Let’s build back better

“Come and talk to us about how we build on the amazing strengths of the sector and address the weaknesses and the challenges,” asks ACEVO CEO Vicky Browning.

There comes a point in any crisis where critics on the side-line weigh in to point out all the things that are being done wrong.

To those in the eye of the storm, this can seem like an unnecessary distraction. But I do not think we should wait until the end of the pandemic before seeking constructive feedback, learning from our mistakes or altering our behaviour. It is very possible that our ‘new normal’ will be years of swinging between socially distanced public activity and lockdown. We all need to accept and respond to feedback while the work of responding to the pandemic continues.

But if we are to reflect on where civil society has done well and where it hasn’t, let’s not start by rehashing stale conversations about how ‘professional’ the charity sector is and whether we need to be more ‘business like’. Especially when being business-like hasn’t made the lives of businesses any easier in the last two months.

Instead the conversation should take as a starting point the core purpose of civil society: public benefit delivered for public good, not private gain. Throughout this crisis I have seen the true value of civil society in the volunteers delivering food to people unable to get to the supermarket, in the digitisation of befriending services to support lonely people, in the hospice workers and domestic abuse support staff going to work, risking their health so others can be safe, receive love and feel dignity.

Many civil society staff who have been furloughed have been keen to volunteer their expertise to other not for profit organisations. The generosity I have seen from colleagues across the sector, whether furloughed or not, volunteers or paid staff has continually and repeatedly inspired me.

Lockdown has also thrown a light on the things we value most, things that are too often dismissed as luxuries but are instead the mark of a well, healthy, happy society. Theatres, dance, access to green spaces, museums, community choirs, the local Scout, Woodcraft folk or Girlguiding troop, are all part of civil society. Civil society is already valued, it’s just that most people have no idea what ‘civil society’ means.

Our sector does not need to ape business or the public sector because we are not business or the public sector. In the past some of us umbrella and membership bodies whose role is to champion our distinct identity have been too reluctant to do so because of concern about the complexity of the sector, or fear of being seen as too ‘argumentative’, ‘unreasonable’ or ‘demanding’ by politicians. These are terms that are most often used to put people in their place, they are used by people in positions of power to remind those with less power to be grateful for what they are given, even when it isn’t what they need. All three terms are also highly gendered, classed and racialised.

The lack of knowledge and understanding about the role of civil society in central government has been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic. But we cannot expect politicians to understand the distinct nature of civil society if we do not shout about it. Similarly, we cannot complain that government expects solutions for businesses to fit charities if we are always talking publicly about trying to be more ‘business-like.’

By centring people and the environment in discussions about how the sector can improve we will build back better.

Some, but by no means all, of the questions I think are important for the sector to be reflecting and acting on now are:

  1. Who is at highest risk of experiencing harm and are civil society organisations reaching them? If not, why not?
  2. Who are the voices with access to power and are they representative of the people we serve?
  3. Is funding distributed by civil society being distributed equitably?
  4. Why doesn’t government understand civil society and how can we change that?
  5. How do we build on the strengths of the sector’s response to Covid-19 and learn from our failures?

It is also important to remember that many of the problems we are lamenting now existed before Covid-19. Civil society has seen its political influence gradually decrease for at least 10 years. Ways of working that were effective in the past will not work now. Part of being a good leader is a commitment to continuous learning.

So come and talk to us about how we build on the amazing strengths of the sector and address the weaknesses and the challenges. Wouldn’t it be something if in the future the government pointed at the voluntary sector and told businesses they need to be more like us?

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

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