A new purpose for civil society?

By 11th October 2018 October 25th, 2019 Blogs

“We are living in a time of great change.”

The changing nature of work. The erosion and loss of public space. Declining trust in organisations and institutions, and a sense of loss of control. And all of this is turbo-charged by the way that technology is rapidly changing our society – the way we work, the way we assert our democratic voice, the way we connect with each other.

“But civil society has always been at its best in times of change.”

At the end of August, the Carnegie UK Trust was delighted to join the Corra Foundation in welcoming Julia Unwin to Scotland to reflect on the findings from the independent inquiry into the future of civil society in England. Over the past two years, Civil Society Futures has run community workshops in every corner of England, gaining a real insight into how these changes are affecting communities and, importantly, what it is that really matters to people.


People have deep and strong connections to the places that they come from. They feel a sense of pride, or of shame, and quite often both; but there is almost always an emotional engagement with the place they live. And this is important because too often communities feel shut out of policies and decisions about the towns, city or village where they come from.

Belonging & identity

Linked to the way people feel about places, is their sense of belonging and identity. At a time when so many places are divided and disconnected, there is a need to find ways to tell the shared stories of communities and places – to bring people of different backgrounds together and celebrate an identity that is shared.

Work & purpose

It used to be the case that people’s sense of purpose was intimately linked to their work, their church, their role in their community. But as communities and the nature of employment change, these identities and sense of purpose are eroding.

As the former New Zealand Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, observed, it’s really quite simple: all people want is “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.” These essential needs may not have changed since the 1970s, but the world around us has. Speaking at the Civil Society Scotland event, Julia identified a number of implications for civil society, which are usefully summarised into “key points” for organisations and funders in a recent blog by Shelley Gray, Corra.

As has been identified both by Civil Society Futures and in the recent Civil Society Strategy, there is certainly a role for civil society organisations to connect people to power, and address the growing sense of alienation and loss of control. But at the heart of everything, civil society’s purpose today is in fostering relationships and connections, and creating new forms of belonging. In this regard, Julia challenged civil society organisations – and funders – to think “more about the connections we foster than the impact we make”.

These closing reflections – that in a rapidly changing world, we must focus on our humanity – have close synergies with another strand of Julia’s work, as a Carnegie Fellow. Over the past 18 months, Julia has been exploring the role of kindness in public policy. Her fellowship report will be launched in a few weeks’ time, but some of its key themes were outlined in a recent broadcast on BBC Radio 4 ‘Four Thought’. In the programme, she highlighted how kindness and everyday relationships are central to our wellbeing and should be at the heart of everything: from the way we plan our housing and frontline services, to the way that we communicate with each other.

So, just as civil society organisations consider how to respond to findings from the Civil Society Futures inquiry, equally there is a role for all of us – policymakers, professionals, individuals – to encourage and recognise the value of kindness and human connection in our work and community lives.

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