social enterprises, such as those registering as Community Interest Companies (CICs- up from 10% of organisations survey in 2011 to 23% in 2019), is further confirmation that ‘doing good’ is no longer seen as exclusive to charities. This shows a blurring of boundaries between charity and business.

Trading plays a huge role in how social enterprises make money, being the main or only source of income for almost 75% of social enterprises. Trading with the general public (26%), public sector (19%) and private sector (16%) being the most common sources of income.

However, it’s important to remember that many charities also generate income through trading. So, defining social enterprises by this activity could underestimate the importance that trading as a way of raising money plays within civil society as a whole.

Credit union membership is growing

Our research shows that the number of credit unions is dropping rapidly, from 500 in 2015 to 410 in 2019. But credit union membership has seen a 12% increase, from 1.9m in 2015 to 2.1m in 2019. This means around 3% of the total UK population are now members of a credit union.

The overall growth is mainly driven by England, where membership increased by 12% over that period. But of particular interest is Northern Ireland, with 703,000 credit union members in 2019. This represents over one in three people in Northern Ireland and 34% of all UK credit union members.

What could be driving this? In Northern Ireland, this could be due to the role of local churches and politicians like the late John Hume in setting up and promoting credit unions.

For the UK more widely, the 2008 financial crisis may have also played a role, promoting them as an alternative to high street banking and payday lenders. In addition, many credit unions have made an effort to reach out to a more middle class customer base, which could also be driving this increase.

Trade union and political parties are seeing a long-term decline in members

Trade union membership has decreased from 7.1m members in 1995 to 6.4m in 2019. This is paralleled by a fall in the number of trade unions themselves (243 in 1999/2000 to 139 in 2019/20).

Although another reason could be changing employment patterns. The shift of employment away from traditional `heavy industries’, the restructuring of public service provision and the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ means that traditional trade union strongholds are dwindling.

Similarly, while major political parties have all seen an increase in membership since 2008, membership levels are lower than in previous decades. These increases and the more recent decreases show how volatile party membership is, with big changes happening in reaction to social issues like Brexit, climate change and Scottish independence.

This shift from party politics into single-issue politics shows the increasing influence that major issues could have on party membership numbers.

Housing associations are responding to the growing demand for affordable housing

More people rent from housing associations (2.4m) than they do from local authorities (1.6m). The number of those living in housing associations properties is increasing, while local authority tenancies decrease.

The number of affordable homes being built by housing associations has increased. Particularly homes available to buy which increased by 29% between 2017/18 and 2018/19.

Meanwhile the large-scale voluntary transfer of stock from local authorities to Private Registered Providers (PRPs) and Right to Buy sales has led to a decrease in the number of homes owned by local authorities.

However, while those in housing association homes have outnumbered those in local authority homes, the proportion of private renters is increasing – outnumbering social renters since 2011/12.

The rise in private rented accommodation would suggest that the unmet need for affordable housing is pushing those unable to get social housing into the private rental sector. Housing associations are stepping up, but are they doing this fast enough to meet needs?

Many civil society organisations operate below the radar

It’s clear that civil society organisations play an important role in people’s lives. We can see that people engage with civil society organisations beyond general charities in many ways. For example, through membership, tenancy or buying of goods and services.

Our Below the Radar report with Local Trust highlights that much of civil society is made up of small local organisations that aren’t formally registered and so are challenging to research.

Yet, they provide services and activities that aren’t provided by anyone else and, as we’ve seen recently with the covid-19 crisis, they are instrumental in supporting communities across the country. It’s more important now than ever to capture and fully recognise their contribution.

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Keeva Rooney Keeva is a senior researcher at NCVO. She supports the research team across a number of different projects.

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