Just what to call yourself if you are organising to do good stuff for social benefit is quite confusing these days ... but at least we know what challenges and opportunities lie ahead thanks to a summary from NCVO Third Sector Foresight. Pestilence, famine and war are there in various guises, but so too are the potentially positive uses of technology, and different ways of organising. More on those later.
First to what doing good should be called. The other day Stuart Etherington, the chief executive of NCVO, the umbrella organisation for UK nonprofits, was musing about a change of name for what is currently known as the voluntary and community sector. These organisations may also be known as the third sector (as in not public or private). Some are charities (about the only term widely recognised by those not in the business), and the more entrepreneurial are social enterprises. It can be difficult to spot the difference between charities that have an entrepeneurial trading arm, and socially responsible businesses that may have an associated charity.
Charity Finance reported:
NCVO chief executive Stuart Etherington has ambitions to augment the power of the voluntary sector voice by harnessing the whole of civil society, not just charities and social enterprises.
In an interview with Charity News Alert, Etherington outlined his future agenda for the organisation and the sector – “I would hope they are parallel” – and signalled his desire to boost the sector’s influence over public policy by widening its net to include all of civil society and by establishing a 50-member civil society assembly.
Etherington refused to be drawn on whether he could foresee a day when the NCVO would rename itself the ‘National Council of Civil Society Organisations’, but confirmed the organisation was “keen to encourage a debate about how the sector defines itself”.
“I prefer the term civil society because it is more inclusive and defines us in relation to those we work with and for, rather than to government or business.”
He also admitted to seeing merit in recasting the Office of the Third Sector as the Office for Civil Society, an idea first proposed by the Conservatives as long ago as 2001.
An early indication of the new agenda has emerged in the name of the 2008 Almanac – the NCVO’s annual study of the state of the third sector. Instead of ‘Voluntary Sector Almanac’, this year’s edition is to be renamed the ‘Civil Society Almanac’, and will for the first time include data from organisations such as trade unions, universities, housing associations and political parties.
The NCVO also plans to establish a 50-member assembly that will debate civil society’s response to pressing public policy issues. The assembly will mostly comprise representatives from within the voluntary sector, nominated and then elected by NCVO members, but provision has been made for ten of the 50 to be co-opted.
I believe that the idea of an assembly is a response to NCVO-member pressure more involvement in policy and direction, and I'll be interested in how it turns out. It's a fairly old-style mechanism of representation which might lead to the usual problems of uncertain governance, where people aren't sure whether the assembly, forum, council or whatever it may be called is the focus, or the board of trustees. Maybe it will be OK if Stuart and NCVO staff see their organisation as a network which is permeable rather than closely-bounded, and encourage continual conversations between members, staff, assembly-members and others as well as having some formal meetings.
As I mentioned above, the challenges and opportunities facing whatever we may be called have been highlighted by the foresight unit at NCVO. Megan Griffith reports on a seminar at the NCVO annual conference where a panel of speakers debated the ‘burning issues’ of climate change, bridging communities and the ways in which young people are associating.The session began with a presentation from Lenka Setkova, who took everyone through the findings of the Carnegie UK Trust’s Inquiry into the future of civil society in the UK and Ireland. You can download the report here. It is a terrific piece of work, but unfortunately only available, a far as I can see, as pdfs, which rather stifles online conversation because it is difficult to link or quote.
All the more useful then that Stuart Etherington invited seminar participants to discuss the presentation, and then assemble their own set of messages as risks/challenges/threats, opportunities, questions, and calls to action. You can see the whole list here, but here's the interesting calls to action:
- Civil society should define and exemplify new models and patterns of growth. Growth is not always good. Extra extra extra is neither equitable or sustainable – let’s look for ‘infragrowth’. The negawatt (energy saved) rather than megawatt (energy generated).
- Civil society needs to embrace online spaces more effectively, more often, mainstream it.
- VCS must revisit history and become the advocates for our liberties.
- If we could make growing older a positive experience we would at the same time find universal solutions for social coherence.
I'm glad to see a potentially positive role for technology and the online world in there, and I'm look forward to exploring that further with Megan and colleagues, who I've worked with before. I'm also taking some comfort from Stuart's renaming process that this blog's title may have increasing relevance. It was all a bit of an accident, as you can see here.
- Creating futures for the common good
- Foresight site offers strategic insight
- Nonprofit leadership means networking, socially and openly
- Re-inventing membership online and off