Civil Society Approach


As the largest grant funder of community activity across the UK, we have a unique role and responsibility in working towards a thriving and transformed civil society that is equipped and supported to understand, adapt, and respond to the future.

Through our funding, community relationships, data and insights we can be a catalyst in both supporting and shaping the sector. This is the purpose of our Civil Society Approach.

Uncertainty and rapid change are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. There is concern that we’ve been ‘storing up trouble’ and that there is a new wave of people going into crisis. There are also communities who feel more connected and stronger than before - emboldened to take on whatever challenges are ahead. There is no one story to how people and communities have experienced the crisis, or a linear or singular narrative about what future is ahead of us.

Organisations, including The National Lottery Community Fund, will need to be able to respond and flex to emerging needs and opportunities - continually re-prioritising and adapting to a changing context.

Our Strategic Framework sets out our purpose and goals and goal 3 is the context for this work. We support communities, and the organisations that work with them to develop appropriate skills, assets and capacity to achieve their ambitions, and we actively participate in shaping the future of civil society.

Over the coming months, we will be doing a combination of things to reflect that this is both a marathon and a sprint for all of us: we will offer immediate, practical support when we are clear about what is needed; and we will host open enquiries where with communities and wider civil society, we can sense, feel and iterate our way towards the future together. These open enquiries will explore where there is less certainty or more to discover and help hold the space for the in-betweenness.

The open enquiries

An introduction to the open enquiries is in this blog post. For each of these open enquiries, we want to build a shared, evolving view with communities, civil society and the wider sector. To take part in any of the open enquiries, or to receive news and insights from them, register here.

Thriving and powerful Communities

In 2018, we spoke of how powerful communities are those built and renewed by the people who live in them and are enabled to make the change they want to see. The need for this approach - and one where communities are actively creating power as opposed to being the passive recipients of it--has come to the forefront of public consciousness over the summer, driven by the inequalities exposed through coronavirus, and Black Lives Matter, prompting a deep and soul searching examination of the inequality this reproduces.

We’ve advanced a lot of this work, with the Leaders with Lived Experience Programme is in its second year, and 8 different experiments in Participatory Grantmaking underway across the Fund. We have also learnt from long term strategic investments supporting particular communities such as early years, young people, older people – helping us to see across the spectrum, but we want to explore further questions too. Questions we are exploring include -

  • How might we support more communities to have access to the networks, resources, data, skills, relationships, etc. to keep going in the long crisis.
  • How might we initiate Community-scale ‘Missions’ that build collective action towards recovery and renewal in communities.
  • How might we support communities to access the data and knowledge they need to be able to shape policy, especially in an area like how technology impacts on communities and wider civil society.
  • How might we support communities to have greater ownership or stewardship of community assets? From social infrastructure, to land, and digital and data infrastructure?
  • How might we support communities to have greater ownership over the economic development of their area?
  • How might resources be used to strengthen ideas of “Us” “We” “Together” “Interdependence” and in an ecology, the things we all commonly need and rely on?

Active adaptation and resilience

At the National Lottery Community Fund we are often in the position of a first responder, able to adapt and respond to the changing needs of our grant recipients, as they adapt and respond to the communities they serve. This will need to be done through a mix of sensemaking capability, agile and responsive strategic planning, as part of a wider ecosystem.

We should not underestimate the scale of the change that may be required: many organisations are finding that the size and shape of services are already needing to change dramatically, and in some cases entire missions may no longer be relevant.

Our role will be to support communities and wider civil society to rethink these services imaginatively and help our grantees rethink themselves - to distinguish between reproduction and reinvention. Questions we are exploring include -

  • How can we support and resource communities and civil society organisations to build adaptive capacity? And what does ‘good’ look like?
  • How might we design funding and support to accommodate this kind of continual adaptation?
  • How might we ensure that adaptation activity is geared towards progress and transformation, not just plaster sticking?
  • How might we design an Institute for Reorienting that supports communities and civil society organisations to transition?
  • How might we support organisations to merge, reduce their role, or close down, as they go through adaptive cycles of rethinking and renewing?
  • How does governance work in an age where everything needs to be adaptive? Shifting to real-time, community-led policy iteration?
  • What can we learn from the insights coming out of the Radically Better Org Development work that The National Lottery Community Fund has resourced alongside Lloyd’s Bank Foundation?

Coping in a long crisis

It is increasingly clear that this is not a crisis that will be overcome quickly. There are multiple layers of direct and indirect impact, many of which have yet to become clear. Nor is this just one crisis. The global pandemic provokes many crises lived in different ways by different people, sometimes with several being experienced at once. There isn't a beginning, middle or end. If we are lucky we will start to see deep adaptation and responses appropriate to the level of change required.

Continuous uncertainty is very likely the ongoing reality for a growing number of people across the UK. We know from our work with communities experiencing poverty that this has a deep psychological toll, and one that will be experienced both as individuals and whole communities.

We will have to learn to cope with uncertainty ourselves. Being open to uncertainty isn’t something we’ve been trained to do. As grant makers, we will need to learn to hold multiple worldviews in our minds at once. Only then we will be able to properly support the communities we work with. Questions we are exploring include -

  • How might we support communities and civil society organisations to prepare for what lies ahead in the long crisis?
  • How might we support organisations and communities to face loss? And to design for it as a potential eventuality?
  • What kind of support and timeframes do communities and civil society organisations need to absorb the reality of the changes they’ve needed to make?
  • If the prospect of getting back to ‘normal’ feels like it will be a relief, how might we hold open the space for longer-term change?
  • How might we design support that recognises the different experiences people and communities have had in the pandemic, and how they’re making sense of it?
  • How might we honour the collective trauma that is being held in communities?

The everyday infrastructure we need now

Our social infrastructure - the institutions, the connections, the common materials, the assets we share and draw on - is brittle. Too often it comes down to individuals or small teams burning themselves out by working against a system that is struggling to support them. We have the opportunity to renew and modernise the social infrastructure of the UK and we should grasp that with both hands.

This is the connective tissue of the country: the institutions and gathering places, and the people--from youth workers to librarians, and all those working on informal and ‘below the radar’ social projects--who bring people together and enable the common life of a community.

What is missing from our current social infrastructure? And what infrastructure can we reimagine for a better future? This means thinking about not only places, amenities and resources, but technologies, cultures of decision making and social action too. The role of social action is to complement this expertise and infrastructure with a more spontaneous, ‘organic’ and adaptive resource, which now needs to be more deliberately organised to level up the communities of the UK.

We need to broaden and modernise our view of what constitutes social infrastructure so that we are not missing valuable tools that will help us come through this crisis and respond to the next one. Questions we are exploring include -

  • Where did the infrastructure we have serve us, and where was it missing?
  • How might we better understand what infrastructure communities need locally, whether it exists and if they have access to it?
  • Is there an ‘optimum’ local infrastructure that best supports the sector and/or communities to thrive? And how is this affected by socioeconomic factors?
  • What do powerful communities need from digital spaces — not just in terms of the culture of the spaces, but in terms of the public goods they provide?
  • What is the new social infrastructure needed in a digital society?
  • How might we redesign or reconfigure social infrastructure so that it is more care-ful and distributed?
  • What kinds of social infrastructure will help sustain community spirit in the long crisis

Equipping communities to anticipate, imagine and shape the future

‘The future’ is too often the preserve of the privileged. It is hard to access ideas of next month, let alone next year when you are living shift-to-shift and meal-to-meal. And yet, a failure to engage a broad enough spectrum of people in dreaming up new futures makes them less likely to be realised. Firstly, they will be wrong and secondly, they will not have the backing of people critical to bringing them to life.

Agency over one’s future is an equity issue. There have been leaps forward in recent years in efforts to engage in future scoping and shaping at a community level. An emergent field of participatory futures is helping facilitate discussions about community hopes, fears and dreams so that big decisions and trade-offs are made with the people they affect. These approaches can harness collective imagination towards futures that no single individual might have thought possible.

Whether as individuals, communities or organisations, when we hold assumptions about the future that are unquestioned, we amass blind spots. These not only limit our ability to react to negative changes, blind spots can lessen our ability to anticipate and exploit opportunities.

All of us need to realise our power and responsibility over the future. Our underlying structural capacities and incentives are deeply coded to advance short-term thinking and decision-making. This fundamental societal deficit in future-oriented thinking, permeates our psychological, cultural, technological, legal, financial and political infrastructures — amplifying a bias towards the present.

It takes effort to focus on the future, especially with the immediate demands of a crisis at the door, but the ability to do so, and do so as a diverse community or collective will dramatically improve the futures we are heading into. Questions we are exploring include -

  • How might we set up more experiments in communities to build the capacity for community foresight, social imagination and community intelligence?
  • How might we support and resource communities to be able to diagnose change over the long-term, draw out knowledge and ideas about how the future could be, so as to create community-led policy?
  • How might we develop a sense of collective agency in communities to determine and build towards their own futures, that in turn helps grow social cohesion?
  • How might we use the process of participating in social imagination and foresight activity to facilitate the kinds of collective action that is necessary to tackle systemic challenges like climate change?
  • What institutions can act on this community foresight and make change happen?

“Pandemic preparedness is not a one-shot proposition. Neither, for that matter, is community resilience. Nor is the capacity for foresight more broadly. These things require habit. Collectively, they are cultural. Society critically needs an ongoing, collective, plural, high quality forward view. To be clear: current urgencies need urgent attention. In addition: we need to cultivate wiser, more farsighted and systemically-literate habits of mind, as individuals, as organisations, and yes, as whole societies; a distributed capacity that some of us call #socialforesight.” - Stuart Candy

Ecologies, Constellations and Ecosystems

It could be said that the National Lottery Community Fund is engaged in the activity of world building. Through the £600 Million we distribute every year, we open up new opportunities and support communities to realise their ambitions and dreams. The global pandemic has shown that the grantees we fund are not atomised actors. They are entwined in the ecosystems and constellations of community support that criss-cross through the UK. The long crisis has also created shared interests that didn’t exist before, and put people and communities, previously unknown to each other, in relationship with each other. Questions we are exploring include -

  • How might we design a ‘Community Ecology’, and ensure a better articulation of roles between individual citizens, civil society (including businesses) and the state (meaning public services, central and local government),so that community-led everything is the norm?
  • How might we most effectively support ecologies to thrive? Including how different individuals, groups, communities, organisations and infrastructure work out their roles in relation to each other?
  • How might we deepen an awareness of interdependency and use funding to tend to it - to design and invest in the interdependencies?
  • How might we support and incentivise more generous and mutually supportive leaders, communities, organisations and networks?
  • How might we inspire communities and civil society organisations to collaboratively, collectively learn, develop and adapt?
  • How can data and digital be used to incentivise collective behaviours and collective accountability? (data rarely represents a single person - shared data, open source, common digital infrastructure).

How to get involved

What questions would you like to explore? If you’d like to be involved in any of these enquiries, please register through this short form. We’d also be very grateful if you could share this blog post with anyone who might like to be part of this project.

Between now and the end of March 2021 we will be hosting weekly “Living Room” sessions - a space for people to interact with the enquiries on an ongoing basis, contribute to our emerging Civil Society Approach and get value back in the form of things to test & try in their communities and organisations. For each area of enquiry, we will also be setting up interviews, running workshops and hosting events and regularly publishing and sharing what we’re learning.

What else?

These are all big questions, and one’s that have been shaped by the communities and civil society organisations we’ve been in touch with during the last 6 months. We’ve also heard some very clear asks about more immediate needs which are also in development. These include working out the most effective ways for us to support organisations to adopt and use technology, offering grants that resource capacity to step back and work out what to do, and specific support towards recovering financial resilience. some clear asks and are addressing those in terms of our funding offers and existing support.

All 6 enquiries relate to and overlap with each other. They also sit alongside our open funding programmes, and our existing work on Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Community-led Climate Action, Community-led technology, Data and Organisational Development. Underpinning everything we do are our Fund-wide principles and Strategic Framework.