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Civil Society Futures is the independent inquiry into the future of English ‘civil society’ – everything we do together that’s not the state and not for profit, from faith groups to Facebook groups, social enterprise to social media to social movements, formal and informal.

How can civil society thrive in the next ten years?  What are the challenges? What are the possibilities?  This is what Civil Society Futures is trying to find the answers to.

One year on from its launch, from 26 April and into May we’re sharing what they’ve heard so far – centred around the theme of putting power in the hands of people and communities – and they want to involve people more as the inquiry continues up to the end of 2018.

What has the Inquiry heard so far?

In the past year the Inquiry team has travelled around the country, hearing from over 1,500 people, from local communities to large organisations. What it’s heard is that:

Civil society really matters – it is a valuable and essential part of our daily lives, bringing people together, building their confidence and capability, offering a helping hand to those in crisis, delivering services, challenging injustice.

But our generation is facing new challenges.  More impersonal and more divided, we face the possibility of an ‘us and them’ future.  Frustration with local and national government.  Inequality. Racial tensions. Robots replacing humans.  Impersonal transactions replacing human relationships. Many feel like power is out of reach, have little control over the future.  People are losing trust in big institutions including charities.

Civil society needs to respond.  Its big role in the coming years is to generate a radical and creative shift which puts power in the hands of people and communities, connecting us better and humanising the way we do things.  This includes:

  • Transforming the places that matter – from local communities to the internet
  • Bringing us together – across racial and other divides
    Shaping the future of work – and find purpose in activities beyond work
  • Reimagining how charities and other groups are run – and building new kinds of organisations and movements

The Inquiry wants to reach Sector professionals people in power in charity / volunteering / related sectors (large organisations, funders, sector leaders, membership bodies), Innovators people across civil society creating radical change (both informal and formal across community, activism, social enterprise, tech, charity and more.

Find out more by reading the 1 year work in progress reports below or watching the Civil Society Futures animation.  And please tell them what you thinkleave comments, share your views on social media #civilsocietyfutures, share your story, host a discussion or write a blog.

You can also read reports on the first year’s work:

Civil Society Futures Summary Report – Work in Progress

Interim research report – end of year



Equalities charity brap published recently their ‘Making the Cut’ report about the challenges facing Birmingham community groups over an 18-month period.  Here, brap’s CEO, Joy Warmington, examines the findings and asks what the next step might be in addressing the difficulties and finding solutions.


The work of community organisations has always been underpinned by three key values. The first, and most obvious, is self-help: providing services when the state can’t or won’t, or when self-help is actually more effective or appropriate. Second is self-organisation. Community groups are often at their best when they’re movements for change in society, transforming attitudes about everything from homosexuality to disability to mental health. And finally, there’s independence: working strategically with local and national government to make life better by closing gaps in services and loopholes in the law.


That’s the history: what about today? In the current climate, community groups are facing unprecedented budgetary pressures. Making the Cut asked what impact is this having on frontline services and the people using them?


To get a better idea brap has been regularly speaking to community organisations in Birmingham for over a year. These organisations work with some of the most vulnerable in the city and cover a range of sectors, including housing, domestic violence, and youth employment.


What we’ve found is that cuts to spending and changes to public service design are forcing individuals to go to community organisations for the support they need. Whether it’s welfare changes, the closure of local housing advice offices, reductions in youth services, or countless other things, people are increasingly turning to local voluntary sector organisations for help and advice. Between November 2014 and July 2015, for example, 77% of community groups said they had faced a ‘significant’ increase in demand for their service.


But that’s not all: over the same period, 88% of project participants had to make changes to their work because of cuts to funding. For most this meant changes to admin and management support. A lot of organisations have also said there is less funding for overheads and the ‘softer’ activities that help create a fuller, more holistic support service.  At the same time funding has become more short-term, making it harder for organisations to invest in their sustainability and to plan long-term interventions. A youth service, for example, might find itself in the unhelpful position of spending a few weeks working with a troubled young person only to have them referred back to the organisation some months later. Having more time with the individual in the first place might have allowed the agency to really get to grips with the problems they faced, giving the young person the confidence and resilience to solve their problems independently.


What is more, community groups are finding it harder to lobby local and national government about the concerns they have. This is partly because with fewer resources and increased demand, most voluntary organisations just don’t have the time to challenge this cycle of diminishing returns. For most the time available to analyse policy, engage with decision-makers, and draw out the strategic implications of new policy, practice, or legislation on their day-to-day work has been massively reduced.


Additionally, the constraints on speaking out are also partly because contractual relationships can make it harder for community groups to say what they need to. Increasingly, commissioning contracts – not just locally but nationally too – are stipulating that organisations can’t speak out about the impact of funding cuts. And many organisations don’t want to risk the relationship they’ve built up with their commissioner because funding is so tight. The customer is always right.


Since the report was published a number of local councillors and council officials have expressed concern about its findings. As communities see the impact of funding cuts really start to hit vulnerable people, most decision makers have said they are keen to deepen their links with the voluntary sector (and, in fact, some community organisations have recently told us they’ve noticed a move toward greater partnership working). Some respondents have since promised to press for formal mechanisms with which the sector can talk to and engage new governing bodies (such as the West Midlands Combined Authority). Others have offered to explore how the contents of contracts between the council and community groups are communicated, as, they claim, the intention has never been to stifle the voice of the sector.


This is a crucial exercise.  For  we ignore the work, expertise, local intelligence, and advice of voluntary organisations at our peril. Many have a unique insight into the cumulative impact of welfare reforms and public service changes. There is a role for public authorities now, more than ever, to engage community organisations in discussion about how to ensure vulnerable and excluded groups aren’t being left behind. And there’s a role for us, too, as a society to think carefully about what kind of voluntary sector we want to see. Because at the moment there’s a danger we’ll lose the side of it that campaigns, and agitates, and demands. We can’t just be content for community groups to fulfil the first of the values we outlined at the start. Historically, community groups have built hospices, sheltered refugees, and made public transport accessible for the disabled. If we forget this role, we are forgetting its potential. We are forgetting its vitally important role of holding up a mirror to society and speaking truth to power.


Our new work supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust will feed into the ‘Making the Cut’ project by creating a series of voluntary sector “conversations” around social cohesion and inclusion in Birmingham.  Watch this space.


For more information about the Making the Cut project go to


Sara Llewellin, Chair of the Independent Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure , and Chief Executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, blogs about the next steps following the recent launch of the report of the Commission and her hopes for “leaner, meaner and more technologically savvy” infrastructure.


Oxford Dictionary definition of infrastructure: The basic physical and organisational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.


NAVCA launched the Commission’s report to a packed house of VCS representatives from across England at a House of Commons event last week. Although this marked the end of the Commission’s role, it was just the start of a process of change, not an end in itself.


There was no doubt in the room about the importance of infrastructure to the wellbeing of communities and the need to recognise, nurture and enable it, but there was always going to be disagreement about how infrastructure support should be provided and what might need to change to make it work


The economic downturn, austerity, the welfare reform agenda and reductions to central government and local authority budgets are all impacting on social action adversely, with a heady cocktail of rising needs, reduced resources and a climate of anger and fear. Local infrastructure bodies are themselves experiencing loss of income; many are facing uncertainty and looking for new ways to serve their communities with less cash.


The Commission’s task was to undertake an analysis of what the sector needs from its infrastructure and to make proposals about what needs to change for those needs to be met. We knew a call for more money and a return to the previous status quo was out of the question. Things have changed, we’re in a ‘new normal’, and proposals based on asking for things rather than offering a change agenda will fall on deaf ears.


So we went out on the road and talked to people in various parts of England, mindful of the different challenges of the North and South, rural, urban and city settings. Everywhere we went, we found good things happening. Everyone we talked to had good examples of proactive change and some of these are included in the report. Every change we are recommending is happening in some places.


There is every reason to be optimistic about the resilience of community action but no room for complacency about how best to support it. The real punch line is that yes, infrastructure does deserve and need to be financed, but that it also has to undergo a redesign. It needs to be leaner, meaner and more technologically savvy. It needs to act as a lever bringing in new resources to the sector, including social investment, crowd funding and pro bono support. It needs to be the enabler of voice and the advocate of community action. It needs to collaborate and share more cost effectively. Above all, it needs to help the sector with foresight and managing change, because the pace of change is not going to slow.


These were our conclusions, but what will happen next? NAVCA will support and promote the implementation of the Commission’s findings, publishing a review of progress in early 2016. It will provide opportunities for local infrastructure bodies and their partners to learn from each other and offer mutual advice and support, as well as hosting a series of round table events in partnership with NCVO for local, national and specialist infrastructure organisations to create a collaborative approach to shaping the future of local infrastructure, working with funders at all levels to develop creative and sustainable solutions to secure the future of infrastructure, ensure that NAVCA itself complies with and models the best qualities of an infrastructure body as described by the Commission, and continually challenge its members to do the same.   Download the report here.

Nathan Dick, Head of Policy and Communication at Clinks, asks how the third sector will be affected by the fact that none of the TR Preferred bidders are from the sector


Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) has taken its next step. We now know who the preferred bidders are, and where they will work. These new partnerships are going to herald a significant change in how ‘offender management’ is carried out.


The Ministry of Justice statement on preferred bidders, which came out on 29th October, listed by my count, 14 charities, seven private sector organisations, and two public sector mutuals. This doesn’t give us a true picture of all the providers in the various supply chains, or the extent to which they will be involved in delivering services. It also doesn’t clarify who the primary contract holder is – though it’s unlikely to be a voluntary sector organisation.


What we do know is that this process is liable to change. As of 6 November GEO Group UK withdrew from of the competition because they had “not been able to reach an acceptable agreement” with the MoJ. This means that the GEO Mercia Willowdene partnership is no longer the preferred bidder for Warwickshire and West Mercia CRC.  EOS, which is part of Staffline Group plc, are now in discussion with the MoJ and are said to be speaking with Willowdene Rehabilitation (social enterprise) and the staff mutual Mercia Community Action who were formerly in partnership with GEO.


What role will the voluntary sector actually play in delivering services?


It’s clear we need to progress the conversation we have been having around TR. A lot of our focus has been on the commissioning process, and rightly so. The discussion needs to turn to what services the voluntary sector will deliver, what sort of a strategic role they will get, what the volume of work will be, and what payment mechanisms are established to pay them.  Close scrutiny of the eight new partnerships will be essential.


The voluntary sector organisations listed in the partnerships announced last week are mostly large (by criminal justice standards) Nacro, Addaction, CRI, and Shelter, and you would expect them to be delivering a significant element of the offender management, but at the moment this role hasn’t been defined. There are also some medium sized organisations such as St. Giles Trust and P3. We must not forget that there are also some comparatively small organisations listed in those partnerships, for instance, A Band of Brothers, Thames Valley Partnership, and Willowdene Rehabilitation Ltd (if they can secure a new partnership). The roles, services, and volume of work that all these organisations undertake will doubtless be incredibly different.


It seems apparent that the MoJ understand the vital role the voluntary sector plays in resettlement and rehabilitation. It makes me ponder, not for the first time, whether any of these partnerships would be able to deliver any of the services they bid for without the expertise and professionalism of their voluntary sector partners.


Why didn’t we get a voluntary sector lead preferred bidder?


I know that many are disappointed that we won’t have the chance to see how the voluntary sector would have done things differently. It has been well publicised that organisations like Catch 22, Home Group, and Turning Point were not successful in becoming listed as preferred bidders, despite a committed effort.


Clinks is disappointed too, and we want to make sure that we know why there was no voluntary sector lead preferred bidder before we can progress on our members’ behalf; we need to know the facts. Some of the reasons why it was difficult for the voluntary sector to bid as lead providers in the first place are well documented in our early (and ongoing) responses to TR e.g. the size of the contract package areas, the financial backing, the financial risk, the introduction of payment by results, and some more ethical considerations about the role that charities should take in delivering orders of the court, and some of the risks often raised in relation to partnering with large private sector organisations. But in the end we don’t know what factors really determined the outcome.


What about the 13,500 other voluntary sector organisations that work with this client group?


We should be clear that the voluntary sector in criminal justice is made up of a small amount of large providers, a slightly larger amount of medium sized organisations, and a vast amount of small ones (See research by TSRC). We know that the bulk of the voluntary sector’s work is at a very local level, in local authorities and neighbourhoods. How these organisations will be involved and engaged in the newly emerging Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) is anyone’s guess at the moment.


The MoJ has spoken about 300 material subcontractors in the bids, with the majority of these being voluntary sector organisations. They have also pointed to the fact that 700 voluntary sector organisations have registered as potential providers with the MoJ. A further 500 organisations have registered on Clinks’ Partnership Finder. Even if we combine all of these databases it only represents a small snapshot of the sector, and it doesn’t tell us anything about how they will be engaged.


For Clinks, the test of these new CRCs will not only be whether they positively impact on reducing re-offending, but also the extent to which they can address the diverse needs of their service users, and how they’ll work with specialist services to make a real difference. We know that the sector offers a wealth of expertise in a number of areas, which include (but are not exclusive to) women’s services, the needs of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic service users, older people, people with disabilities, and care leavers. In Clinks’ recent discussion paper ‘What does good rehabilitation look like?’, we found that the voluntary sector’s role in providing specialist and flexible services is key to improving the lives of people in the CJS.


A longer version of this blog was originally posted on the Clinks website. Clinks is a member of the T2A Alliance. It supports the voluntary sector in Criminal Justice, providing information and voice to the sector, as well as working to bring about positive change for people in the Criminal Justice System. Find out more about their work by going to their website.

The report released today proposes that a radical review of Big Society thinking is needed in light of millions of people being excluded from the Big Society, whilst the charities that support disadvantages people are themselves experiencing cuts to their funding.


The Big Society Audit, released by Civil Exchange and supported by  the Barrow Cadbury Trust, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and DHA points out that despite the rhetoric surrounding the Big Society, some of the most vulnerable are adversely affected by the policy. People with disabilities will experience 29% of the cuts, whilst 500,000 people in the UK are now dependent on food aid.


The report highlights stark differences between communities with regard to how they have been affected by the Big Society. The Big Society is at its healthiest in affluent and rural communities. Those living in the most deprived 10 per cent of the country were less likely (52%) to  agree that people pulled together to improve things than those in the least deprived 10 per cent (79%). Charitable giving and formal volunteering were more common in affluent areas and those living in affluent areas were more likely (73%) to say people in their neighborhood could be trusted that those living in disadvantages areas (22%).


The voluntary sector, despite an increased demand for its services has been largely left out in the cold. Many voluntary sector organisation, particularly those that work with vulnerable people, often in disadvantaged areas have experienced cuts to sources of income that they relied on. Many are now ‘running on empty’ with further funding cuts in the pipeline.


There are, however, positives to report. Communities are taking over vital assets and local services, greater transparency and accountability, and higher levels of volunteering, particularly amongst young people.


Read the full report here.

Sapphire Mason-Brown, Communications and Programmes Intern at the Barrow Cadbury Trust, considers the potential implications of the Chancellor’s spending review for the voluntary sector.


Last week’s spending review brought little positive news for key departments and affected individuals; the prison budget was were reduced by £180m, a 6% cut to the transport resource budget has been proposed and civilian posts on the armed forces have been cut. Some specific components of the review have great implications for charities and those rely on in their services, notably cuts to the welfare budget, local government spending and the Charity Commission’s budget, meaning that times will only get tougher for the sector.


The review sees a 10% cut to local government spending making it particularly hard hit. This comes in addition to the previous 33% real terms cuts to council budgets directly affecting their service provisions. However, Local Enterprise Partnership (LEPs) can bid for funding from a local growth fund of £2bn (lower than the £70bn recommended by Lord Heseltine in his review of economic policies), a move declared to be: “a welcome step in the right direction” by Alex Pratt, chairman of the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley LEP.


Changes to the welfare budget will likely have the greatest immediate impact on many beneficiaries of charities working with vulnerable communities. A new cap will be introduced to the welfare system affecting housing benefit, tax credits and disability benefits. Alongside the welfare cap comes a cut to the benefits of claimants who do not speak English unless they take language courses and a ‘temperature test’ for winter fuel allowance preventing pensioners living in warm countries from claiming it.


Dubbed the ‘Wonga Week’ by some, the waiting period before jobseekers are able to claim benefits will be extended to seven days from the previous three, which has been perceived as a change that could encourage greater take-up of payday loans. Payday loans have received heightened attention due to an increased reliance on their services, alongside and increase in the sheer amount of debt stemming from payday loan. On average, the average amount owed on payday loans has increased by £400 to £1657.


Particularly in light of a greater reliance on food banks and increased payday loan debt, the consequences of the welfare cap are potentially significant for both charities and their beneficiaries; as a result, analysis of this will soon be published by NCVO.


The Charity Commissions’ budget will be reduced from £21.4million to £20.4million and the department for Culture, Media and Sport will be cut by 7%.


The resource budgets for the Treasury and the Cabinet Office will be cut by 10%, whilst the Office for Civil Society will retain its funding of £56m and additional support will be provided for the National Citizenship Service.


Issues arising from cuts affecting the sector are twofold, as cuts to welfare and local government spending may lead to a further increased demand for their advice and support services, whilst the Charity Commission faces a direct cut to its funding, potentially reducing it’s ability to support and champion the sector. In the coming weeks NCVO will be working to build a fuller picture of the impact of these changes on voluntary and community organisations.