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Civil Society Strategy: ACF responds to consultation

In February, an engagement exercise opened to inform the government’s civil society strategy for England, led by the Office for Civil Society (OCS). ACF has engaged with members and with OCS and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport over the last few months, for example by contributing to workshops on specific issues, writing to the Minister, and submitting a written response. Below we set out some of the key points we made calling on government to take action and committing to working with government to implement changes.  

Read our full response here. 

Charitable trusts and foundations have always been, and will continue to be, at the heart of civil society. They are ideally placed to take a long term view and respond creatively to change and emergent need, preserving social good when it is under threat and catalysing it where it is absent. In the context of what has been described as a ‘shrinking space’ for civil society, many foundations are looking again at aspects of their practice; seeking to amplify the voices of those they support, provide platforms for them to be heard, and put pressure on decision-makers to listen and respond.  

Key points made in our response

  • Government should recognise and draw upon foundations' expertise, knowledge of, and longevity of support for civil society when developing and delivering policy and legislation;
  • Government should champion the role of civil society, and be proud of its own contribution to it;
  • Government funding of civil society should move away from contracts, and towards grants as the most enabling, flexible and efficient form of financial support;
  • Government at all levels can play a key role as both funder and enabler of civil society infrastructure and good governance; and
  • Government should not seek to constrain, resist or prevent advocacy, campaigning or opposition, but see this as an essential part of a healthy democratic society.

How can government help to increase the impact of civil society?

Collaboration is essential to ensure government is informed by a breadth of people affected by its actions. Government should ensure that civil society is adequately resourced to enable it to be its very best, and fund it in a way that is fair and proportionate, wherever possible through the flexibility of grants, and not in a way that is harmful and exclusionary. It should champion the contribution it makes to civil society as well as the value of civil society's contribution to its own work. It should serve as a convener between civil society and potential contributors to it, such as connecting charities with business and public services, and consult with civil society on policy and legislative plans. It should encourage philanthropy through promoting the value and impact of giving, by creating an enabling regulatory and tax environment.

How can civil society be supported to have a stronger role in shaping government policy now and/or in the future?

Government should not seek to constrain, resist or prevent advocacy, campaigning or opposition, but see this as an essential part of a healthy democratic society. Foundations can play a key role in ensuring that advocacy and campaigning activity is resourced, independent and expressive. As policy and practice is increasingly devolved to regional and local entities, civil society has to adjust its positioning accordingly. The localism agenda makes the need for infrastructure support all the more essential – to ensure a joining-up of national and local, sectors, silos, issues, communities and places. Government at all levels can play a key role as both funder and enabler of civil society infrastructure.

Defining ‘Civil Society’

The organisations and people who comprise civil society are distinctly those who aim to create public good as their primary objective, and use any surplus income to further this aim. They are values and mission-led, not aiming to create private wealth or profit. It is essential that funding intended for the voluntary sector and civil society remains solely accessible by not-for-profit entities.

Funding, new investment models and encouraging philanthropy

Civil society requires a broad and diverse funding ecosystem in order to thrive. Grants are the principal way that foundations support civil society, and the amount awarded is rising every year. At £6.5 billion per year foundation grant-making is equal to 43% of total government spending on the voluntary sector. This independent funding enables foundations to back causes that may otherwise struggle to gain attention, offer long-term support, work independently of short-term political cycles, respond creatively to immediate need, and find long-term solutions. Many foundations also offer support that is non-monetary (‘funding plus’), such as training, consultancy, support aimed at developing skills of grantees, convening, networking or brokerage.

By contrast, there has been a sharp decline in government grants, particularly affecting small and medium sized charities. A far higher proportion of government funding for civil society (81%) is delivered through contracts, which have often proved more costly, overly restrictive in activities, unresponsive to changing circumstances, and frequently excluding all except the largest charities.

Government is often an important contributor to promoting and participating in social investment. A minority of foundations are increasingly engaging with social investment as a way of supporting civil society with financing that requires a return (as opposed to a grant that is in effect a nil-return gift with conditions). Like intentional investing, social investment is a way for foundations to utilise their endowments (rather than their grant funds) more deliberately in line with their mission.

Government has an important role to play in developing a regulatory and tax system that encourages philanthropy and helps it to thrive. When introducing new financial policies and practices, government should consult with foundations, which are ideally placed to comment and anticipate pitfalls and unintended consequences.

We look forward to working with the government to realise a strong, adequately resourced, independent, inclusive and diverse civil society. ACF would be pleased to facilitate discussions between our members and government to inform the development of the strategy.

For more information about this response please contact Max Rutherford, Head of Policy, on max@acf.org.uk

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