A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945


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Ian Holland. David Marquand. Ireland on the World Stage. William Crotty. Local Government in England. It was not always easy to teach these subjects, especially for posts Britain. Students were well aware of the major charities, NGOs and voluntary organisations, but the secondary literature remained limited.

In part, this was because the archives of such organisations had not been opened up to researchers, although a new generation of historians was waiting, clamouring to get in. The first thing we did, therefore, was to secure external funding to locate, describe and, in some cases, preserve the archives of groups such as Save the Children, Relate, Liberty and Amnesty. With further funding from the Leverhulme Trust we could set about mapping the sector since We wanted to demonstrate the significance of modern NGO, a phenomenon overlooked by other historians, and to trigger more research.

We began collecting data on over 60 NGOs, measuring their income, memberships, their presence in the media and their types of engagement with the public and the policy process. We made the raw data in this volume freely available online: www. We examined three sectors of NGO activity — environmentalism, humanitarian aid and development, and homelessness — to explore why the public has supported these new political actors, how influential they had been and what impact they have had on both mainstream politics and the ways in which ordinary citizens engage with the world.


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We found that there has been both a privatisation and a professionalization of politics in modern and contemporary Britain. As skilful navigators of the modern technocratic state, NGOs have developed expert knowledge about a range of issues in order to tackle the expertise employed by the state and the private sector. In so doing, they have changed the nature of grassroots activism.

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As affluent citizens have felt marginalised by the increasingly complex nature of many policy solutions, they have made the rational calculation to support NGOs, the professionalism and resources of which make them better able to tackle complex problems. Consequently, support rather than participation becomes the more appropriate way to describe the relationship of the public to NGOs.

As voter turnout has declined, membership and trust in NGOs has increased. But NGOs are very different types of organisations from the democratic institutions of political parties and the labour movement. They maintain different and varied relationships with the publics they seek to represent.

Attracting mass support has provided them with the resources and the legitimacy to speak to power on a wide range of issues, yet perhaps the ultimate beneficiaries of this new form of politics are the NGOs themselves. These processes are only set to continue. The development of digital technologies, online forms of protest and the new appeals to ordinary citizens facilitated by various and ever-evolving forms of social media, will ensure that NGOs remain key mobilisers of public opinion.

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This is a rapidly changing landscape that has seen the rise of new, less formal, protest groups, but NGOs too have proved adaptable to the new forms of giving: witness the ever increasing resources directed towards the humanitarian sector, for instance. The principal policy implications of these findings are threefold. Firstly, the evolving relationship between the public and politics is mediated in ever-changing ways by NGOs. As such, there has never been any fixed relationship between society and politics which is then open to manipulation and control.

In particular, any policy interventions based on set assumptions about the state of civil society or its ideal forms often fail as they lag behind the pace of change within the sector. Too often, such assumptions miss the countless other ways in which citizens seek out new methods to influence society.

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Evolution not stagnation is perhaps the key feature of democratic participation and any politician or utopian must always bear this in mind. Secondly, while NGOs have become key players in the policy process they do not offer an alternative to mainstream politics, nor have they unlocked the key to successful political intervention. While examples of NGO success in influencing legislation are legion and they can learn from the tactics of past campaigns, these lessons cannot that guarantee success in the future. Rather, NGOs and their supporters rely upon a toolbox to effect policy change, picking suitable instruments for each occasion.

If there is a constant factor in an effective campaign, it is hard work.

A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945 A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945
A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945

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