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27 April 2020

The Strengthening Civil Society programme – our current and future funding priorities

David Sampson
The Foundation's Deputy Director sets out the next priorities for the Strengthening Civil Society programme which supports the use of the law by civil society to create social change.
Strengthening Civil Society

Over the last six months, the Foundation has undertaken a review of our strategy for the Strengthening Civil Society programme. Informed by an independent evaluation, we reflected on five years of support for the law as a tool of social change and considered the impact of our grantmaking. Our commitment and enthusiasm for this work remains undimmed and we are excited at the prospect of a further five years supporting this vital area of civil society activity.

Our approach to the next phase of the programme was agreed at a meeting of our trustees in March, just a few days before the lockdown for the coronavirus crisis began. Our long-term ambitions for the programme remain the same. However, we have been adapting our immediate plans to reflect the current emergency and the longer term impacts of the coronavirus. Our funding for 2020 will look very different as we seek to support grantees and broader civil society to respond to and weather the challenges ahead.

Here is the long-term plan. For opportunities in 2020, please keep an eye out in our newsletter and on our website shortly.

Supporting the use of the law and human rights based approaches by civil society 2020-2025

At the heart of our Strengthening Civil Society programme is a belief that legal action is a crucial tool in tackling discrimination and disadvantage and a determination to make this tool better understood and more accessible to civil society in the UK. In the first five years we have tested appetite for this approach and provided wide-ranging grants to understand models for this work.

We know that there is significant interest in how the law can contribute to social change and that it can deliver important outcomes for those facing discrimination and disadvantage. In the first phase of the programme, we have seen great examples of social change through legal action and exciting shifts in organisational strategy to incorporate use of the law. (Research by Hidden Depths highlights some great examples – see page 10 of the report)

Much of this success comes through the connection of expert legal organisations to civil society tackling discrimination and disadvantage through service provision, advocacy and campaigning. These hub legal organisations are crucial to the success of the programme and to ensuring a long term legacy for this work. Most civil society organisations will not undertake legal action as their core business. However, organisations focused on social change should consider how legal action could play a role in their work, be able to recognise a legal problem, and know where to turn for advice.

In the next five years, we will continue to grow capacity in the sector for collaborative legal action, invest further in successful models and seed fund new ways of working. We intend to award further grants for this work through annual open round grantmaking.

However, the operating context for this programme remains extremely challenging. Austerity, shrinking civil society space, Government hostility to judicial review and a toxic debate on human rights have all had a chilling effect on social change work by civil society. They represent ongoing – and developing – threats for the programme in its second phase. Promoting and protecting access to legal remedies and human rights protections will remain at the heart of the programme.

It is also important to acknowledge that legal action looks very different in the four nations of the UK and – in England – outside London. The nations’ strategic and development needs may continue to diverge during the second phase of the programme.

In this context, we will need to remain flexible and opportunistic. We propose to do this by focusing on three strategic pillars:

  • Access to public law – protecting and promoting access to public law remedies;
  • Geography – recognising and supporting strategies in different parts of the UK; and
  • Leadership – creating opportunities to develop collective leadership on legal action.

Importantly, none of this will be achievable or have a long term impact if we do not work in partnership. We remain incredibly grateful to our current funding partners the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Legal Education Foundation, who have provided wise counsel as well as much needed resource for this work.