This work was made possible by a grant from the Charities Aid Foundation

Charities drive the nation’s sense of purpose

The hundreds of thousands of charities, community organisations and faith groups that make up Britain’s civil society play a unique role in supporting national wellbeing. They combine the agility and responsiveness of the private sector with the purpose and passion of the public sector. Freed from the short-term pressures of shareholder meetings and opinion polls, they can also provide a focus on long-term and often difficult structural change that is in short supply in much of the UK’s political and business discourse.

Moreover, charities hold a unique position of trust among those who feel isolated and marginalised. They provide a route back in for those who struggle to put their trust in the state or feel disconnected from public services, and they have the patience and persistence required to meet the toughest of challenges.

By drawing in staff and volunteers from the communities they work with, charitable organisations are also often uniquely able to respond to the needs of the groups they serve. They understand hyper-localised context but can make connections across geographies and across institutions. They are highly practised at joining the dots between services, helping to make multi-agency approaches work and finding alternatives when they don’t.

As the world becomes more complex, so the importance of ensuring civil society is woven tightly into the nation’s social and economic fabric grows. Figure 1 shows that more than a third (36%) of people think that charities are best-placed to understand the issues affecting people in the UK today, more than five times the number of people who think the government is best-placed. 

Overall, almost six in 10 (59%) adults in the UK think that government should listen more to charities when thinking about the long-term challenges facing the country (with just 5% saying it should listen less). Yet political focus appears to have headed in the opposite direction in recent years. Sensible people will disagree about the specific merits or otherwise of the New Labour ‘Compact’ and David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, but both at least represented serious attempts to provide a strategic and ambitious vision for the role of the charity sector in securing a better Britain. No such vision currently exists.

Against this backdrop, and as set out by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, it is time for a reset of the relationship between government and the charity sector. Today’s summit provides an opportunity to explore what such a reset might look like under a future Labour government.

In particular, it offers a chance to consider how  the charity sector can work alongside the public and private sectors to help to understand, shape and drive delivery of some of the Labour Party’s key ‘missions’ for reforming Britain. The targets set out by Labour across the domains of economic growth, health, crime, opportunity and climate are highly ambitious and will only be achievable if the different parts of society pull in the same direction. That has to include the charity sector and the thousands of organisations and individuals within it that undertake ambitious mission-led work every day of the year. 

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