Braver, more inclusive and more accountable – the future of our civil society

We respond to the government consultation on the future of civil society. Our Chief Executive, Mark Norbury, introduces our vision for the future of social entrepreneurship and how the government can help.

The future, indeed the present, needs civil society to be much braver, more inclusive and more accountable.

That’s what we believe and what our social entrepreneurs are telling us. We listened to them in two sessions held with Social Enterprise UK and School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bradford and London. The government’s consultation on the future of civil society is an opportunity for us to share how we do that.

We know social entrepreneurs have something special to offer. This is beautifully illustrated by a recent business lunch where two of the UK’s leading wealth managers took copious notes on changing their investment and procurement practices based on meeting Mona of Harry Specters, Cemal of Change Please, two of UnLtd’s social entrepreneurs.

And yet we have not made the difference and built the understanding and trust we need to. Our society is still riddled with schism, inequality, abuse of power and funds – whether evidenced by Brexit, Windrush, or closer to the sector, safeguarding or fundraising scandals. We’ve just not been good enough or gone far enough. That is as true of UnLtd, the organisation I love and am proud to lead, as it is of any other part of the social economy.

We need to be bolder and imagine a better future.

In this future, a diverse community of leaders will be in charge – folks who have not had the traditional trappings of power and privilege. Models of shared ownership, mission-locked fast growth businesses, affordable and patient capital will be commonplace. It will be odd to consider wealth in monetary terms – connectedness, fairness, happiness will be woven in to our calculus and instruments on value. And we will consider what each of us can bring, not what we cannot (the deficit model is such a bizarre notion – how did it get so entrenched in public and social life?).

I do not know they ways we will bring this future about, but I do know that in preparing ourselves, foundations like UnLtd need to change dramatically. We need to ask different questions of ourselves – particularly whether, and how, we have used all of our assets (capital as well as revenue) to create a world where enterprising people are transforming our society for good. We need to do so well that we effectively put ourselves out of business.

This work can’t be done alone and here’s how we think government can help, reflected in our response to the Future of Civil Society Consultation:

1. Help remove barriers that prevent social entrepreneurs from scaling up

The social economy has made great strides in the last 20 years – whether it’s the Living Wage, the reach of Belu Water and Divine Chocolate, the fact that Oomph! Wellness now makes a million older people’s lives better (and longer). Social Enterprise UK’s Buy Social Corporate Challenge, the creation of Big Society Capital and dramatic increase in impact investing, or the tens of thousands of citizens now engaging in social entrepreneurship. All of these point to a growing and vibrant sector.

Social entrepreneur bringing happiness to people in care

But most social entrepreneurs face considerable barriers when it comes to growth. They could be helped by:

• Making the most out of opportunities for public sector procurement, including strengthening the Social Value Act.
• Incentivising/providing affordable patient capital alongside in-depth support for high impact, high growth social ventures (e.g. UnLtd Thrive accelerators).
• Establish social challenge-focused partnerships between government, business and civil society (e.g. Inclusive Economy Partnership Transitions to Work)

2. Put power in the hands of communities

All places and communities are rich in untapped potential and opportunity. We have found that social entrepreneurs working in their local community are powerful drivers of change, whether in Dudley or Morecambe. 

Colab Dudley, photography by Thom Bartley

We believe that these local people hold the key to regeneration and vitality of their places and communities. This cannot be imported or imposed.

The government should promote community or shared ownership and participatory approaches in place-based social change by encouraging local government and Local Economic Partnerships to engage with Locality, Co-ops UK and UnLtd’s Resilient Communities work with The Local Trust. This will grow local markets while fostering the connective tissue that is civil society.

3. Let’s make power and resources accountable in civil society organisations

We know the energy, ideas, and talent in social entrepreneurs, organisations and communities. Yet too often civil society is dominated by large foundations and charities, rather than the people they serve. A shift in democratic accountability and ownership is vital to business, government, civil society and citizens – and we should be leading the way, as the sector has since co-ops first began.

As an organisation UnLtd has backed 16,500 social entrepreneurs and ventures with funding and support. But decisions on who we back are made by a small group of (admittedly wonderful) volunteers and staff.

Let’s put our social entrepreneurs in charge. We’ve begun to do this in partnership with communities and organisations in Birmingham and Bristol in our Leaders with Lived Experience work with The Social Innovation Partnership, funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

Leaders with Lived Experience Dinner in Birmingham

4. Let’s change the system

UnLtd is great at supporting social entrepreneurs, but it can get better. One of the ways we can do this is by focusing on a specific social challenge, such as access to employment for disabled people, and harnessing the energy and potential of a group of social entrepreneurs to address different facets of that challenge.

Tang Hall Smart are a social venture

That sounds pretty exciting … but how much better to partner with Scope, a leading disability charity, the Dept of Work and Pensions, Kaleidoscope Investments (who back entrepreneurs with disabilities), and major employers such as Accenture and Unilever?

And if we do that, it cannot be UnLtd’s ambition which defines what happens. It cannot be any one of our ambitions. It has to be the ambition of disabled people who we collectively serve, figuring out how we each bring our people, skills, knowledge and funds to bear in service of something much bigger than ourselves.

We need to do much more of brave, inclusive, accountable systems work, and so does business and government. And if it’s going to work (it’s bloody complex and difficult after all…), we will need to recognise and value what we each bring. The best way to do this is to have the citizens we all serve in charge – in terms of ownership, design, governance and delivery. It’s their energy, skills and talent which are the future of civil society.

The full version of our response to the Future of Civil Society Consultation is available to download.

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