We are living through a period of staggering political and economic turbulence. Not for generations have events felt they were moving quite as fast, or so unpredictably as now. As the role of the state in our lives is reduced and changing, charities are not only adding value to communities and complementing the work of the state, they are increasingly relied upon to feed, house, and clothe people, and to be a core source of support.
At the same time, it feels as though the 1947 contract between citizen and government is being eroded - trust in politicians, in institutions and confidence in services is falling. Charities are not immune. Recent cases like the collapse of Kids’ Company, or the commercial lock-in between Age UK and Eon have shown that the public’s usually high regard for charities cannot be taken for granted.
The recent disaster at Grenfell Tower has proven a shocking and tragic metaphor for these changing times. The local authority that should have been responsible for the safety of its tenants had failed in even basic governance of its housing stocks. Politicians at every level came in for scrutiny and criticism about the perceived lack of humanity and responsibility in their response. The tenants’ own forum had warned for years that a disaster was likely, yet despite being in an era where localism and devolution have been on-trend, their collective voice was ignored.
As is so often the case, ordinary people came forward in droves to volunteer, or to give – yet that outpouring of human solidarity lacked coordination, so much of what was given went to waste.
The independent inquiry into the future of charities, Civil Society Futures, speculates that what we currently think of as the voluntary or community sector of the future is likely to be characterised by “movements and networks”, not by organisations. Civil society is becoming more fluid, more responsive and agile – and therefore harder to define. The traditional walls between sectors are becoming thinner, blurred even, as councils spin parts of their operations off to being social enterprises; as charities become more like businesses; and as businesses adopt more socially responsible practices of “business citizenship”.
In the aftermath of Grenfell, hundreds of miles away in Cornwall, something extraordinary happened. Without any centrally-coordinating organisation at its core, without any commissioned resources or grant funding, a local community of people, businesses and institutions came together to offer healing respite to the Grenfell survivors - people they had never met.
I believe this is precisely the sort of “movement and network” that Civil Society Futures describes. In this changing context, Exeter CVS has had to re-consider its future role. Charities that remain built on patriarchal, Victorian notions of benevolence are becoming less relevant, and so the idea of a CVS being an organisation that simply serves and promotes local charities for their own sake becomes redundant. Instead, we see our role as being coordinators that operate across sectors. We are enablers, brokers, and catalysts for change; and want to create a place where people from any and all sectors can come together to identify the challenges in our community, to discuss ideas for change, and to co-design and test out new ways of creating community in the 21st Century. A collaborative space, and a laboratory for social innovation – CoLab.
That’s why we are now leaving behind the CVS brand, instead becoming CoLab – a meeting place, and a forum for innovation. A place where people can access services, but also a place where the whole system can itself learn and be transformed.
Most importantly, we are a place of solidarity – where we recognise that everyone, and every organisation, and every business that chooses to engage has something to gain, and something to give; and – together – we can see our community transformed into a more equal, more resilient, and more socially just place.