How are the UK and US addressing the third sector’s next challenges, and where they are failing?

In the old-fashioned Continental Europe, nonprofit professionals and researchers are arguing about two organizational approaches: 1) David Cameron’s strategy to relaunch the third sector, and to get people and communities involved in the provision of their own services (the so-called Big Society), and 2) U.S. organizations’ efforts—with the patronage of The White House Council on Community Solutions—to broaden the vision of local philanthropy toward large-scale impact, resolve the mismatch between the complexity of social problems and philanthropy’s focus on individual grantees (collective impact).

In the last twenty years, almost all Western countries have started to privatize services—to provide services through partnerships with the nonprofit sector, and to devolve functions to local agencies and community institutions (public, private, or nonprofit). Big Society and collective impact carry this trend to the next level, marking governments’ large-scale withdrawal from the direct delivery of human services in favor of broader social action and civil participation. The Big Society strategy highlights the importance of volunteering and local decision-making in responding to community needs through the provision of services previously delivered by the state. The collective impact initiative seems to point out that even the government can’t scale the best practices devised locally by the third sector, encouraging greater involvement of philanthropy in what has been considered, until now, a public prerogative. Before collective impact, in fact, it was strategic philanthropy’s task to test and incubate projects that could serve as models of good practice for policy makers. From there, government could scale up successful projects. Collective impact seems to charge philanthropy with both stages of development, in effect, changing its role from agent of social innovation to large-scale social change maker.

Both strategies favor a bottom-up approach: Gather, enhance, and institutionalize grassroots practices to achieve bigger results—both in size and impact. In a certain way, Big Society and collective impact bridge the gap “from a Welfare state to a Welfare society,” where governments that can’t directly provide human services favor civic society initiatives to meet people’s needs.

The Big Society has met mixed reviews in the UK: Some see it as a breakthrough approach to addressing emerging social issues effectively and cooperatively (as in this article from The Times); others—the majority—see it as a government “trick” to move public attention away from the social services funding cuts. Why?

David Cameron and his office have presented the Big Society as a revolution, an effort promoted and supported by the government to change the status quo and enhance social participation. In the Big Society agenda: “Our planning reforms [will give the] power to the neighborhoods to decide the future of their area” and “Our public service reforms will enable charities [and] social enterprise… to offer people high quality services.” Also: “We encourage and enable people to play a more active part in society.” These words convey radical change, but there’s nothing new here. Big Society principles such as citizen power and responsibility, community engagement, and third sector leadership and support have been in practice for years. (One good example is the nonprofit organization In Control.)

The Big Society isn’t a call for people to get more involved; it’s an acknowledgment of practices that already exist. It’s an attempt to give volunteerism and public service more voice and space in the face of public spending cuts.

Meanwhile, collective impact is designed to help cross-sector leaders develop and improve collaborative initiatives to solve specific social problems. Even if there are no restrictions around who can promote a collective impact initiative, its main target seems to be philanthropic institutions. Foundations’ relationships with different public and civil society actors, their human and economic assets, and their recognized leadership make them well-suited to sparking collective impact initiatives.

The primary goal of collective impact is not to scale effective grassroots initiatives; it’s to bring different participants together on the same social problem, providing them with a tool set (common agenda, shared measurement, dedicated staff, etc.) for solving it. However, “to scale” seems to be the first and most important aspect of this strategy, which is meant “to create large scale social change.” It’s also a means of developing public policy reform.

But if the role of philanthropy in this new framework for social change is clear, what about government’s role? Last February, President Obama’s newly appointed White House Council for Community Solutions held its first meeting and discussed collective impact as one of the promising means to fulfill its goals. The mission of the council states that, “President Obama is calling on every one of us to work together to build healthy communities and to share the creative approaches already at work.” Here, we can see a reference to the Big Society (“is calling on every one”) and an acknowledgement of what every one is already doing (“already at work”). The council’s website takes the latter concept further on its website: “All across America, individuals and community groups are finding solutions to local problems. [Therefore] the Council will focus on developing ways to enlist more Americans and leaders across sectors to help catalyze change in communities and make progress on our nation’s biggest goals in education, youth development, and employment”. The White House Council for Community Solutions brings the Big Society strategy to the next level, giving it a people-centered rather than state-centered perspective. But it seems to me that the government still hasn’t figured out its role in that game; its priorities have been led by collective impact, which doesn’t outline any specific functions for state.

So if on one hand the Big Society has been driven by too-pervasive state intervention, on the other hand, collective impact doesn’t give the U.S. government a defined role. However, both initiatives rely on civil society to lead public reform—an idea that could be considered strange in other contexts, such as in China, but that seems a forced pathway for Western countries. The question is: Can these kinds of approaches drive public reform or do we need other breakthrough public policies to significantly improve education, healthcare, and social services? Time will tell, and in the U.S. we can watch these two strategies in action: a policy with strong elements of discontinuity for developing a new healthcare system and a civil society-led approach for advancing education reform.