Throughout the past 6 months, over 1 million people mobilised themselves to support their communities during COVID-19. Shopping for those who were shielding, dropping off prescriptions, dog walking, plant swaps, casework for benefit challenges, setting up hardship funds, running, food banks, facilitating meal swaps and more. People organised themselves outside of local charity structures and outside of council budget lines. Enabled by tech, powered by people – they just did it.

When the riots hit London in 2011 and the mess of broken glass on the streets needed to be cleaned up, Twitter and self-organising meant that London could get up the next morning and go to work. People did the same thing when they saw the images of a dead refugee child washed up on a beach in 2017. Using Google Sheets, Twitter and a massive dose of self-organising, Help Refugees was born and was inside the Calais Jungle faster than any NGO. Citizen-led power is not an alien concept. It flows through our blood and through our communities, and it has done for centuries; it is the technology that is new. 

When I set up The Social Change Agency over 7 years ago, I did so because I could see that emerging on the horizon was a new way of mobilising and achieving change. After 8 years of running Policy and Campaigning departments for large NGO’s, I went on to spend 2 years researching tech and organising social finance and innovation around the world; this was initially done through my Clore Social Leadership fellowship, and again through the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship. I could see that innovative technologies were enabling social movements to mobilise quickly and challenge power more disruptively, but there was something more going on. As my reports Peering In and Shouting Down the House showed, the NGO sector was failing to harness the power of citizen-led change effectively, both to the detriment of their campaigning base and ability to effect change through democratic channels. The big databases of campaigners were now being mobilised by unconstituted groups aided by tech platforms such as change.org or 350.org.  

Even by 2015, organisations and institutions were still failing to grasp a change at this rate and scale. Social change was rapidly evolving, and while the desire to capture and bottle this energy from NGOs, governments and local authorities was strong, it had failed spectacularly.  

2020 appears to be in the same place. The traditional structures of governance, funding and commissioning that support change have not developed, nor has the new technology (big data, Internet of Things etc.) taken social justice at scale into account. People are still being forced to work in a particular fashion because the public and charitable sector’s infrastructure – created by decades of a particular approach to risk management – has failed to catch up with the realities of a distributed world supported by tech. 

This was evident in our 2018 report What makes an effective volunteer response in times of crisis?, commissioned by Paul Hamlyn Foundation. As we discovered, there was a distinctive lack of fiscal hosting and governance structures that were suitable for the collaborative and distributed leadership of movements that were growing at scale enabled by tech. In talking to the commissioners, funders, financial and governance institutions that were supporting citizen-led movements, we discovered a real sense of fear about losing control and a real resistance to the difficult work that social change requires for building movements. This is what inspired us to set up the Losing Control Network with Practical Governance and then our Accountable service.  

When I set up the Social Change Agency I wanted to provide a hub for social movements and networks that were living with that tension. Over the past 7 years, we have grown from just me to an amazing team of 15 who I am honoured to work with, along with a raft of collaborators, conspirators and more. We support, create and look after social movements and support organisations who are looking to do their social impact differently.

There is nothing like a conversation about who wants to be the chair to knock a perfectly functioning social movement off course.

Having spent years working on new forms of citizen-led power, we wanted to create an entirely new, innovative service which reflected the way people, communities, networks and movements approached change. Building on our previous work, we spent over a year of researching, prototyping and testing our ideas. When Covid-19 hit our communities we were already incubating our nesting programme. A tailored body of infrastructure support and fiscal hosting for social movements and networks who wanted to achieve social impact, but did not want or have the capacity to become a legal entity or open their own bank account. 

We took two significant steps during lockdown. The first was finding and scaling the incredible technologies that have changed the way fiscal hosting can be done for groups of people who are not legal entities. The Open Collective technology and the Lightning Aid platform technology has meant that up and down the country, we have been able to support over 150 Mutual Aid groups to get going quickly by providing them with fiscal hosting back office support for groups, not individuals. This meant in the face of a truly global emergency, there were no arguments about money, no one person being forced to take responsibility for keeping money in their bank account, or one person being responsible for ALL the decision making. It meant that we were able to support these new groups (often with many decisions being made in a collaborative way, reflective of the mutual approach they arose in). Because of this technology, our background in asset-based community development, campaigning, social innovation, finance and an entirely systemic approach to social change, we have been able to practically support the mutual aid phenomenon as it has risen and grown across the UK.  

The second big step we have taken is to establish The Social Change Nest CIC. We are determined to ensure that what social movements and networks have created, and what data they own, stays in their control and cannot be sold out from underneath them. An asset locked community interest company provides the best structure to do that. As a result, we have set one up and are now busy migrating movements and networks over to their new (temporary) home. 

Even more exciting is that we have created a new board of Directors, including 2 Directors and one Non-Exec Director from SCA who will be joined by two entirely new Non-Executive Directors – Dimitri Damman and Kishen Gajjar. Kishen and Dimitri are joining us from The Open Collective CIC and are bringing their Open Collective groups with them, expanding our reach and support to scores of environmental groups. 

Over the next few months, you will see all of the wonderful movements we nest from. Parents for the Future UK, Mutual Aid groups and many many more embedded into our nest and using our Accountable services. Here we will aim to support their leadership across movements, provide fiscal and back office support, governance, fundraising and organising support so that they can grow, spread their wings and fly.  

So what’s next? As we start to spin the service out into its new home, we will be looking at both how to build out The Social Change Nest as a hub for movements, and how to develop cohort-based movement building programmes. But we won’t stop there. We believe that practical, honest approaches to collaboration enable powerful social change. As the impact of COVID-19 continues to ravage our world, we will not stop supporting those who are trying to save it. We will continue to strive for the innovations, the technology, the energy and the people that will help.  

Please get in touch if this is you!

esther@thesocialchangeagency.org

Our report, Mutual Money: How innovation enabled community-led COVID-19 responses, is out now.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash