Shelley Gray, Head of External Relations (Corra Foundation)
(the Scottish conversation event took place on 28 August 2018, hosted by Corra Foundation in partnership with: Carnegie UK Trust, the Children’s Parliament, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Lankelly Chase, OSCR and SCVO)
I’m writing this blog after my weekly visit to my Gran’s. In the 90 years my Gran has been alive society has weathered a lot of change, both good and bad. The year my Gran was born was the year women achieved equal voting rights with men. She lived through the Second World War, the creation of the European Union and now the prospect of the UK leaving that Union and all the uncertainty that holds.
One of the things my Gran has undoubtedly seen, and felt, is a change is the role of civil society; what Julia Unwin describes as the part of society independent of the state and without a profit motive… “the bit that makes life worth living” and the area in which most of us exercise fellowship and solidarity. For my Gran, that has always meant the church. She still goes weekly to the church she grew up in, where she forged life-long friendships and where, as a teenager, she met my Grandad. The church, and its associated groups – the Girl Guides and Boys Brigade – played a huge role in the lives of my grandparents, giving them a strong sense of belonging as well as a route through which they could contribute to society beyond their work and family roles.
While many of us still engage with these types of organisations, our expectations and our relationships with them are shifting. This change is at the heart of the Civil Society Futures inquiry being led by Julia Unwin in England and which we, with our partners, were privileged to have the chance to explore with her in August.
The conversation reinforced just how important civil society is in enabling connections and relationships, particularly when these are increasingly at risk and places for people to come together are being eroded. But is also set out challenges to civil society and a warning that if organisations don’t change they risk becoming irrelevant. Julia suggested that funders “get the voluntary sector they deserve”, emphasising the power that lies with funders (statutory and independent), whilst also encouraging charities not to ‘wait for permission’ or to always think someone else holds the levers of change
Corra Foundation looks forward to exploring further, with our partners, how this conversation can continue to develop in Scotland. While much of the English enquiry is just as salient here, there is no doubt that the opportunities and context north of the border are distinct, not least in terms of a supportive policy environment, alongside closer relationships between civil society and government. The conversation in August also highlighted the wealth of positive stories that can be told, even – and sometimes especially – in difficult times.
When I think about the role of civil society in my Gran’s life, in my own and looking ahead to my children’s lives I’m struck by Julia’s reflection that “in a rapidly changing world, human connection is the most important thing”. Human connection is the reason I go to my Gran’s every week, it’s why she goes to church and it’s why so many people spend time involved in networks, groups and organisations.
While much may need to change, supporting human connection is perhaps the golden thread that has always, and will always, run through the heart of civil society. That ability to connect, enable and support has immense power to create positive action and help us all to find resilience in the face of challenge and to live fuller, happier lives.
This is the first in a series of blogs following the event in August.