DCMS blog

A Civil Society for us all

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Dawn Austwick

Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund

Civil society is a golden thread that runs through our individual and collective lives. It binds us together, cares for those in need, enables passions and hobbies to be pursued, dreams to be fulfilled, and provides a platform for human contact. It is the allotment society, the village hall, the community centre, the food bank volunteers, the green gym. It is the Big Lunch, the RSPB, and the Children’s Society, the Campaign to End Loneliness, Uprising and the Terence Higgins Trust.

Show Racism the Red Card. Picture by Nick Treharne

This great tapestry of activity and talent is something we can be immensely proud of – other countries look on with admiration. It has evolved over centuries, changing focus and how it is organised as our society and country has changed. And here we are today, in a period of profound disruption and innovation – one perhaps that rivals the industrial revolution in its impact on people’s lives.

Putting people first

What is it then, that civil society uniquely brings? At its best it is driven by the sometimes unfashionable qualities of love, generosity, and kindness. And on occasion, let’s be honest, by anger and exclusion. That burning sense of mission, that motivation to go beyond what is called for, that deep knowledge, understanding and experience of how lives are lived and can change, that ability to draw together and to build bridges are some of what civil society can bring.

Stranraer Water Sports Association 

Stranraer Water Sports Association

Metrics, performance indicators, impact studies help to ensure effectiveness but they are a supporting cast that enable this main act to flourish. And that main act needs to start with human potential and to ensure that the people we are all here to serve are centre stage. Like the metrics, the rest of us are the supporting cast.

Place and belonging loom large as we ask what’s the point of civil society in the twenty first century? How can it best lead the social revolution to match the digital and technological one? What role do public and private sector play in doing good alongside civil society?

Treasure House 

Treasure House

The Civil Society Strategy will explore and make proposals about some of these questions, but these are also issues for civil society itself (through vehicles like Civil Society Futures) to answer and to forge future purpose and shape – and then ask how government and funders like the Big Lottery Fund can help. We’ve started our own journey to put People in the Lead in civil society– focussing on five areas where we think we can help: empowering communities, developing digital and data skills encouraging generous leadership, and building organisational and financial resilience.

Pictures from ‘Digital Buddies’ at an IT skills workshop and drop-in for anyone over 50, organised by ‘Here and Now’.

At its core civil society enables us all to live better lives – whether that’s about physical or mental well-being, about the place we live, or the cohesion of the communities we live in, or just plain having fun together. And sometimes it does just about all these things: just take a look at Knit for Peace. And if that’s not your cup of tea, there are thousands of others just waiting to tell their story.

Get involved

Have YOUR say in our Civil Society Strategy now!


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