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Mar 2, 2023 | by Nancy Hey

Civic strength and a purposeful nation

Launched on 26th January 2023, Unleashing the power of civil society is the result of the two-year Law Family Commission to strengthen civil society and show its impact. 

Here, our Executive Director Nancy Hey discusses the report in the context of civil society as a hidden engine of a high wellbeing nation, and how the Centre supports the sector.

What is success as a nation?

For the UK to achieve its full potential in prosperity, sustainability and social progress, the private sector (business), public sector (government), and third sector (civil society) all need to be operating effectively together.

“All three of these sectors have distinct traits which are necessary to achieve this. All three have contributions to make which can improve the workings of the others. When all three are pulling in the same direction they create a powerful force.” – Lord Gus O’Donnell, Centre Patron, Chair of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society and Chair of Pro Bono Economics

A hidden engine of a high wellbeing nation

Civil society comprises volunteers, charities and community groups, schools and universities, advocacy groups, professional associations, faiths, and cultural institutions. 

The outcome of these activities and organisations is wellbeing through:

  • Advocating to improve our lives and our environment.
  • Bringing us together, building and bolstering our communities.
  • Providing services to those who need them.

The purpose of collective action in the public sector is to improve lives. We are all part of our collective Civic Life. It’s our shared purpose and a source of resilience, as evident during the pandemic.

We know that: 

  • Giving to charity is a core indicator of high wellbeing nations, with altruism and helping each other a key driver of our personal and collective wellbeing, rather than just the equally important absence of misery.
  • Having someone to rely on in times of trouble is the second biggest indicator of high wellbeing nations. This is something we do for each other, that organisations of all kinds step up to and where civil society, formally or otherwise, excels.
  • Volunteering is an effective workplace intervention that builds perennial organisational citizenship skills. The giving of professional expertise in and outside work improves wellbeing in working age and beyond. 
  • To sustain high performance, we need a combination of purpose, achievement, enjoyment and learning

Our Civil Society forms the backbone of our democracy as it builds our social capital. It’s important to care for it, value it and grow it.

How do we measure this growth?

Gross domestic product (GDP) is used as the main measure of policy success, in conjunction with Life Expectancy. GDP Is based on the value of goods and services produced during a given period. Both remain useful focuses for activity that improves lives, as they support the conditions that create health, jobs, knowledge, trust and the wider determinants of a healthy life and work. 

But they have limitations. Our existing economic and policy tools don’t let us value the things that we need them to. For example, GDP is silent on many of the things that we know matter and that are supported by civil society, such as the meaning and purpose of:

  • giving and volunteering
  • family and faith
  • shared interest and action

GDP is also silent on distribution, risk, resilience and sustainability of economic, natural, human and social resources. These capitals are the things that need to be actively built and maintained to underpin our future wellbeing.

Life expectancy, another proxy for societal progress, is also silent on the health and quality of life, and the joy within it.

Wellbeing outcomes have, historically, been overlooked, underestimated and underused. Civil society holds a lot of this evidence and this can be more widely shared in order to improve practice and understanding. 

Both funders and charities value evidence that describes how interventions are being delivered in practice and how they help to bring about changes for individuals and communities. Using a wellbeing lens offers an insightful way to show the core impact civil society makes. Such evaluation doesn’t require new questions or metrics. They already exist in the form of harmonised measures like the ONS4 (with guidance on how to use them) and Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scales. These evaluations can leave a legacy of learning. Using a wellbeing lens can also shift to a preventative approach and help re-focus on the positive. 

Through our evidence synthesis and knowledge mobilisation we give civil society learning a longer life and wider reach, building in-sector and cross-sector capacity. 

What is the Law Family Commission on Civil Society?

The Commission was created in 2020 by Pro Bono Economics, with the support of Andrew Law and the Law Family Charitable Foundation.

It operated on a fully collaborative, cross-sector, cross-party basis to:

  • Identify a vision for the role of civil society and its relationships with government and other sectors.
  • Provide evidence for meaningful change.
  • Lay out a plan with practical recommendations on how to create conditions for civil society to thrive and better fulfil its broad range of roles supporting economic and social wellbeing across the whole of the UK. 

In its final report, the Commission sets out tangible ideas for policymakers, companies, philanthropists and social sector organisations to tackle the systemic challenges. These include:

  • How we can generate an additional £5 billion a year in charitable giving.
  • How the sector’s infrastructure can be revolutionised for every community group and volunteer organisation to get the support they need to thrive.
  • How policy changes already underway as a result of the Commission’s work will lead to major changes in sector data.

The report calls for:

  • Strategic investment from funders in the social sector’s productivity, the data available to and about the sector, and the changes needed to unlock philanthropy.
  • Partnership between civil society and business.
  • A “reset” of the relationship between civil society and government.
  • Empowering local neighbourhoods to regenerate pride in place.

What we are doing in this area

Our mission is to develop and share robust, accessible and useful evidence that governments, businesses, communities and people use to improve wellbeing across the UK. 

To give UK citizens the information they need, we are increasing the accessibility of wellbeing data. To do this, we are building our and others’ analysis capability through making our own methods visible and transparent, and by making data quicker, easier and cheaper to use.

“We can put out data to the public and they can therefore hold us to account in various ways,” – Lord Gus O’Donnell, Centre Patron, Chair of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society and Chair of Pro Bono Economics

Examples of how we’ve brought together wellbeing evaluations from the civil sector to understand what works and highlight evidence gaps include: 

To help put evidence into practice we partner directly with Pro Bono Economics on:

  • Green Book training sessions for economists. The offering includes introductory one-hour sessions and half-day economist training to increase awareness of the guidance and confidence and capability to use it. Future plans include the potential to create a digital toolkit. 
  • Guidance on wellbeing evaluations, for example in the recently updated short guide for assessing wellbeing impacts in the charity sector

Upcoming projects continuing this work include:


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