#GiveBackBetter – what would you add to our manifesto for solidarity and a more generous Britain?

We can do better. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and accelerated inequalities in our economy and society. As we build back, we are calling on people, business and government to give back better.

Hand of generosity

There is a long tradition in the UK, eroded perhaps in recent years, of generosity and of fair play, an ethic of doing good as well as doing well. With rising needs, the way to foster solidarity is to show how it can be effective.

At a local level, voluntary and community organisations have played a vital role over the pandemic, but with rare exceptions, they lack the stable funding and support that they need.

The infrastructure for voluntary action has been decimated. The scope to earn income has narrowed, with public service commissioning for example characterised by bureaucratic process and sudden death contracts. The sector is falling behind when it comes to professional skills including new fields of digital services. A new wave of activism is setting the challenge of dismantling the paternalistic and racist ways in which traditional charity has been delivered. And rather than fostering positive change across the sector, funding streams have encouraged a culture of competition rather than collaboration across charities, co-operatives and social enterprise.

We have to make it easier to do good. In line with the renewed interest in ‘effective altruism’, and in line with the voluntary sector campaign #NeverMoreNeeded and the wider call to ‘build back better’, we believe in the possibilities and the benefits of giving back better.

Our call to action from Pilotlight, to give back better, is to:

  1. Be generous, remembering that giving can be good for you
  2. Share skills, because it is not just money that makes a difference
  3. Back institutions and not just initiatives, because then change is lasting
  4. Think big and act small, recognising the social value of many smaller charities
  5. Encourage co-operation, because lasting change needs people to work together
  6. Give voice, supporting those with lived experience of poverty, disability or exclusion
  7. Follow the evidence not just your heart, because impact and evaluation matters.

What would you add? And how can you give back better?

A street in lockdown – photos of fear, family and community over an extraordinary time

“We retreated behind our windows, afraid of the virus. But out of lockdown came a great positive – increased community support.”

When lockdown came, Steve Lewis took to his camera to record the response of residents in his neighbours on South Street in the town of Lewes, Sussex. The result is a wonderful photo book, Our Street in Lockdown that transforms those everyday contacts and concerns into a little bit of magic.

Janet was self- isolating over the lockdown, but would come out in the afternoon to chat to the neighbours across the street. At the end of March, neighbours Sue and Susie convinced her, Steve, Kath, David and many others to come out at 3pm to dance in the street. Jan and Michele brought their dogs to the dancing. The street kept up the music and dance for 100 consecutive days.

Even so, loneliness was an enemy for many people and, delivering the post, Gary never missed a day keeping everyone in touch. Lariola was responsible for some of the elderly – the pay for a care assistant is so poor that she also worked extra hours in Asda. Both have a copy of the book now, dedicated in thanks to those key workers who kept working over the time.

The street self organised too in response to the needs for food and for contact. Serena set up a mutual aid WhatsApp group, so that volunteers could go shopping for the neighbours. Caroline purchased vegetables in bulk, to parcel around. Janet made scrubs for nurses, while Bill raised cactus plants for sale to raise funds for charity. Dilly (pictured) and others with allotments shared rhubarb and fresh vegetables with those in the street.

Algerim, who is originally from Kazakhstan, said of the street during lockdown “I’ve lived in the UK for four years and rarely met my neighbours before. Now I know all my neighbours and have many friends in the street.

You can see many of the photos on the Instagram account for Steve Lewis or you can purchase a copy of the book. With a donation from every book sold going to Lewes Coronavirus Volunteers, who support shielding families, there are only a few copies left to sell and it has sold particularly well on one Sussex street. Stocking the book is neighbour Rachel who took on running a children’s book shop, Bag-of-Books, in town in March, opening on Friday March 13th, just days before lockdown…

Our Street in Lockdown is a social record of an extraordinary time. As cases soared and families retreated often in fear into their homes, many also rediscovered through self-help and mutual aid the power and magic of community.

How do we understand the surge of community spirit in the UK?

The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is reported to have said “Let whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day honour his neighbour.

In that spirit, there is a great report out today from the Muslim Charities Forum, The Neighbours Next Door which tells the stories of just under two hundred Muslim charities and groups proving community support over the pandemic.

A similar story can no doubt be told of the local contribution of other faith communities and voluntary organisations.

At Pilotlight our members, drawn from the world of business, have been working with the charity Sport4Life since 2018, supporting it to develop and grow. The CEO and founder Tom Clarke-Forrest is wonderfully now a bursary Pilotlighter himself, helping to spread that support and guidance to other charities and social enterprises. This moving video talks to the work of Sport4Life with young people over the pandemic.

All this is a heartwarming reminder of the extent of community cooperation across the UK

A decade ago, I was part of a research team looking at neighbourliness. We concluded across the UK, there are at least twenty one million conversations taking place each day between neighbours. Fourteen million people drop round for a chat with their neighbour.

But… set against this, the UK is ranked as one of the more lonely countries in the world and it has been a tough time for those who are alone and feel alone.

How do we understand the surge of community spirit under COVID-19 in the UK?

The Neighbours Next Door report warns that “At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK, there was an outpouring of compassion from the public with a desire to volunteer and serve their communities during this unprecedented time leading to many voluntary sector organisations having long volunteer waiting lists. However, as the lockdown eases, and individuals get back to work, the number of volunteers may fall despite the need to support the community not diminishing.”

Perhaps the conclusion is that we should respect but not idealise what can be done through the spirit of self help and mutual aid. Our sense of community can be inspired by our values or our faith, but still fall short. It may be that we are closer to the seventeenth century aphorism of the Welsh poet, George Herbert, who adds a cautionary note “Love your neighbour, yet pull not downe your hedge.

Children today on children yesterday – a charming short heritage video from South London

I have written before of my involvement as a trustee (treasurer) of a small community charity, the Merry Trust, founded by my friend, Jani Llewelyn, a nursery teacher in Deptford before she died.

One of the projects that Merry has been able to fund is on heritage and education for schools in the area, and this work has come up trumps.

This video is eight minutes of heart warming, charming stories told by the children of Year 5 at Deptford’s Tidemill Academy drawing on the archives of the local Ragged School, founded in the nineteenth century.

Thank you to Katharine Alston, from the local Bear Church, who unlocked the archives. You have brought the past to life for a new talented generation of Deptford’s young people.

Self-help and the women of Bootle – an extraordinary story of community action

The last time Bootle closed as a town was the air raids in the Second World War. With the docks harbouring the escort ships for the Atlantic convoys, the town was flattened by bombing, with only one in ten houses still standing by the end of the war. 

In terms of housing and poverty, the town today is classed as one of the most disadvantaged in the UK, yet it has some extraordinary strengths, one of which is some of the women of Bootle, formed into a remarkable community charity, the Venus Centre

As a small tile on a Zoom screen, I was observer a few days back for the kick-off session in which the Venus founder, Lorraine Webb, explained its work to the team formed by Pilotlight to support her and the team over a ten month structured programme of work.

Under the COVID-19 lockdown, the Venus Centre has kept the community active and engaged across the town with an armful of services to support local families on screen and on phone. With lockdown easing, it looks as if some face to face services at the Centre can now restart.

Lorraine co-founded the Venus Centre as a way to promote young women’s health. By training up local women, she could get health messages to women in a form that they could understand and trust. The myth that you can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up died in Bootle later that year. 

She didn’t start the charity in order to start a charity; instead it was simply a way to do what she knew needed to be done.

Venus Charity | Empowering, promoting and supporting women, young ...

Founded in 1994, the idea of a centre was at the heart of what emerged, because listening to the women that came helped to shape their ideas of what services would work. They started in one place, moved after a fire, were hosted by the Sefton Women’s Advisory Network, and then moved again to rent three shop units, which they knocked together and renovated over three years using programmes to support apprentices in the building trade. 

In the aftermath of community opposition to its initial plans for ‘housing market renewal’, the local authority worked hard to rebuild relations, including recognising the Venus Centre with the offer of support for a new building that is now at the heart of Lorraine and the charity’s plans for the future.

The core programmes run by the Venus Centre focus on family support, housing and resettlement and mental health and well-being. It is a women’s organisation and proud to be so, but the support it offers is open to all. Over the lockdown, the Centre has run an emergency hostel in the area, which, as elsewhere, has proved to be an unexpected lifeline in the work to tackle the prevalence of rough sleeping. One man who has slept under a bridge for six years, reports Lorraine, now sleeps indoors (on the floor) and he is happy.

The Venus Centre is one of the small to medium sized charities that is looking to Pilotlight for support this year. As winners of a 2020 Weston Charity Award from the Garfield Weston Foundation, what they receive, free to access, is a structured programme of support from a team of business and charity leaders designed to build their confidence and professional skills around strategy. “I feel very lucky to have this support” says Lorraine. 

Pilotlight brings together the worlds of business (which pays for the service and gifts the time) and charity and creates a bridge for the common good. It works because of the quality of the programme. 

In a world in which traditionally good intentions were enough, Pilotlight has a proven impact. Independent evaluation shows that 94% of people participating with Pilotlight from business see an increase in their coaching skills while the charities that benefit currently see increases within two years on average of 36% in their reach and 40% in their income.

There is a new window of applications now open for charities and social enterprises that want to take part in other programmes run by Pilotlight. 

So please spread the word – follow Lorraine, follow the women of Bootle. 

Is the largest social enterprise for UK athletes a ‘fake non-profit’?

I have written over recent years on the trend for corporates and private enterprise to cloak themselves in the clothes of the third sector – fake non-profits I dubbed them.

The latest suspect I have come across is a private limited company, Inspired Through Sport. It looks inspiring – ‘the largest social enterprise for Great British athletes’. But countless recent Google Reviews allege that it has ended up not paying staff, schools or athletes – even if what may have been paid are director fees, expenses and travel.

It is genuinely not easy to bring value to different stakeholder groups, here athletes, schools and schoolchildren, and perhaps what started as a hopeful venture has become a cropper. Anyone can fail, but it is the terms of that failure which mark this one out as a possible fake non-profit.

The company has not filed accounts and has been fined by an employment tribunal, while the directors have opened up a new company ITS through which they are directing new business. The allegation seems to be to be that if Directors have received monies through the original venture, this money originated from schoolchildren and their families, as schools fundraised to bring in athletes as speakers plus were promised sports equipment from the funds, some of which have never materialised.

One of the curiosities of all this has been the use of the Social Enterprise UK logo, which promises that this is a “certified social enterprise”.

When I flagged this as a concern to Social Enterprise UK, the team were quick to respond, indicating that the venture was not now a member and had been told to withdraw use of the logo. So far, looking at the Inspired Through Sport website which remains live, that hasn’t happened.

The footnote is one of language and trust. There will always be social enterprises that succeed and ones that fail. Social enterprises that are fake non-profits, running what become in effect scams, are rare, albeit perhaps on the rise. In that context, is the term ‘certified social enterprise’ misleading to consumers and stakeholders? There is after all a genuine certification, with independent assurance, in the form of the Social Enterprise Mark.

Social Enterprise UK is a truly great champion for the sector and has done a huge amount to promote social enterprise. I am proud to have played a small part at the beginning, having co-written with Jonathan Bland and Baroness Glenys Thornton the original business plan for the organisation – then as the Social Enterprise Coalition. As far as I can see, the team today are taking this case seriously and had already triggered a review.

But… why use the word ‘certified’? If it doesn’t cost to join and it is pretty much your word as to whether you are a social enterprise on the forms, and you can then tell the world you are in fact certified, then there is a question: won’t there be more fake non-profits that take advantage of the efforts of everyone else?

Badges of co-operation

How would you tell the story of your work?

This was the question posed to me by Liz McIvor, manager at the Co-operative Heritage Trust, earlier this year when I told her I was leaving. The question stayed with me for some time, before I found an answer.

In modern work, there are endless documents and emails and I trust that the archivists of the future will be intelligent machines because I wouldn’t wish my inbox or my folders on anyone. But an answer did come to me, because it turns out that over ten or more years, I have unknowingly become a collector – of co-operative badges.

Having sorted my desk, emptied my bags, checked my pockets and dusted down my lapels, I have pulled together fifty seven badges from the UK and around the world that I have picked up over time. Here is the story of my ten plus years in the form of my ten favourite beautiful co-op badges…

  1. This badge was one I brought with me to Co-operatives UK when I arrived in Manchester in the Autumn of 2009. I had been one of the team that started the Fairtrade Mark, many years before (another story and one that I retold in an article for Co-op News). Early on, I liaised with the fair trade community and did the calculations to show that seventy five per cent of all fair trade at the time was from producer co-operatives.
  1. I wanted us to free up our thinking. Let’s see the word co-operative not just as a thing – a noun – but as who we can be – an adjective. This badge was produced by Co-operatives UK for the first Co-operatives Fortnight in 2010, an idea suggested by Chris Herries, a period designed to allow for promotion of the co-operative model over two weeks running up to the International Day of Cooperatives on the first Saturday in July.
  1. Co-operatives United was a programme of events in Manchester to mark the close of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012. Over ten thousand people took part in a series of events, including the formal Co-operative Congress of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). When I spoke, to give me confidence, I wore my dad’s socks. My highlight though was playing for an ICA football team against a youth side from the sports co-operative FC United of Manchester, at their ground. So co-operative, they allowed us eighteen players from all around the world to their eleven and gave us their goalkeeper, all of which contributed to a surprise 3-2 win for the ICA. I still have my ICA football shirt, donated by the Bulgarian Co-operative Union.
  1. I love a good rainbow, but it was noticeable to most people that the rainbow logo of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) adopted in 1925 suggested that we were a gay rights organisation. Fair enough, but there is more to co-ops too. Drawing on the earlier ideas of others, I proposed formally to the Board of the ICA that a new visual identity be developed, one that could work as a logo and as a brand that could be used by co-ops around the world. It was accepted and I oversaw the development and launch in 2013 of the International Co-operative Marque, with design by Calverts worker co-op and organisation behind the scenes by Nicola Huckerby.
  1. As an elected member of Cooperatives Europe, I had the privilege of visiting Finland a number of times and it is a country with an extraordinary co-operative reach. The saying is that the Americans had Rockefeller and Ford and Finland had the co-ops. This badge is a miniature replica of the SOK consumer co-op membership card, which is also a bank card, given to me by Professor Salme Näsi. I wrote about my first visit to Finland in 2014 in an article in the Guardian newspaper.
  1. In 2014, I visited the worker co-op SUMA, Europe’s largest equal pay employer, to give them the award of Co-operative of the Year. Along with me on the visit was the President of the Trades Union Congress, Mohammed Taj, and the General Secretary of the Bakers and Food Workers Union (BAFWU), Ronnie Draper. SUMA had had a branch of the union for thirty years and 80% of its members are union members. I swapped badges with Ronnie, so that he walked away with a co-op badge from Co-operatives UK.
  1. With co-ops, I have found you can only act fast if first you have talked slow. This is a badge I was given in 2014 to mark the formation of a new combined bilingual co-operative association in Canada. A lot of patient diplomacy went into the merger and it certainly helped to raise the national voice of the sector. I saw this when I visited for the annual Congress of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada in 2018, on Vancouver Island. [But as an aside, there is an eccentric side to all this diplomacy. The single most ridiculous conversation in the life of the co-operative movement has been whether or not to use a hyphen in the word cooperative (woops / haha – delete as appropriate). Note how the use or not of the hyphen in the word co-op on the badge is delicately sidestepped by the use of a maple leaf. How very, er… co-operative.]
  1. This is the logo of the Fair Tax Mark, an accreditation service for businesses on the challenge of tax transparency, formed as a society and backed first by co-operative societies that took up its offer. The initiative was championed by some inspiring people, including Richard Murphy, Paul Monaghan and the team at Ethical Consumer; at a time of austerity, tax was the number 1 public concern around business behaviour. In 2016, we did the research to show that the five largest UK co‑operatives paid 50% more corporate tax than Amazon, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Starbucks combined…
  1. I was given this by Hugo Cabrera in 2018 when I visited Grafica Campichuelo, his workers print co-operative. The visit was alongside the 2018 International Co-operative Alliance General Assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hugo’s story was one of a business that had been occupied by workers and turned around when the owners had tried to close it. It was an inspiring story and, as so often, one I recorded at the time as a blog post.
  1. I love the classic clover leaf design of the logo of The Co-op Group, following its rebrand. I joined The Co-op Group as a teenager and have been proud to stand alongside the business as it has moved forward after the crisis of 2014/15, with the shock demutualisation of the Co-operative Bank. When I attended their 2019 Annual General Meeting, they were celebrating five successive years of like-for-like growth in food sales under the leadership of Chief Executive Steve Murrells. The record of social and environmental action by The Co-op Group is as long as your arm. As with so many co-operatives that I encountered over my ten plus years, being owned by your members means that you act for them and for their communities rather for the enrichment of a small number of institutional investors.

I have collected 57 badges that are in a bag to go to Liz and her team for the Co-operative Heritage Archive in Manchester. I will take them up when travel allows.

May the co-operative practice of sharing ownership and profits ever flourish, until one day, it becomes the norm.

And then perhaps, we will need no more badges…

The origins of mutual aid

I have a letter in the national press today, my last in the name of Co-operatives UK, reflecting on the current flowering of mutual aid in communities across the UK.

Previous waves of self help and mutual aid led to the formation of institutions so many of which have endured to today and indeed have also played a positive role in meeting needs at a time of crisis. My underlying question is this:

what new institutions will come out of today’s tech-enabled and hyperlocal mutual aid?

Because I touch on the origins of mutual aid, I expand on this a little here, drawing on my book, free to download, A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality.

It is always a good idea to reread Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin, setting aside where his data and opinions are out of date. But the roots go back far further than the publication of this great work at the dawn of the twentieth century.

As a formal model of organisation, mutual aid arguably predates the modern formal private and charitable sectors by a thousand years.

Some of the earliest records of mutuality are from the Roman Empire. One of the practices was a variety of groups of artisans organised into ‘collegia’: formal membership associations. One authority, in the late Empire years, was St. Augustine of Hippo, the Algerian and Roman philosopher. He looked to set the ground rules for how mutual trade and exchange should operate, through the concept of a ‘just price’.

The term collegia (the root of the modern word ‘college’ of course) translates from Latin as ‘joined together’. Across the Roman Empire, collegia might be arts troupes or they might be groups of silverworkers, rag dealers or woodsmen. Some were burial societies, supporting members at a time of financial cost as well as religious and cultural significance. We know of associations from inscriptions, papyri and the writings of contemporaries in the Hellenistic period from the fifth century BCE. But the terms used, the members involved and the purposes set were extraordinarily varied – the number of different associations listed over the period stands at 2,500 on some counts and that is only the ones we know of today.[i]

We can paint an evocative picture of collegia through the example of one case study, a stone’s throw from the walls of Rome, the statutes of which are preserved in inscriptions. The Collegium of Aesculapius and Hygia was founded in around 153 AD by a wealthy Roman woman named Salvia Marcellina.[ii] She endowed a building on the Appian Way, to commemorate her late husband and this served as a dining club for its members, and a burial society. With member subscriptions and an endowment, the college lent money to its members, using the interest to pay its expenses. The college itself was limited to sixty members. It admitted new members only when it needed to replace those who had died. As a member, you were guaranteed a burial, including all of the costs associated with a smooth passage to the after life – funeral rites at home, burials outside of the city, with a procession from one to the other.

The college had a President, the officers were curatores, or ‘caretakers’ and the body of regular members was termed the populus, ‘the people’.[iii] Just as later co-operatives and mutuals would come to be known in many countries as ‘societies’, we can sense that the ways in which collegia like this were set up were intended to echo a view on how the wider world should be structured.

The Collegium of Aesculapius and Hygia and its ilk were self organising associations, concerned with equity among members but not necessarily or typically egalitarian – whether they were formed for banquets by groups of aristocrats or indeed burials by groups of slaves.[iv] The sceptical views of Pliny the Younger in his letters might have held for many. As he put it, nothing could possibly be more “distressingly inequitable” than unflinching equality for all.[v] Just as seats in the theatres in Rome were organised by rank (in Augustan times), so the collegia, whether based on trades or cults, whether with members of military veterans or diners and drinkers, tended to operate with levels of status and rank. Some boasted an elaborate array of punishments for transgressions.[vi]

Beyond this, it is hard to generalise about the nature of the collegia. The nineteenth century German scholar Theodor Mommsen focused on collegia as burial societies, asserting that they were one of the few civil society organisations allowed to operate in Roman cities under the Emperors. In truth, first, burials were never universal across collegia and second, the relationship with the state was never so simple. Yes, there were crackdowns at times on civil organisation; Julius Caesar issued the Lex Iulia, which appears to have included a prohibition on voluntary associations. Yet there was a loophole in the same law for those that were formally approved, longstanding or set up in the name of public service. Jonathan Scott Perry cautions that the evidence from inscribed documents is that Roman associations were widespread and unrestricted in practice.

Mutuals do not leave fossil bones with DNA that can lead us to construct an evolutionary tree or paint a picture of diets and daily life aeons ago. They leave references, rules and, in more modern times, plenty of minute books. That evidence trail may be stronger, for the last one thousand years, in Europe but that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that formal co-operation was strongest there or strong only there.

Other regions had their own experience of formal or informal mutuality. One that I admire was the Ahi (‘brotherhood’ or ‘generous, open-handed’) movement in Anatolia, modern Turkey was started in the thirteenth century by Pir Ahi Evran-e Veli.

Ahi Evran was a master leather craftsman and scholar, born in Iran in 1169, travelling west at a young age to escape invasion by the Mongols. His vision of mutual aid, that spread throughout the region and lasted for centuries, was not one of a single community or even a single town. He envisaged a world of guilds, workers connected together and operating in a context of ethics and faith that could enable peaceful collaboration across the economy and society.

Sometimes, we have to look back to be able to move forward.


[i] Kobel, E, Dining with John, Brill, 2011

[ii] Donahue, J, The Roman Community at Table During the Principate, University of Michigan Press, 2004

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Schumacher, L, Slaves in Roman Society, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

[v] Pliny, Ep, 9. 5. 3 cited in Peachin, M, Introduction, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

[vii] Perry, J, The Roman Collegia, Brill, 2006

[vi] Peachin, M, Introduction, in Peachin, M (ed), Social Relations in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2011

What is Pilotlight?

After three decades of working in a range of small but extraordinary non-profits, I am joining a social enterprise next month whose role is precisely to support those organisations. Its name is Pilotlight.

As CEO of the New Economics Foundation, I fell in love with the insight of ‘small is beautiful’ – a vital corrective to a mindset that big is best and so only growth matters. Instead you have to have the right scale for what you do; and for care and community, we should value the weave of small business and small charities.

As Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, I fell in love with the way that participation can unlock talent. Over time, the co-op sector has been an extraordinary business accelerator for learning and in particular for working class talent.

Pilotlight is a young charity that sells an innovative service to business, which is to help develop and fulfil their staff talent through programmes that set them to work to benefit leaders in the charity and social enterprise sector.

By matching the two, the charities benefit from outstanding support through carefully curated programmes starting from their needs and the businesses benefit from a widening of skills and a deepening of motivation for their staff team.

Those involved, the pilotlighters, become members of the organisation, building a community of purpose for social action.

Under the leadership of Gillian Murray, Pilotlight has broadened the programme and partnership offer around this innovative core. As the latest Impact Report sets out, one thousand charities and social enterprises have now benefited over time. Pilotlight has a rare and precious multiplier effect on civil society.

The context for the work of Pilotlight could not be more compelling. In the crisis of the pandemic, the social sector, as Andy Haldane has put it, has proved itself to be the “institutional immune system” at times of risk.

And yet, as the #nevermoreneeded, #SaveourSocEnts campaigns and the Small Charities Coalition have shown, the sector faces collapsing resources at precisely the same time as there are rocketing needs.

Pilotlight itself has continued its work, supporting forty two charities over the lockdown period.

The challenge ahead for the nation is whether we can learn from the best of what we have seen in the crisis, to build back better.

What we need is nothing less than an upgraded model of wealth creation in which we decide to:

1. value what sustains us in an era of complexity and multiple risk

2. affirm new forms of co-operation and partnership to nurture that and

3. step up action to limit our wider system risks around public health and the natural environment.

And what else?