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Communicating the Big Society

21 February 2011

CharityComms director Vicky Browning thinks the Government needs to engage charities with the "Big Society" 

David Cameron has said that the Big Society is his passion. Now passion for a cause or concept is something that charity folk know a little bit about, I believe. And communicating passion is something that charity communicators know quite a lot about.

My big problem with the Big Society is that despite all the noise and coverage, the coalition still hasn't done a good job of clarifying what the Big Society will mean in practice at the point of delivery; what the nuts and bolts of it will be. It's an amorphous idea that can be all things to all people, good and bad. The way it's been communicated to date has alienated as many members of the public as it has excited: at the moment, the Big Society is either a panacea or a bogeyman, depending on where you stand on the political spectrum.]

What you think 

We asked the CharityComms Twitterati what Big Society meant to their organisations. BellaGrrl said “a reduction in funding”. Lucy_McQuillin said she isn’t entirely clear on what it actually means, but felt it was possibly to do with volunteers and charities assisting with public services, which FirstTouchSGH echoed with a more cynical tone (“that we will be expected to step in further to cover NHS deficits”.) Annaspringbett was rather more positive about the concept: “Individuals, businesses, public sector, etc to take ownership of their community. To get out there and get their hands dirty”, while TheLandTrust summed up what many charities have been thinking: “What does it mean for our organisation? Nothing we haven’t been doing for ages anyway!”

If charities are expected to play a leading role in delivering the Big Society, then the government needs to do a better job of involving them and explaining how it will work in practice. Otherwise, it comes across as an austerity fig-leaf.

Getting charities on board 

If Big Society means "it's great when people help out in their communities", that's fairly pointless. If it means "public services should be taken over by a combination of private sector and voluntary groups" then it's a genuinely revolutionary concept that the Government needs to engage charities with.

And all of this is before charities even think about how they should be communicating the idea! Assuming the Government can offer clarity and get charities onside, it will be tapping into a group that are realistically the only ones that can turn the messages of the Big Society into positives.

Charities are great at engaging, persuading and effecting behavioural change. But they are great at it because they believe passionately in the causes they are communicating. Cameron says the Big Society is his passion, but unless he can convince the voluntary sector to feel the same way, he's missing out on a powerful partner that can help to make his vision a reality. And if we’re this far down the line with Cameron’s passion, and we still don’t even know what it is, I feel a bit sorry for Samantha.

Vicky Browning


Vicky became CEO of ACEVO, the charity and social leaders’ network, in January 2017, helping to empower our inspiring sector leaders to make the biggest difference they can to their beneficiaries, their organisation and to society. Vicky was previously CharityComms’ director for nearly seven years.