The pandemic helped us to see the value of co-operation

The idea that civil society should compete rather than co-operate has taken root over my lifetime.

Those who look at society through the lens of markets prefer a fragmented, competitive array of different charities, co-operatives and social enterprises, because having a choice can help direct resources to where they are most effective. In effect, this is the worldview of most charitable foundations, despite their philanthropic roots.

The drawback is the hidden costs of running a competitive system. As one charity CEO commented in the recent report by Pro Bono Economics, Unleashing the Power of Civil Society, “I think we’ve got 20 funding bids in at the moment, that’s taken hours and hours and hours of work, you may get one or two of those, if you’re lucky…and you have to go through the same things over and over and over again.”

Those who look at society through the lens of voluntarism again prefer to see a diverse and eclectic array of different entities and causes, because what matters most is what people are moved to take action on. The fragmentation of civil society is a symptom of the freedom of a society.

The drawback is that initiatives count more than impact, with cultures of governance – and regulation – that focus on safeguarding the entity above taking the right risks to advance the mission with others.

If we look at society through the lens of values, civil society emerges as more than an adjunct to markets and more than simply a channel for people to do good. Civil society is the way in which people can coalesce most effectively to advance the values that they hold – to build new constituencies for social justice and to challenge those in power to do the same.

With this lens, the key to success is effective co-operation.

When the pandemic hit, those leading the existing infrastructure networks for civil society set rivalry aside and came together, sharing information, providing peer support and taking up common points of advocacy. I joined early, in March 2020, then at Co-operatives UK, and rejoined when I started at Pilotlight in July 2020.

In the pandemic, we were all vulnerable, all in a new situation in which we needed to learn fast and peer relationships helped both in terms of well-being and in terms of knowledge sharing.

This collaborative network has developed far greater trust and co-operation across the voluntary sector through its work since then, including:

  • tackling the banking sector to improve the worsening service and access of charities to banking services
  • a peer review of organisations around their work and efforts to dismantle racism and widen diversity, equity and inclusion
  • engagement with emergency responses for communities under lockdown
  • persistent and intelligent advocacy, to promote cross-party support and win recognition for civil society, for example in the most recent schemes for support on energy bills for business

The ‘Never More Needed’ and ‘Right Now’ campaigns were among the first attempts to mobilise people across civil society in favour of civil society – something that was a remarkable gap before. NCVO and its devolved sisters act as a voice for the sector, ACEVO brings together its leaders, but perhaps because it wasn’t seen as needed – charities can rest on their laurels – no-one saw before that it was their role systematically to promote the value of the sector.

Co-operation thrives on momentum. If something is moving, people want to get on. If it is static, they fall off or step away. With generous inputs from organisations such as Directory for Social Change, and with a more open style of leadership at other key bodies, the momentum has grown, but without those involved seeking to create a formal organisation in its own right.

The result is the Civil Society Group.

This now has its own website, long after the collaboration started and the reason for setting it up is to allow for transparency, rather than to build a presence and brand. It is an informal collaborative and not a formal co-operative, because it looks to add weight to rather than displace those who are involved.

I have been proud to see values of co-operation that are cherished in the co-op sector flourish in the wider third sector. As Pilotlight we have contributed, with participation in the Strategic Oversight Group, building relationships and steering activity.

The full list of partners is an extraordinary one.

The three strategic goals of the Civil Society Group are to:

  • To use our collective power to influence the governments in all parts of the UK and to engage key stakeholders.
  • To promote and support programmes of beneficial change within the sector.
  • To maintain a mechanism for cooperation, communication, data collation and dissemination.

This is work in progress. As the co-op sector has long recognised, you need to recognise and invest in the skills of partnership and co-operation, rather than simply assume that people know how to do this. There is an emerging vocabulary around systems change and collective impact, but we have further to go to embed these as a core set of competences for hard-pressed non-profit leaders.

To do more for our world, rather than compete with each other or go it alone, we are choosing to organise. The pandemic helped us to see the value of co-operation.

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