Newcastle community workshop

Connecting to shift power: A new PACT for civil society

We’ve got to change the culture. I know people I’ve worked with who haven’t spoken out about abuse they know of because it feels like betrayal, like breaking ranks. We can’t continue like that if we’re going to be true to the values we say we have.

Mid-way through the inquiry into the future of civil society, international development organisations exploded into the news for the worst of reasons, as stories of sexual exploitation and abuse filled newspaper columns and airwaves.

If you work somewhere like Oxfam or Save the Children I can imagine you felt under siege as good work was eclipsed by negative headlines. And it isn’t the first time there’s been uncomfortable scrutiny of course – government aid spending, political neutrality, chief executive pay and aggressive fundraising practices have all been questioned.

The good news is, you’re not alone: international development has its own issues and challenges, but many of the same threads run through civil society more widely.

The bad news? It’s an uncomfortable time for all of us working for social change – but in that discomfort are essential seeds of how we can adapt and thrive in the future.

The voices of people across England

Through the Civil Society Futures inquiry we’ve heard from over 3000 people around England, in communities from the tip of Cornwall up to Tyneside, and from very many people at different levels in charities, NGOs and voluntary groups large and small.

The similarities in what they they all said are so striking.

In an age of digital, people increasingly expect power at the tap of a finger – but feel increasingly frustrated and unheard by local and national government and corporations, who seem remote and do not hear their concerns. Too often they feel the same way about large charities too.

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In an age of division – remainers and leavers, old and young, white and black, poor and rich, country and town and city – many people have an increasing sense of disconnection from each other. Too often they feel disconnected from parts of civil society too.

In an age of distrust of institutions, people are increasingly questioning the motives and authenticity of organisations in their lives, who appear more concerned about their brand and their bottom line than standing up for values that matter. Too often they say this about NGOs too.

Ouch. This is tough reading for all of us working hard to do good.

But if we stay with the discomfort, listen and try to learn, we can find our way forward from this. We can rediscover our enduring purpose: to connect people in order to shift power.

A new PACT for civil society

Bringing together the many ideas from people across civil society, we have proposed a new PACT for our shared future starting today and for the decade ahead:

  • Power: From villages in the global south to boards of trustees at home, let’s shift power and share more decision-making and control, being a model of inclusive participation, upending our hierarchical organisations when needed. It means openly tackling problems of power and gender, race and class that have persisted too long.
  • Accountability: Being primarily accountable to the people we serve instead of putting funders and government first – we have heard a number of people in international development who called for the sector to be bolder and more principled, setting the agenda rather than being led by donors. It includes being collectively accountable as a sector, never standing by when we see wrongdoing elsewhere.
  • Connection: Broadening and deepening connections with people and communities, bridging divides and collaborating better through a new “people-power grid” social infrastructure.
  • Trust: Trusting communities to make the decisions that affect them, as they are the best experts on their own lives. Earning trust by speaking up to politicians and corporations, never being cowed if it’s true to our principles, and not leaving other organisations to go it alone – speaking up in solidarity when others are attacked.

The quote at the beginning of this article is just one of the people we heard from in international development and it speaks to the core of what this is all about: deep, widespread, lasting culture shifts within civil society to respond to our fast changing world.

It won’t be easy, but it’s vital to deliver on our shared mission in the years ahead.