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Systematic change needed to enable sector to reach its potential, report finds

Systematic change needed to enable sector to reach its potential, report finds

People’s community spirit has showed signs of waning during the second lockdown while systematic change is needed if charities are to reach their potential, research has found.

The report, Civil Action, published today by Pro Bono Economics to mark the start of the new two-year Law Family Commission on Civil Society, shows strong public support for the work of charities, particularly for their role in helping the vulnerable in society. However, it also suggests that there is significant room for improvement in the way the UK’s social sector works.

The polling, conducted by YouGov, shows that 84% of people in the UK believe charities play an important role in society today, with 50% of British adults saying charities and community groups played a very important role supporting society during the pandemic.

However, while the research suggests 18 million people in England helped friends or neighbours with tasks like shopping and dog walking during the first lockdown, according to Pro Bono Economics estimates, 6 million fewer people in England have volunteered or supported their neighbours during the second lockdown, with only 26% of people having done so since the start of October.

The report indicates that people are also concerned that the social sector which provides the infrastructure for community action is not fulfilling its potential either. 57% of British adults believe that charities are understaffed, while 35% say they think charities are wasteful and 31% that there are too many charities in the UK.

The report argues that if charities are to fully achieve their potential, and to harness the community spirit that Britons showed was possible through the first lockdown, systemic change is needed. 40% of British people think Britain would be a better place if charities and community groups had more involvement in decision making at a national level, while 42% agree having additional support from government would help charities achieve more.

The report identifies three core problems that are stopping charities, community groups and wider civil society from fulfilling their potential:

  • Civil society is undervalued and overlooked. The value that the public places on charities isn’t reflected in the numbers that drive decisions in our country, with official figures under-estimating the value of charities by £160 billion.
  • Civil society is too often viewed in isolation, or simply ignored altogether. Civil society is often absent from discussions about the future of Britain, in Westminster, in business circles and in the news. Civil society is mentioned around 5 times fewer than the private sector in political party manifestos, while charity CEOs make up just 1% of BBC Question Time panellists.
  • There is a mismatch between the supply of money, time and effort delivered through the social sector and the demand that exists for support. The way civil society is structured sometimes means it fails to provide for those who need it most.

The new two-year Law Family Commission on Civil Society aims to tackle these challenges. 

Former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell and Commission Chair said:

“At the start of this crisis the nation’s spirits were lifted by the multiple acts of kindness we saw. But that spirit is rapidly ebbing away. The Prime Minister realises this which is why he ordered the Kruger review. The public and charities are equally aware of time running out. The spending review spelt out how the economy and public services are expected to evolve but said little about the role of the civic sector. If we are to build back better and level up we need urgently to unleash the full potential of this vital sector.”

Pro Bono Economics CEO Matt Whittaker said:

“The public clearly think that the nation’s charities and community groups are a force for good. But there is a sense too that they might do even more. Covid has highlighted the benefits, but also the difficulties, of matching the efforts of volunteers, philanthropists and charity teams to the significant and varying demand for support that exists across the country. Directing the potential of civil society in the right direction is an enormous task, which requires the energy not just of charities and community groups, but of business and all parts of government too. The good news is, getting this right and fully involving civil society in plans around building back better and levelling up has the potential to unleash a powerful force for renewal.”

Melanie May is a journalist and copywriter specialising in writing both for and about the charity and marketing services sectors since 2001. She can be reached via

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