Grantmaking and Civil Society in the Age of Coronavirus

Grantmaking and Civil Society in the Age of Coronavirus

It was President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, who said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”  We cannot downplay the devastating impact of coronavirus on local communities. However, as we begin to transition from the emergency response to the pandemic and plan society’s long-term recovery, there does appear to be a window of opportunity to define a new form of social contract and radically rethink relationships between government and civil society.

Adversity is Breeding Ingenuity

Rocket Science has worked with several local authorities to review and advise on their relationship with their local VCS, including Camden, Harrow and, currently, RB Kensington and Chelsea and Hounslow.  Our work with Hounslow Council involved a wide-ranging review of its partnership with the local Voluntary and Community Sector which underpinned the subsequent Thriving Communities Strategy, 2019-23. The Council now sees the post-COVID Recovery as an opportunity to accelerate, if not extend, the Strategy’s ambition to change the authority’s relationship with the local community and put local voluntary and community organisations at the heart of its decision making and service delivery, working alongside local businesses, social enterprises, individual residents and partners.

We have recently worked with King’s College London as an evaluation partner for the pilot year of their Civic Challenge. The Challenge brought together teams of students, staff and local charities to work together to co-create solutions to some of the challenges faced by communities in Southwark, Lambeth and Westminster. Teams have competed for six awards of £5,000 to implement their designed initiatives.   


Post COVID – what constitutes Civil Society in the 2020s?

The scope of a post-COVID civil society might be gleaned from the Prime Minister’s recent request of Danny Kruger MP.  Before his recent election to Parliament, Kruger was an adviser to No.10 where he was instrumental in drafting the government’s wide-ranging Civil Society Strategy Building a Future that Works for Everyone. This argued that a modern civil society has five foundations – people, places, the social sector, public sector and business.  Kruger has now been asked to report by the end of July on proposals for a “better system for supporting our communities: more local, more entrepreneurial and more trusting.”

Rocket Science has worked with several independent funders who have been keen to review their role and remit.  Both Wimbledon Foundation and the Westminster Foundation have recently refocused their strategic objectives and funding priorities following a process of consultation and benchmarking. 


The importance of place

The growing interest in place-based giving is in part a reflection of the direction of public policy over the last two decades, which has seen successive governments committed to devolving power to the nations, regions and communities of the UK, recognising that in the words of the Civil Society Strategy “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.”  Rocket Science is working alongside the growing number of Place-based giving schemes in London. Pre-Covid they were tapping into a popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly fractured society; they could now be further boosted by the long-term effects of lockdown as people commute less and 

give more as a way of reaffirming that sense of place and belonging. 13 active schemes have provided much-needed support to places during the pandemic, from United in Hammersmith and Fulham’s dissemination of micro-grants to local organisations; the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation’s match-giving approach to fundraising, to Haringey Giving’s collaboration with local SMEs, and Camden Giving’s participatory grant-making.

We have also been working with the Young Westminster Foundation and with oneRichmond (a partnership between Richmond Parish Lands Charity and Hampton Fund) to conduct youth needs analyses in the City of Westminster and in the LB of Richmond respectively. These have involved consultations with a wide range of youth practitioners, alongside the recruitment and training of young peer researchers.  Peer-led research has enabled young people comfortably to explore issues such as mental health, physical health, crime and access to education or training and identify suitable support and services in these two seemingly affluent places.  We are currently working with both partners to update our findings given the added pressures created by Covid-19.

L&Q Foundation have been aware how smaller charities have been impacted by Covid-19 and have sought to ensure that funding remains available where it is needed. As the managers of the Foundation’s Placemakers Fund, Rocket Science have worked with L&Q to relax criteria around funding eligibility to allow smaller charities to apply for more. The priorities of the Fund have also  encompassed new areas of support which have become even more vital since Covid-19, such as supporting those suffering domestic abuse.  We have cut the time taken to process grant applications in half to enable grantees to respond more quickly to the challenges facing their clients.


The role and responsibility of business in civil society’s recovery

If business is one of the five foundations of a modern civil society, what should we expect it to contribute to the recovery?  Our work in assessing the local impact of Covid-19 on jobs and businesses at MSOA level is showing correlations of high risk both to businesses and communities, particularly in places which are reliant on micro-businesses.  We have also seen that services to support businesses and people are less likely to be accessible, highlighting gaps as well as opportunities for a hyper-local response to bring communities together in the recovery process.  Covid recovery represents a moment to work more intelligently with local employers, using the levers of government, like the Good Work Standard, to reframe our asks of business such as local job guarantees, or community pay-back schemes in the form of place-based giving of time or resources once businesses are back on their feet. 


For further information on Rocket Science’s grant-making services please contact: or to discuss our work with civil society organisations:

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders, a membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society.

The Review of Reviews Reviewed…

The Review of Reviews Reviewed…

The past is constantly being reviewed and reinterpreted through the lens of the present.  John Griffiths, the author of last year’s Review of Reviews looks back to see what we can still draw on from several pre-Covid strategies to inform our future planning for civil society’s recovery . . .

Recent weeks have seen our country’s history re-purposed as we search for lessons from historical precedent to explain our current predicament, selecting what moments to reference, or whom we choose to venerate or denigrate.  As the government’s borrowing surpassed levels last seen during the Second World War, the Prime Minister needed little prompting to resort to Churchillian war-time rhetoric, speaking of the virus as the “hidden enemy” and summoning the “Blitz spirit” to foster social unity and community action in the face of the pandemic. 

Whilst some question the appropriateness of these particular analogies, parallels with the social impact and legacy of the War are pertinent. Perversely, they also offer hope to those who see the 2020s, like the 1940s, as an opportunity to effect lasting and transformative social change.  

Referring to how the First World War hurried on the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky observed that “war is the locomotive of history.”  Another 20th Century Goliath, J.M. Keynes, argued similarly that it is “politically impossible for a capitalistic democracy to organise expenditure on the scale necessary to make the grand experiments [economic transformation] — except in war conditions.”  Indeed, recent histories of the last century provide considerable evidence that “the reduction in inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war [1].”   

It is these war-like conditions, brought on by our response to the coronavirus, which provide a window of opportunity to capture the zeitgeist, define a new form of social contract and rethink relationships between government, civil society and business.  And yet, as we begin to look for pointers and lessons from the pandemic, and find some succour from the community endeavour and social ingenuity born of the crisis, it is easy to overlook that many of the UK’s sociological failings had been laid bare well before Covid-19 shone an unflinching light on them.  

It would be a mistake, therefore, not to go back to some of the detailed pre-Covid analyses of c21st civil society, and of how we already needed to change.  As another blog in this series has reflected, the UK’s social evils and levels of inequality in particular, which were in plain sight before the pandemic, are now accelerating.  Whilst the Age of Coronavirus may prove to be the “tipping point,” confirming our commitment to resource and enable a healthy civil society, we could also tip the other way. The stakes have never been higher.

It is barely eighteen months since the wide-ranging Civil Society Futures’ Inquiry reported its findings. The underpinning research report, Civil Society in England: Its current state and future opportunity was far from alone in failing to foresee a global pandemic, but it still presented a daunting analysis of other forces shaping our future, ranging from the fracturing of society and irreversible environmental damage, to transformational political and economic restructuring; from growing personal precarity, to increasing geo-political uncertainty and rising nationalism.   

The Inquiry recommended a shared PACT, a set of principles for underpinning civil society’s future, which stemmed from its extensive consultations. The magnitude of the impact of Covid-19 may be such that we need to co-design “a different kind of conversation than the ones we have been involved in before.”  Nevertheless, as we potentially frame a new set of guiding principles for “building back better,” the PACT merits revisiting if only to learn whether we could indeed do better:

  • Power: significantly shifting power, sharing more decision-making and control, being a model for the rest of society and doing whatever is needed so that everyone can play a full part in the things which matter to them.
  • Accountability: holding each of us and our different organisations accountable first and foremost to the communities and people we exist to serve, changing our approach so that we become more accountable to each other and to future generations.
  • Connectedness: broadening and deepening connections with people and communities which is a key purpose of civil society and critical to healing a fractured society; bridging economic, social and geographic divides and investing in a new social infrastructure for civil society.
  • Trust: (re)building trust – what the Inquiry refers to as civil society’s “core currency” and foundation; earning this by staying true to our values, standing up for them and trusting others with vital decisions that affect them.

Four themes which connect the reviews also remain as relevant to our recovery from Covid-19 as to our healing of the UK’s entrenched social divisions, which Brexit initially exposed and the pandemic has now exacerbated:

1. Today’s adversity is breeding ingenuity, particularly in the form of individuals’ and communities’ social action; elective democracy’s apparent crisis may be participative democracy’s opportunity, yet this is not a zero-sum game. Ensuring a healthy future for civil society is both an individual and collective responsibility, not a requirement of others.  The Covid-19 mutual aid website records as many as 740 groups having formed within the M25 alone. Feedback from a GLA survey suggests groups’ memberships average around 400-450 with over a quarter defined as active.  Engaged and responsible citizens are the bedrock of a modern civil society; the 20th century may have marked the hegemony of state-funded support, the c21st “needs ‘people power’ more than ever [2].”

2. The parameters of what constitutes civil society in the third decade of the c21st are much broader than was thought previously. Neither defined by organisational form, nor as a specific “third” sector, but in terms of objective (what it is for) and control (who is in charge), a modern civil society “refers to all individuals and organisations, when undertaking activities with the primary purpose of delivering social value, independent of state control [3].”  The new Recovery Board for London, has a twin focus on the economic and social aspects of recovery. Our having agreed aspirations and expectations of the future role for civil society in this endeavour will be one way of ensuring that these strands of work do not become siloed or, worse still, operate at odds with one another.

3. The potency and importance of place in galvanizing social action, and as a focus for philanthropy (defined as the giving of “time, talent and treasure”). In part this reflects and complements the direction of public policy over the last two decades, which has seen successive governments committed to devolving power to the nations, regions and communities of the UK, recognising that “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them [4].”  Place-based giving schemes in London which, pre-Covid, seemed to be tapping into a popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly fractured society, could well be further boosted by the long-term effects of lockdown as people commute less and give more as a way of reaffirming their sense of place and belonging.  The 13 active schemes have provided much-needed support to places during the pandemic, from United in Hammersmith and Fulham’s dissemination of micro-grants to local organisations; the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation’s match-giving approach to fundraising, to Haringey Giving’s collaboration with local SMEs, and Camden Giving’s participatory grant-making.

4. Changed expectations of the role and responsibilities of the business community – coming from both inside and outside companies – were interpreted by the reviews as indicative of how boundaries between the private, public and voluntary sectors have become increasingly porous; how so many of today’s social challenges demand not just partnership working, but cross-sector solutions. There is an entire section of the government’s Civil Society Strategy devoted to the private sector, one of five foundations deemed necessary to build (back) thriving communities.  However, Centre for London’s extensive survey of giving in the capital cautioned that while London’s businesses give around £330m per annum – about 6 per cent of the total across the capital – corporate philanthropy is not having the impact it could, as employers fail to apply the rigour they bring to their business to their charitable activities.  Centre for London called for a “whole city” approach to “giving more, giving better and giving together” – based on a shared understanding of the capital’s philanthropic priorities.  

Two years previously, just prior to the last Mayoral Election, London’s Fairness Commission argued for “the start of a new philanthropic age . . . an exemplary social philanthropic effort at a city level to focus on the challenges facing London’s poorest citizens.”  Four years on, as we try to recover from the biggest disruption to civil society since the War, the time is surely now for London’s leaders to crystallize that “Peabody Moment.” 

[1] Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) p.20;  See also: Peter Clarke The Locomotive of War: Money, Empire, Power and Guilt (2017).

[2] This statement from the Cabinet Office’s Civil Society Strategy (2018) has echoes in New Local Government Network’s (2019) thesis expounding the “community paradigm” of empowering and resourcing communities to create a non-hierarchical culture of cross-sector collaboration.

[3] Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone, 2018, p.19

[4] Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone, 2018, p.20

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders, a membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society.

A 2020 Vision of Civil Society

A 2020 Vision of Civil Society

To coincide with London Funders’ publication of our Review of Reviews, Rocket Science’s London Director, John Griffiths, reflects on what Brexit really means for UK civil society and some implications for its funders . . .

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

These words of the metaphysical poet and one-time Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, have never had more portent as we prepare to leave the European Union. What on the morning of 24th June 2016 might have seemed a knee-jerk act of political protest, has exposed deep-seated socio-economic divisions throughout the land, as well as between the capital city and the rest of the country. Recent analyses of the implications for the UK of the Brexit vote show that this is not a time for London’s “splendid isolation.”

The UK’s decision to leave the EU proved to be the cue for a lengthy bout of self-analysis and enquiry. The last two years have seen an outpouring of reports looking at different aspects of the condition and future of Britain. They explore the changes required to our democracy, education and economy in order to confront the biggest challenges facing the country today of which inequality, the focus of a new 5-year inquiry by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, is consistently identified as the greatest.

What is absent from these assessments is any significant contradiction to the narrative of an irrevocably shrunken state unable to cope with rising demographic pressures and social demand. The contract which underpinned the welfare state for over 70 years – ie that in exchange for taxation and personal responsibility government will provide for its citizens “from cradle to grave” – appears broken. In their search for an alternative system, the reviews do share a certain optimism that a far more inclusive civil society, one no longer synonymous with a “third sector” but also embracing business, is key to our achieving a new form of lasting social settlement.   

Another recurring theme of these analyses is the growing significance of place as the focus for policy making and social innovation in communities. Following more than two decades of devolution and localism, the government’s Civil Society Strategy (2018) gives substance to the belief that “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.”

This is a policy trend which is likely to strengthen following our eventual exit from the EU, once government defines its idea of “double devolution” and certain powers and funds are repatriated. Several high-profile foundations, as well as the tellingly re-named National Lottery Community Fund, are already taking a more place-based approach to their funding in order to stimulate social action, coordinate investment and unlock local assets. They seem to be tapping into the  popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly atomised society, one in which people look to place as a way of reaffirming their identity and a sense of belonging.

Understanding the current zeitgeist, of which the process of Brexit is more a symptom than a cause, offers some pointers to funders’ future priorities. In what is an increasingly fractured country, there are two fissures which stand out.  


One is the growth in both income and wealth inequality between the richest and the poorest in our society, indicators which are particularly pronounced within London. The other is the increasing divide between capital and country.

Debates about the future sustainability and fairness of London have tended to focus on the striking narrative of “a tale of two cities.” This can hide the degree to which there is also a widening schism between London and the rest of the country. Analysis of the geographical differences in the result of the 2016 EU referendum, for example, has identified the mounting resentment about the capital’s preferential policy treatment, the disproportionate levels of public spending and its growing levels of individual and corporate wealth. Differences in personal wealth, and hence individuals’ life chances, between the capital and the rest of the UK are the biggest of any country in Europe.  As the Social Mobility Commission has pointed out, children going to school in Westminster and receiving free school meals are five times more likely to go to university and then on to good jobs in London, than children elsewhere in the country.

In the so-called “post-truth era,” a time of increasingly shrill political discourse and “fake news,” local and regional funder forums – neutral space where funders share ideas and forge collaborations, supported by increasingly available data on sources of place-based giving – are increasingly essential. Funder collaborations are an opportunity to project the more inclusive image of a modern civil society.  The reviews’ largely optimistic outlook, that civil society has a vital role to play in finding solutions to the challenges ahead, does not gloss over the more hard-hitting assertion that “civil society will not be able to do this without changing itself.” This is meant to be a joint, inclusive effort; civil society’s creativity and synergy come from the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors working together with a shared interest in a common purpose and common wealth.  However, when it is convenient to do so, it is all too easy to revert to traditional thinking, equating the term “civil society” with the “third sector,” a discreet area outside the state and the commercial market, which can reinforce a sense of competition, difference and otherness. 

An important corollary of forums like London Funders’ providing a safe space for collaboration, is that their members appreciate the opportunity and value of being challenged. These reviews’ widening of the parameters of a modern civil society, to include business when it acts for a social purpose, means that a forum’s membership needs to reflect the cross-sectoral nature, the range of place-based and community interests, and the sheer diversity of civil society.

The risk is that narrow or unrepresentative membership creates an echo chamber, with insufficient capacity or courage to address fully the challenges set out, for example, by Julia Unwin’s Inquiry, which envisions civil society thriving only as result of our collective willingness to redefine difficult concepts of Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust. 

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders, a membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society.

Strange Bedfellows? BIDs and Civil Society

Strange Bedfellows? BIDs and Civil Society

The recent second annual Summit of London’s Business Improvement Districts convened by London First and the GLA revealed that BIDs and Civil Society organisations are more likely bedfellows than you may think . . .

The government’s civil society strategy, published in August of last year, argues that there are five foundations necessary to build thriving communities – the social sector; the public sector; people; places and business. The changing expectation of the role of business in civil society is indicative of how boundaries between the private, public and voluntary sectors are becoming increasingly porous, and how many of today’s social challenges demand not just partnership working, but cross-sector solutions.  As their name implies, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) fuse two of the fundamental elements of civil society by engaging businesses in places.

The increasing significance of place as a focus of social programmes and economic policy provided the backdrop to the London BIDs’ summit held at City Hall last month.  One round table discussion on civil society and BIDs explored their potential:  

  • as agents of community development and social integration alongside their place-shaping roles;
  • as brokers of business engagement in their local community (by connecting with local voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises);
  • as sources of place-based investment (through grants, volunteering – including pro bono expertise – as well as support in kind);
  • as partners with other stakeholders in developing place-based programmes and local initiatives.

A recent report for the Greater London Authority, Harnessing the Capital’s Giving – what is the role of the Mayor and the GLA in enabling civic philanthropy? also highlights the importance of place as a focus for local giving (of money and time) and the role of business as partners in London’s civil society.  The report refers to the work of the sixty BIDs in the capital, several of which provide proxy Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) programmes for members to channel resources and employee-volunteering into their local area, as well as to the Place-based Giving models which are a growing feature of London boroughs’ civil society infrastructure, and which a number of BIDs are also now partnering.  

Harnessing the Capital’s Giving argues that the Mayor’s “good growth” agenda is likely to elicit more sustained investment and “social value” than occasional charitable contributions from businesses’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes.  The Mayor’s introduction of the Good Work Standard alongside his commitment to responsible procurement provides tools to back the kind of “purpose-led businesses” identified in the Civil Society Strategy.  “Inclusive growth” is also the overarching theme of the proposed London Industrial Strategy which aims to ensure “all of London’s places, people and communities can contribute to and benefit from the city’s growth.”

Do BIDs have a role in the changing infrastructure which supports London’s civil society?

  • Unsurprisingly, London’s BIDs have varied levels and types of interaction and involvement with civil society in their different localities; this tends to reflect the characteristics of each place, the different profile of the business community and level of resources available to each BID. Most recognise the role that BIDs have as partners in local civil society, and as conduits between businesses and the community;
  • In outer London BIDs, this tends to be more traditional volunteering – eg providing reading partners in schools; donating to foodbanks; employee team-days supporting the local community.
  • Some of the larger, inner London BIDs have developed potentially higher-impact initiatives, including 3 year-long partnering of businesses with local voluntary organisations (Bankside); tackling rough sleeping (Heart of London); creating an age-friendly business district (Angel) etc.
  • BIDs in many areas are “closer to the ground” than the local authority; as such they can be invaluable sources of data and intelligence. This enables them to raise awareness of local needs and signpost businesses which are interested in tackling community priorities e.g. SE1 BIDs working with Southwark and Lambeth collectively on local employment initiatives (recruitment; retention and “good work” practices) and the accessibility of affordable space for charitable organisations and community groups.
  • Ongoing devolution and localism (e.g. in the form of Neighbourhood Plans) and the “reinvention” of many high streets may see civil society issues rising further up BID agendas in future eg promoting meanwhile uses/pop ups and social enterprises; community representation on BID boards/ governance; re-imagining the town centre as a cultural/community nexus.

 Challenges to overcome if BIDs are to be reliable partners of a modern civil society

 Making the case – many businesses view the BID levy as part of their community investment/CSR, so asking for additional contributions to the local community needs to have a clear justification and purpose.

  • BIDs would welcome greater clarity on relevant (local) policy priorities along with frameworks and clear metrics to help define and measure community investment so that it is both more strategic, and garners as much impact as possible.
  • “Good growth” can sound a bit “motherhood and apple pie.” BIDs’ members need a clear sense of what this means at a local level; that the market/local economy works for the common good and not just exclusive sectional interests.
  • A corollary of further devolution and place-based responses to social needs could see more representation of businesses in local democratic structures, including area committees/ neighbourhood forums if not local authorities themselves.
  • The localisation of business rates potentially creates a conflict for local authorities in meeting the twin aims of maximising the tax take from local commerce, whilst also nurturing local civil society organisations.

 Whether London’s BIDs interpret their place-shaping role to include investing in local civil society is rather a moot point.  Once the business community in an area votes to establish a BID, it is almost guaranteed to remain a permanent fixture; very few BIDs are disestablished or lose their electoral mandate.  BIDs are relatively “new kids on the municipal block,” and are growing rapidly in number; it remains largely up to community partners to make the case for harnessing their potential as enablers of local civil society.

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and the co-author of The Evolution of London’s BIDs (2016)

Ten years on from Invisible Islington…

Ten years on from Invisible Islington…

Ten years ago marked the publication of a ground-breaking piece of ethno-graphic research which continues to impact on our work and that of our many clients and partners today.  The Cripplegate Foundation commissioned Rocket Science to shine a light on the poverty in one seemingly affluent inner-London borough and to explore the factors that make it so entrenched – ill health, debt, isolation and lack of opportunity – and to re-think the actions needed to tackle it.  Our aim was to go beyond the headline statistics and allow local people to tell their stories about the impact of grinding poverty on their everyday lives.

The report Invisible Islington, which is still available on the Cripplegate Foundation website, is credited by its Director, Kristina Glenn, for transforming the way the Foundation works and establishing Islington Giving.  It changed Rocket Science too, positioning us as a reputable voice on the changing nature of London’s civil society.  Anyone reading the Rocket Science advent calendar, a record of our diverse range of consultative work, research publications and grants’ management from 2018, or who attended our pre-Christmas networking for clients (and former colleagues) from across London’s public, private, social sectors, will see how the company operates at the cross-sectoral interface which is helping redefine civil society and forge a new social settlement for the c21st.   

A spate of reviews looking at the future of civil society – not least the government’s Civil Society Strategy and the reports of the Julia Unwin Commission’s Civil Society Futures (plus our own work in different boroughs; on London’s giving; on the potential of civic philanthropy), all published in 2018, suggests that once the small matter of Brexit is decided, there is a wealth of ideas, opportunities and challenges to act upon. 

Ahead of convening its Big Network Day at City Hall next month, London Funders have commissioned us to undertake a “review of the reviews” – a combination of literature review and think piece. This is an opportunity to reflect on the big social challenges of today and how a modern civil society can create the kind of partnerships necessary to realise London’s full potential; creating the social value which stems from the kinds of civic agency, participatory democracy, cooperative practices and forms of self-determination showcased in Civil Society Futures is something which Rocket Science has been researching and enabling for well over a decade.


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From: Civil Society in England – Its current state and future opportunity