What Big Society really means: One top condition for success and five practical examples

By John Hayward 09 Mar 2011

TimeBank is a charity which puts volunteers in touch with projects where their skills are needed, but depends on government funding for a quarter of its income. In the past decade it has 'made an important contribution to mobilising an army of 300,000 volunteers and to improving the quality of volunteering,' but it has now been refused a £500,000 grant from the government's strategic partners programme and will need to find ways to reduce its running costs, including its 35 paid staff – just as most other charities and businesses have already had to do in recent years.

The failure of this particular charity to secure on-going funding from the Office of Civil Society is not, as some sectors of the media have suggested, a failure of the Big Society. It is a failure by the media to understand what the Big Society is – or, rather, a failure by the government to communicate what the Big Society is and what it is for.

As we have commented previously, part of the problem has been the emphasis or interpretation equating Big Society with volunteering, whereas in reality the Big Society is not just about volunteering. It also includes starting social enterprises and bringing new ethical principles and social transformation agendas to business. It will involve government doing more of the things for which it should be responsible, and the rest of us being enabled to do the things for which government has wrongly assumed responsibility in the past.

In one of the clearest statements that the Prime Minister has made about what the Big Society is, he did not even mention volunteering in his definition: 'You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society. The Big Society is about a huge culture change where people ... feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.' (David Cameron, 19 July 2010)

Motivated by a love of neighbour, Christians in particular will want to take any new opportunities that arise to play a greater role in their communities, but a key determining factor will be whether people enjoy sufficient freedom of conscience to be truly able to 'help themselves and their own communities.' If the government fails to resolve the current tension over equality and human rights, which currently discourage the 'peer to peer activity' central to its all-important measure of social capital, then whatever other steps it takes to achieve its Big Society ambitions will likewise fail.

Here are five examples of how local believers are already delivering the Big Society – that is, helping their own communities – a couple of which we profiled in our recent report, The Big Society in Context: A means to what end? If you know of others, please tell us about them in the comments below.

Tonbridge Debt Advice Centre

Tonbridge Debt Advice Centre, which is supported by the churches of Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, was set up to offer a free and confidential debt counselling service. The service has been running since 2004, and is experienced in a broad range of financial issues from credit card debt to threatened eviction, as well as dealing with creditors and financial organisations throughout the region. The service seeks to address debt problems by contacting creditors directly and establishing fair and manageable payment plans and solutions with them and, where necessary, helping debtors through the courts. The centre has over 50 trained volunteer advisers.

The work of the TDAC and similar organisations is likely to become all the more important in the coming months and years, particularly since government funding has been discontinued for around 500 advisers currently offering free help - despite forecasts that an extra 200,000 people could seek debt advice in the coming year.

Jimmy's Night Shelter

Jimmy's Night Shelter is a homeless shelter in Cambridge that has been running for 365 days a year since 1995. The shelter operates in Zion Baptist Church and offers homeless people a hot meal, a bed and a safe environment. Initially a provider of emergency accommodation, Jimmy's now liaises with other local agencies, including housing, health and training services, in order to help their guests off the street permanently.

Since opening in November 1995, Jimmy's has taken in over 4,000 people. In 2009/10 there were 399 different guests from 18 to 69, staying for anything from a few days to three months. It costs £1,190 per daynight shelter for the homeless to run the shelter, and after funding from statutory sources the shelter is reliant on donations for everything other than salary and building costs: food, heating, lighting, water, maintenance, administrative supplies, and money spent directly on individual guests. The shelter is largely reliant on the help of volunteers.

Victory Outreach UK

Victory Outreach UK provides Christian homes for young people in need. Its four homes include a working farm, where the residents care for the animals. Each home has a house "manager" who acts as mentor to the residents, organises daily routines and schedules, and liaises with the charity's central administration team on a daily basis. The manager provides pastoral care, practical assistance and support to the residents.

In January 2010 it planted a church in Pontypool, led by a former resident and ex-offender who has also founded another charity, the Gateway Foundation, which mentors and assists ex-offenders and addicts into education and training, leading to homes, jobs and fulfilling, useful lives.


Driven forward by a desire to show Christian love in action within the community, the Bethany Christian Trust in Scotland aims to meet the needs of homeless and vulnerable people through street work, emergency accommodation, specialist units, supported housing, home furniture provision, community education, and community integration. Every year they help over 4,000 people to find, equip and maintain a home, overcome addictions and tackle other social and education barriers which prevent them from living a full and healthy life.


Pecan (Peckham Evangelical Churches Action Network) is a Christian charity based in Peckham changing the lives of long-term unemployed people, ex-offenders and the disadvantaged. Started by local churches, they continue to partner with local churches and advocate for those they work with, challenging inequality and injustice at a local and national level. Since 1989 they have seen 27,000 clients through their programmes.

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