• Law Family Commission on Civil Society publishes final report focused on Northern Ireland
  • Landmark report calls for greater collaboration between the 3 sectors
  • Commission says public, private and social sectors need to be ‘firing on all cylinders’ if Northern Ireland’s economy is to recover and grow
  • Report highlights 5 key areas identified by Commission research as vital
  • Proposals include call for ‘Philanthropy Champion’ in Northern Ireland to help unlock up to £31mn extra for charities each year

A groundbreaking two-year commission exploring the potential of civil society in the UK has called for bold action on the sector by Northern Irish government, businesses and funders to help fuel much-needed national recovery and growth.

The Law Family Commission on Civil Society, chaired by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell, has proposed a range of policy recommendations and initiatives aimed at unleashing the full potential of the charity sector over the next decade - as the UK grapples with the social and economic consequences of the Covid pandemic and the current cost of living crisis.

The Commission has outlined a raft of proposals focused on boosting collaboration between businesses, policymakers and civil society in Northern Ireland. The report concludes that economic growth and social progress in Northern Ireland is dependent on all three sectors – public, private and social – “firing on all cylinders and working effectively together”.

Among its various findings, the Commission concluded that there is room to significantly boost philanthropy in Northern Ireland and across the UK. The Commission found that if the Northern Irish public gave a similar share of their wealth to charity as the public in New Zealand or Canada, it would provide another £31 million a year for charities in Northern Ireland.

Reflecting on two years of research, the Commission’s final report focused on Northern Ireland, titled Unleashing the power of civil society in Northern Ireland, notes: “It is clear that civil society is integral to achieving both economic and social progress, and it already makes enormous contributions to both. But it is also evident that it could achieve even more.”

The Commission sets out a total of 20 recommendations, aimed at realising the full potential of the sector, around five key themes:

  • Building productivity and organisational effectiveness
    The Commission recommends a “radical shift” in approach from funders away from short-term and restrictive funding and towards support for core costs and investment in people, processes and organisational development. Among this set of initiatives is a recommendation to create a new Civil Society Evidence Organisation (CSEVO) to improve the availability and spread of evidence across the sector. This could be a Northern Irish organisation, or a UK body carefully designed to ensure it serves Northern Ireland effectively, according to the Commission.
  • Creating timely, accessible data and robust evidence about the sector
    The Commission calls on the Northern Ireland government, when it is restored, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, trusts and foundations, and charities to come together to develop a data strategy for the social sector. It also calls for the UK government to expand existing data labs, ensure social sector organisations in Northern Ireland can access them, invest in more of them, and deliver the promised civil society satellite account.

  • Improving the scale, distribution and impact of funding for the sector
    As part of efforts to unlock the full potential of charitable giving, the Commission recommends a restored Northern Ireland government appoint a full-time public official as its “Philanthropy Champion”, along with local philanthropy champions tasked with drawing funding into deprived areas, including through approaches such as match-funding schemes. It is also calling on the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to require financial advisors to receive training on philanthropy and impact investing, as part of its ESG and Consumer Duty responsibilities.

  • Bringing businesses and civil society together
    The Commission makes four recommendations aimed at fostering greater collaboration between business and the charity sector. The Commission stresses the need for “deep and genuine partnerships between charities and businesses” but says that too often relationships between the two sectors are “not sufficiently widespread” and “do not operate optimally for either side". It is calling for a restored Northern Ireland government to work with the UK government’s Department for Business and Trade (DBT) to reinstate the requirement for businesses to report their contributions to charities and civil society.

  • Strengthening relationships with policymakers
    The Commission calls on a restored Northern Ireland government to review the membership of formal advisory structures and ensure appropriate civil society representation. Policymakers and charities in Northern Ireland are also urged to work together to drive up volunteering by policymakers and create more opportunities for both policymakers and social sector workers to undertake secondments in other sectors.

Lord Gus O’Donnell, Chair of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society (LFCCS), said:

“Charities are a key part of the solution to every challenge faced in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK. Whether it is making communities safer, greener, healthier, more prosperous or more equal, charities must be at the decision-making table and operating at their optimum level if we are truly to achieve the change we need.

“As both the cost of living crisis and the pandemic have shown, charities and community groups make the difference between people eating or missing meals, being heard or left voiceless, and feeling alone or well-supported.

“The charity sector has grown to employ almost 54,000 people in Northern Ireland, but it faces real challenges in meeting the demands that are now placed upon it. There are fewer people giving regularly to charity, including the growing pool of highest earners who are earning more but giving less. Formal volunteering has stagnated. And the way that the funding system for charities works has left holes in charitable provision in some of the places that need it most, as well as disincentivising investment in skills, digital and the infrastructure that allows charities to have the greatest possible impact with the limited resources that they possess.

“The Law Family Commission on Civil Society is now calling on funders and government in Northern Ireland, when it is restored, and the UK to invest strategically in the productivity of the charity sector, the data available to and about it, and in the changes needed to unlock greater giving. Alongside this investment, there must be a dramatic acceleration in the partnership between civil society and business and a reset of the relationship between civil society and government. With this investment, acceleration and partnership, civil society’s full potential can be unleashed.”

Read the full report