Skip to main content
Hot Topics

The Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society – the road to the future

David Cutler, Director of the Baring Foundation, writes about why the Baring Foundation has taken the lead in the creation of an Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society starting work this month.  

Since 1969, the Baring Foundation has given grants to voluntary sector organisations seeking to tackle discrimination and disadvantage. One of our first grants was to Centrepoint which was founded in the same year. In 1995, with the collapse of Baring Bros bank, the Foundation became an independent entity with a sharper focus on the role of civil society through our Strengthening the Voluntary Sector Programme.

At the same time, Nicholas Deakin was chairing the Independent Inquiry into the Future of the Voluntary Sector. Its report, published a year later, did much to establish the rules of engagement between central government and the voluntary sector, especially through the Compact. The latter agreement acknowledged the contribution of the voluntary sector to civic life and also sought to protect that role, particularly by recognising the right of an independent sector to advocate on the behalf of those it serves.

We were fortunate enough to secure Nicholas Deakin as a trustee who went on to lead our Strengthening the Voluntary Sector programme. The Foundation focused its social justice grant-making from 2006 on the question of the independence of the voluntary sector. We knew that concerns about independence were not confined to the UK. (And these concerns have only grown more widespread and more acute, with Civicus estimating last year that over half the world’s governments were engaged in legislation or other action to restrict the freedom of civil society.) The impact of some of the grants we made is captured here.

Our concerns over the freedom of the voluntary sector are of course not party- political. The grants programme was launched under a Labour Government, we initiated the subsequent Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector under the Coalition Government and the Independent Inquiry will work under a Conservative Government. The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector brought together widely respected leaders from civil society to analyse systematically the opportunities and pressures on civil society.

Like all good ideas, many people saw the need for a broad look at the future of civil society. NCVO had planned to mark its centenary in 2019 with such an Inquiry and have very generously given £100k in research resources to the Independent Inquiry. The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector in their third report in 2014 concluded that ‘a “new settlement” is required between the voluntary sector and key partners, particularly the state, but this needs to be underpinned by a shared understanding of the distinctive contribution of an independent voluntary sector. This thought was then elaborated in a subsequent collection of essays by Civil Exchange published the same year. Special mention in all this must go to Caroline Slocock who as Director of Civil Exchange has been a great champion for the independence of the voluntary sector and her most recent report sponsored by Lankelly Chase and ourselves is an important contribution to the Inquiry.

In taking the decision to commit £200k in core funding as an anchor pledge for the Inquiry, the Foundation is very much in the debt of Margaret Bolton who, acting as an independent consultant for us, spoke to a range of potential stakeholders regarding the prospect of an Independent Inquiry. Her careful analysis was critical in securing the essential support of seven other foundations as core funders:

  • Barrow Cadbury Trust
  • Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK
  • City Bridge Trust
  • Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
  • Lankelly Chase
  • Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales
  • Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

This has been more than a group of funders signing cheques and lending their very significant weight to a project; rather they shaped the very nature of the enterprise, and continue to do so. However, the Inquiry is strictly independent from its funders as we believe deeply that it should be free to state whatever views it concludes, even if these are uncomfortable ones.

As a partnership this group then took the vital step of finding a Chair for the Inquiry. After interview, the funders unanimously and enthusiastically invited Julia Unwin to take up the position of Chair. This she has done with great energy and consummate skill since she stood down as the CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. One of Julia’s first tasks was to form a Panel to support her – the result is a diverse group of people with a huge amount of experience in and outside the voluntary sector. Lastly, through an intensely competitive open process, a Secretariat for the Inquiry was appointed, led by Forum for the Future in partnership with Citizens UK, Goldsmiths, University of London and Open Democracy. Diversity has been a very important principle in designing the Inquiry, not only as regards equalities but also in perspective and experience.

As the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities in its recent report Stronger charities for a stronger society puts it: ‘charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of society. They mobilise, they provide, they inspire, they advocate and they unite’. Civil society is being challenged, it seems, ever more regularly about how it runs itself and these challenges need to be honestly and confidently addressed. In a time of political upheaval, civil society also needs to engage with deep societal and environmental changes regarding inequalities and discrimination, social cohesion, digital technology and automation in the workplace, ageing, devolution and climate change, to name but a few. The time is right for a broad look at how civil society serves all of society and how it can best be organised in the future.

So over the next two years, we look forward to a conversation between all corners of civil society and with society more broadly. The end of the Inquiry in 2019 will coincide with the Foundation’s 50th anniversary year and a strategy review. Its conclusions will be an important guide for us as we embark on our next 50 years.

The Independent Inquiry will be launched on 20 April.