A future civil society must be grounded on mission

Civil Society Futures report cover

Peter Lewis | 23 November 2018

As Civil Society Futures, the independent inquiry led by Julia Unwin, publishes its final report this week, Peter Lewis, Chief Executive of the Institute of Fundraising, says that the sector needs to take this opportunity to look at where it has come from, and where it wants to be.

I really welcome the Civil Society Futures report. Everyone in the sector, and indeed more widely, should read and reflect on the evidence and principles that Julia Unwin and her team have put together. It's a substantial and thoughtful piece of work.

Interestingly, from a fundraising point of view, the principles she has identified as being fundamental to the role of civil society reflect much of what we have learnt over the last few years in relation to excellent, supporter-focussed fundraising. From devolving the power to the donor or supporter to choose how they engage with us as a charity or cause, to being absolutely clear about what we are going to do with people’s donations, thanking them, and reporting back to them honestly on the outcomes of their support. Making sure that we focus on generating real engagement with our supporters, understanding their needs and desires better, and building deeper relationships over time, rather than treating the relationship as a purely transactional exchange of money for “doing good”.

Similarly, the report reflects on a crying lack of diversity in parts of the sector, one we are familiar with, and committed to addressing, in the fundraising community, having just launched our Manifesto for Change.

And as Dan Fluskey, the IoF’s Head of Policy and Research, set out clearly at the recent Westminster briefing we believe that excellent fundraising develops the trust of donors, supporters and the general public through engaging people in causes they care about, committing to do things, doing them, and reporting back to those supporters, demonstrating our trustworthiness to them.

There are also lots of things that echo our approach as a membership organisation, engaging our members, reflecting their views and supporting our volunteer Groups around the UK to listen and respond to the needs of the charities and fundraisers in the communities they are closest to.

With the launch of this report, I think we need to look at where we have come from, and where we want to be - using the theory and thinking embedded in Civil Society Futures as a solid foundation to build on. It's an important part of the ongoing conversation we need to be having, but it could never be an end result in itself, it's a point of reflection to consider: so what next?

The 'i' word

An aspect which is not hugely covered in the report is the 'i' word: impact. As Dan Corry, Chief Executive of NPC, has pointed out, the need for us to be clear, both to ourselves and to others, about the impact we are having, is not as central to the report as I would have imagined. For me, it has to be the cornerstone about how we think about our role in the sector and also the relationships with our supporters - as well of course as being that inherent link to delivering the public benefit which is the only reason our organisations exist.

And the tricky bit is that, sometimes, that public benefit might not neatly match up with the thrust of the report's call to purposefully engage communities in a deep and meaningful way as part of achieving that charitable purpose. For example, it is not necessarily the primary purpose of a medical research charity to engage communities in their work. They might be able to engage a small number of high net worth donors to fund the necessary research by highly expert scientists to achieve their objective to find a cure for the disease they are fighting. A specialist think tank in education, housing or the environment might best achieve its objectives through garnering the support of a handful of charitable foundations.

Focus on engagement

The focus on engagement rather than delivering public benefit also means we need to develop our thinking further not just on the importance of collaboration with each other, on which the report touches, but also our collaboration, as appropriate, with government and business.

Government, at all levels, should be seen as a primary partner in delivering public benefit. They, like charities, exist for that purpose, and we should not forget that. And at a time of great uncertainty, with the divisions the report lays out very clearly, we should not think that we can solve those divisions, and the underlying problems beneath them, on our own. We as a sector are very likely to be there before, during and after great convulsions in the world around us. But it is incumbent on us not just to look inwardly to ourselves, or outwardly to local communities, but also more widely to partners who can help us deliver for the needs and desires of those local communities, as well as others, of all shapes and sizes who can help us deliver against our charitable objectives.

There is much to reflect on in Civil Society Futures about our own communities, relationship, and connections with other communities. Putting that thinking into the heart of our strategies about how we deliver impact, effect change, and bring about the public benefit that drives everything we do can give us the right approach for success.

Peter Lewis, Chief Executive, Institute of Fundraising



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