minute read

Situational Analysis

How we got here

Image Credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

In 2016 we saw a dramatic shift in the UK leading up to and in the aftermath of the referendum on the EU.  How people saw the country, their neighbours and the world around them changed.  Writing about their 2016 Hope and Fear report, in their 2019 report HOPE not hate reflected “Our third report, in July 2016, was conducted just after Britain voted to leave the European Union and reflected a complete change in attitudes. Those who had been most angry in our February 2016 report, and who voted most heavily to leave the EU, were now the most content. Those who had been content, and who voted most heavily to remain, were now the most angry and resentful. Brexit had polarised Britain.”    

A few years later, things changed again. The Covid-19 pandemic shifted how people related to their locality. We saw a large surge in mutual aid groups right across the country and a renewed local community focus.  This shift was noted and documented by The Relationship Project who in their report The Moment We Noticed shared that “10 million people, 19% of the adult population, have been giving at least 3 hours a week to care for others outside of their family since the lockdown began.”  They identified that there was increased activity happening at a local and community level, and their work has subsequently identified that people really do want a connection to community and have a desire to work collaboratively and locally to solve problems.  

The impact of this polarisation and then the big shift of our attention to our local areas has been a large dip in the levels of trust many of us have in national politics and policymaking. The IPPR’s recent report Trust Issues: Dealing with distrust in politics really lays out the scale of the problem: almost two in three people see politicians as “merely out for themselves”, the lowest trust level on record. 

Credit: IPPR

Another thing that has shifted significantly in the last decade is the willingness of civil society to use elections as a moment to influence public policy debates.  If we think back to before the 2010 general election there was a range of tactics in play from a broad range of groups, organisations, and coalitions. Indeed, in a report published in late 2010 by the Third Sector Research Centre highlighted that the third sector had been given a voice during the general election debate and that had influenced all political parties' manifestos. Tactics organised civil society has used in the past have included:

  • Voter Registration drives (undertaken by Students’ Unions and groups like Operation Black Vote)
  • Local actions: targeting every PPC for participation in hustings, asking questions of canvassers on the doorstep and working to get arguments into local papers (undertaken by local charities and pressure groups, often organised via local churches, and through activities such as the Citizen’s UK Leaders Assemblies) 
  • National actions: generating media coverage, undertaking mass campaign actions and lobbying party influencers to shape manifestos (undertaken by large national charities and campaign groups. One example would be “Ask the Climate Question” which was an initiative run by a group of green and development organisations to arrange hustings on climate/environment across the country, and also “Development Day” which was coordinated by a number of INGOs and saw each party leader make an intervention on their commitment to international development on the same day)

Since then, a number of factors have combined to blunt the effectiveness of these tools and the appetite of campaigners to use them.  The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s latest campaigners survey, carried out at the end of 2021, highlighted a sense across the sector that attitudes towards campaigning have become more negative in the last year, with 79% of responders reflecting this, up from 63% in 2020.  In addition, 96% say they believe that there are threats to the freedom to organise, speak out and protest. The Lobbying Act and a suite of speeches and articles from people associated with the government and Charity Commission have had a chilling effect on campaigning and made boards and funders wary of any work that could be deemed ‘political’, even if it falls well within the charitable objects of organisations and the law.

These worries are misplaced. Work to build power in local communities is neither party political nor even inherently ‘progressive’.  The current government’s levelling up mission provides a clear opportunity to engage across the political spectrum on place-based concerns and we know that the issues that sit under the levelling up agenda are important to people up and down the UK.  This is clearly demonstrated in the Everyday Levelling Up report released in January 2022 by More in Common, in which they state “our conversations with voters have made clear that just as 2019 was a Brexit election, the next one will be squarely about levelling up: something made plain by the fact that seven in ten of the group of voters who most strongly switched to the Conservatives at the last election place levelling up as a top issue for deciding their vote at the next one.”  The report highlights that people are keen to see a decentralisation of power and for a range of decisions to be taken at a more local level.  Even if the government’s rhetoric around levelling up shifts in the future, we know that issues such as poor local transport, run-down local parks and stretched public services are all important to people.

We have also seen the resources invested in campaigning work shrink over the last decade. Forthcoming research from Jon Cracknell on behalf of the Civic Power Fund (see box) reveals a stark imbalance in the amounts spent delivering services and policy work versus the amount spent building power through organising and a huge concentration of money being spent in London rather than elsewhere. Anecdotally, we know that there are fewer Campaign Directors in the movement, for example, from where we were ten years ago, and this reduction in resourcing comes through in the Sheila McKechnie Foundation survey cited earlier.  A loss of capacity emerged as a top theme in their qualitative data and when contacted they were able to confirm that shrinking capacity was something that had come up in consecutive years and was an area that they will consider looking at in more detail in 2022.  

However, at a grassroots level there is much to be optimistic about.  We have seen a range of local action in communities supportive of refugees, for example, and organising around housing and renting rights are stronger than before - a report from NEON demonstrates the wide range of local grassroots groups and tenants’ unions involved in this work. We are also seeing a spike in engagement on climate change. In 2021 The Great Big Green Week was the UK’s largest ever event focused on climate and nature (see box), with over 5000 events taking place across the country, with over 45% of event organisers never having organised a climate event before and 40% of participants being new to taking actions on climate issues.  Despite disinvestment from this model of making change, there is boundless inspiration and impact to be found at the grassroots.

Now, therefore, is the right time to revisit previous decisions to disinvest from campaigning and organising and recommit to practices rooted in people power. Participating in this research has given a number of strategists and funders the chance to step back and take the long view about their practice over the last decade. They have identified that changemakers face a series of collective action problems:

  • While most changemakers recognise that the key to sustainable wins is building power, organising takes longer and is more expensive than using other tools, so each organisation is tempted to invest in services and policy influencing which promise tangible and quick returns (albeit diminishing ones)
  • Where local power building work is taking place, it’s often not aligned to a long-term national strategy to shift the policy climate (and not just the weather), because it isn’t happening in the places that have outsized political influence
  • We have a transmission mechanism problem, where some outstanding local work is not being telegraphed into the political system in a way or at a time that will win concessions from those with power

Reflections have been relatively consistent, whether they have been coming from funders or grantees, national strategists or local leaders, those who would consider themselves ‘insider’ influencers and those who take a more ‘outsider’ approach. From lots of different perspectives, increasingly changemakers are coming to the conclusion that the fastest route to sustained policy influence runs through showing and growing support in constituencies, and the most effective overall strategy is linking local organising and national influencing. Even better, this approach puts equity and justice at the core of our practice, because community organising depends upon bringing people together across lines of difference and centres the voices and perspectives of those who are currently furthest from power.

Organisers are certainly obsessed with winning; they also have a very clear understanding of what winning looks like. For many that we spoke to if a victory doesn’t …

  1. Win social change and policy change
  2. Build power and agency across diverse communities and
  3. Deliver 1 and 2 in a way that simultaneously centres equity and is depolarising by design …

then it isn’t really a victory.

So, this research is for people who want to win change on human rights and social justice but do so in a way that will stick. It looks at the current landscape for movement building, considers where power building is needed and maps where different forms of organising are currently happening. It provides donors, strategists and leaders with the tools to assess whether the current level of investment is enough, if it is pointed at the right suite of influencing tools and if it is going to the right places. It is not our intention to align everyone behind one set of objectives, one strategy or one plan, so we do not make a set of recommendations about what everyone ‘ought’ to do. Instead, we provide a series of tools that will allow everyone to identify trade-offs, make evidence-informed decisions and communicate to others in the movement what choices have been made and why. In this way, we hope to make a small contribution to the creation of a genuine movement mentality here in the UK and, in so doing, bend the arc of our history towards a future in which power is more fairly shared.   

Funding Justice, volume 1: social justice grant-making in the UK

In 2021, the Civic Power Fund commissioned Jon Cracknell from the Hour is Late to map where social justice grants go.

Initial findings from a review of 47 known social justice funders (c. 8% of foundation giving in the UK) show that:

  • Just 28% of social justice grantmaking goes towards work that addresses the root causes of injustice. This amounts to just 2.3% of all UK foundation giving.
  • A tiny proportion of social justice grantmaking is spent on community organising - around 0.3%. This amounts to 0.04% of all UK foundation giving. 
  • The research also revealed a heavy London, urban, and centralised bias. Three quarters of the social justice grants are focused on work carried out at the national level. The dominance of London is clear, with £137 of grants per 100 people. By contrast, many English regions receive tiny volumes of social justice grants, both in absolute terms and on a per capita basis.

Although many funders are having extremely important conversations about power and place, early signs suggest this isn't yet substantively impacting funding decisions.

There are many reasons as to why this is the case - and this research is deliberately published as a first draft to be analysed, dissected and improved in time for a second volume that also takes account of the impact of the pandemic. But it is an important reminder of the impact of funding preferences on the activities that are championed and pursued.