On 17th May I will be attending an event exploring ‘the future of doing good’ organised by Big Lottery Fund. A report has been commissioned and a website created to stimulate thinking and debate in advance. The report mainly seeks to raise questions around the future of doing good, rather than answer them.

This is totally understandable given the ambition of the questions, such as

– What do we mean by ‘doing good’?

– How do we create good (or social value)?

– Is the structure of the social/charity sector fit for purpose?

– How should the sector relate to the public and private sectors?

– And, a real poser for those of us in the research business – How do we measure good?

Really great and really big questions. The report is a fabulous read for anyone interested in the future of our society, let alone the future of the social sector.

Rightly the Future of Doing Good report gives an even handed assessment of the challenges and opportunities that exist in doing good in future. The challenges are many. They include austerity and the fall-out from the financial crisis, rising inequality, and recent reputational damage to charities. I would also add low and declining levels of social mobility in the UK to that list.

However, the challenges strike me as the more obvious and easier things to talk about. In this post I would like to focus on the factors that are making or might make it easier to do good in future.

The first positive is that the question – of how we do good in future – is being considered at all.

The fact that the question is being asked in such a reflective and sophisticated way is even better news. This is not a trivial point (I hope). The questions that we ask ourselves and the questions we fail to ask ourselves as societies, are crucial in determining social progress or decline. They are reflective of our concerns, consciousness and values. In recent times, where we have chosen to ask ourselves whether it was fair that gay and lesbian people were not allowed to marry or whether it would be better for Britain to no longer be part of the EU reflect our values and concerns as a society. Due consideration of the changing context for doing good, and how good might be maximised in that context has to be, in and of itself, a hugely ‘good’ thing. If nothing else, we are asking the right question.

There are also more tangible and practical forces that should make us feel optimistic about the future of doing good. The progress of information technology can be a force that will make it easier to do good in future. The report highlights a number of ways in which technology may assist doing good, such as

– Allowing services to be delivered more effectively and more efficiently for those in need

– Increasing knowledge about the effectiveness of programmes and interventions

– Improving the ability to fundraise

But there is more opportunity in technology than this. It can be a magnificent awareness and consciousness raising force. It can bring causes to people’s attention in ways not previously possible. We have seen in the last year how social media images, in the most tragic of circumstances, can make the world listen. (It has to be said that Google’s ambition to ‘do no evil’ is hardly aspirational in this context!)

Finally, I am much more optimistic than the report about the future of democratic engagement. Democratic engagement is presented as one of the future challenges. In a UK where the RSPB has over a million members (including more than 200,000 youth members) and where the National Trust has achieved 4 million members, I see nothing wrong with the engagement. However, I would concede that the democracy could use a little work.