The role of charities in the Democratic Society system

How the three domains of a democratic society system interplay and how the charity sector can choose to have an impact on society.

If we want to understand where charities fit into our contemporary democratic society, now and in the near future, we need a means of seeing them in relation to other parts of the system of our society. 

The domains of our democratic society

The Democratic Society system can be thought of as having three ‘domains’, the State, the Market, and Civil society. 

The State domain is the central governing function for society. It creates operating rules through regulations and laws. It’s important not to confuse state-run services such as the NHS, or particularly political parties, or government institutions with the State.

The Market domain can be thought of as somewhat synonymous with the economy. Its operating rules are those we associate with business and the economy, such as competition, supply and demand, and wealth distribution.

The Civil domain is concerned with communities. Its operating rules include a sense of belonging, shared aims, beliefs and values. The WHO defines Civil society as “the space for collective action around shared interests, purposes and values, generally distinct from government and commercial for-profit actors. Civil society includes charities, development NGOs, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups”. Again, we don’t want to confuse how a single organisation operates within the Civil domain with how the Civil domain operates. And we should accept that any organisation, charities included, will be subject to the operating rules from all three domains.

If it seems that ‘the individual’ is conspicuously missing from these domains of society then that is correct. Whilst society can be defined as a group of individuals with persistent social interactions, an individual isn’t capable of initiating operating rules separate from the three domains at sufficient scale to impact on the checks and balances of the wider society system. An individual can make choices about following laws, buying from businesses, and contributing to a community, but they can’t make their own rules for society to operate by. 

All three domains interact, often in achieving the same things, but there isn’t a clear boundary between the responsibilities of each domain, all are responsible for the functioning of society. The difference between them is in how they work. The state might favour regulations as a means of exercising some level of (but never absolute) control, whereas the market uses competition mechanisms. The nature of this society as a network means that all others can be affected by all other parts of the system.

It’s hard to find a meaningful way to compare the three domains. Should it be by how much they spend, how many people work in them? There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to compare them, but suffice to say that the State and the Market dwarf Civil society by any measure.

Why do we need all three domains with their three different operating modes? To create an interplay between them, to create imbalance and address imbalance created by the actions of others. Without that interplay society would stagnate and not change over time. 

How does democracy work?

Ignoring what we may think personally about contemporary Western society’s implementation of democracy, democracy, as an ideal, as a mode of organisation for a society has two big principles; 1, include everything, and 2, allow everything to be affected by a multitude of checks and balances.

So, for example Fascism isn’t outside of and separate to democracy. In a Democratic society Fascism is included, it is allowed to exist. To try to prevent it would fail the first principle. But there are checks and balances in place to give the people the means to decide whether to accept or resist Fascism, or any other idea, concept, behaviour, technology, etc. All things are included and then through balancing mechanisms adopted to a greater or lesser degree, and in some cases fade to non-existence. 

These democratic checks and balances allow the people to decide what is and isn’t included in our society. 

We tell ourselves that voting is the only democratic action available to us but that just isn’t true. Voting is one of the means provided by the state, along with other means such as laws and the choice of whether to obey them. We think that democracy is purely within the domain of the state but that isn’t the case, all three domains make up and are necessary for a democratic society.

Which businesses we choose to buy from and what products we choose to use are democratic choices that drive the competition mechanism in the market domain. And businesses can use advertising to convince the people to buy from them, which is another balancing mechanism attempting to tip things in their favour. 

When a group of people join together to achieve an objective they act as a balancing mechanism within the Civil domain and affect other mechanisms in the same and other domains. Whether they are joined as a WhatsApp group for their street or joined anonymously to each other through their support of a charity, their actions balance other actions that affect their street or the cause that the charity supports.

Every action performed within a democratic society is the result of a balance acting on it, and becomes a balance for some other action.

Of course, different mechanisms are available to different people and in different circumstances, and with different levels of effectiveness in achieving their aims. I’m not suggesting that democracy is about achieving ‘fairness’ or ‘equality’ within society. Those things are value judgments of the people in the society and of course are subject to the balancing mechanisms of society, but they aren’t the objectives of the Democratic Society system. If enough people want equality, say for example for all races and colours, then the choices they make and the actions they take can tip the balances in favour of that objective, and this is how society evolves over time.

No mechanism can achieve absolute control because other mechanisms, from other domains, prevent it.

Nations that have tried ideologically to have only the state in power, and so controlling the market and civil society (if there is any), quickly find that their attempts at the single centralised control of as complex a system as a society fail.

The Civil domain in a Democratic Society system

A strong civil society is essential for the effective functioning of a democratic society.

Civil society introduces a number of different mechanisms that wouldn’t exist in the state or market domains. Coordinated collective action is one such mechanism. When a group of people want to affect a change that could not be achieved as a consumer in the market domain or as a voter in the state domain, they can turn to collective action in the civil domain. We see this in protests about climate change. Protests are a civil society mechanism for attempting to tip the balance in favour of what those people want. In a non-democratic society one group of people can get what they want regardless of what anyone else wants, but in a democratic society there are other checks and balances going on, in the example of climate change, the money introduced into the economy by the companies drilling for oil. We also see it in fundraising for charities where funds raised by coordinated individuals are used to pay for things that fall outside of what the state takes responsibility for and for which no market mechanisms exist to allow a business to undertake (no way to make a profit).

Why do we need to have some understanding of the interplay of the democratic society system in order to understand what role charities play in society? Because we need perspective and context. We need to see that charities don’t exist in isolation from other parts of society, and we need to appreciate the systems thinking that allows us to see how all the parts of the system have a complex interplay.

Where charities fit in the Civil domain in a Democratic Society system

Charities are one part of civil society. As we saw from the WHO definition civil society also includes development NGOs, community groups, faith-based organizations, social movements, and advocacy groups. If, as we said above, Civil society involves organising groups of people into communities towards achieving an aim, then all of these examples are types of organisations, different ways of organising people, and each with different characteristics.

Social movements are decentralised in nature, providing people with a context to organise within and contribute to a cause, but without a central body or organisation coordinating their actions. This type of organisational model has its strengths, including the speed at which it can grow and spread, but it has weakness too. This can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement where people wanted to support it through donating money, but there were no centralised controls to direct the funds raised in ways that help the cause.

Where more coordination than might be achieved by a decentralised approach is required, then organisations like charities have a role to play. An example might be with specialised medical research that members of the general public do not have sufficient knowledge to make decisions about where to direct funds and so a formal and structured organisation that is able to recruit experts to make those decisions about which research should be funded is more effective.

Charity, as a type of organisation, has a role to play in civil society, and the work charities do, whether it is lobbying for changes to laws or supporting individual members of society, has a role to play in providing yet further balances in the Democratic Society system. How the civil domain is made up is also affected by balancing mechanisms within the wider democratic society system, and so changes over time. An increase in grassroots social movements may seem like a threat to charities but they shouldn’t feel in competition with this or other ways of organising people, but instead should focus on their own relevance.

Participating in the civil domain isn’t a zero-sum game. People participating in a social movement because that is the most relevant way for that group to be organised doesn’t prevent the same people from also supporting a charity that organises people in a different way in support of the same or a different cause.

The interplay of balances in the Democratic Society system may result in other means of organising groups of people arising but this doesn’t prevent charities from leveraging the strengths of their way of organising people for the benefit of society at large.

The moral choice of charities

When considering how to contribute in civil society, charities have some big moral choices to make at a number of different scales. Should they do things that tip the balance in favour of their organisation? Or should they act in the best interests of the charity sector, even if that means some self-sacrifice for their organisation? Should they act in the best interests of the charity sector if that inadvertently suppresses other types of organisations within civil society? Should they do what they believe is right for the Civil domain to grow and ensure it continues to provide balances against the actions of the State and Market domains, even if that would damage the charity sector?

These are impossible questions to answer, and in a complex system predicting the outcomes is impossible, but making the best choices possible is essential for the system to balance and evolve.

Subsidiarity theory and the role of charities in society

Subsidiarity theory holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate or local level that is consistent with their resolution. This theory underpins the role of charities in society.

It says that charities are best placed to deal with issues such as food poverty by providing food banks because they can respond locally to specific needs, whereas government would respond nationally which wouldn’t be as effective.

In this way, the charity sector could be seen to be implicitly supporting the state in not dealing with the underlying causes of the issues at a systematic level.

Philosophically then, charities could be seen to be stuck between individualism of doing what helps people vs. collectivism of doing what changes the system.

In reality, the charity sector is very good at balancing this conflict by delivering services and campaigning for change. There are numerous examples of charities bringing about changes in policy whilst supporting people in need.

Charity serves an important role in society, not only by helping people in need, but also in bringing about progressive change. Charity is not a response to the failings of a society, it is an integral part of a society’s success.

“An active, questioning charity sector is one of the guarantees of democracy… Government and democracy without voluntary exertion and voluntary idealism loses its soul.”

Lord Longford, reporting to the Nathan Committee.