Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

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Mutual Admiration: Charity, Philanthropy & Mutual Aid Post-COVID

04 September 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the widespread lockdown it precipitated, have made for a grim six months or so for civil society. Many organisations have struggled with huge drops in key income streams and the need to adapt to entirely new ways of working, whilst at the same time finding demand for their services greater than ever. One of the few bright spots in this otherwise bleak picture has been an apparent upsurge in social action, as a plethora of new local groups and networks have formed in response to the challenges presented by the crisis, alongside a broader swathe of informal acts of neighbourliness and collective spirit that is encouraging (albeit hard to quantify).

This has caught the attention of policymakers ─ and also many within civil society ─ who are keen to understand how they might harness this apparent new source of civic energy. In the UK, tapping into the phenomenon appears to be an important area of focus for those formulating the government’s approach to supporting civil society as we transition into a phase of post-COVID repair and rebuilding. Meanwhile in the US there has been interest among those who have been critical of the current philanthropy paradigm (from both sides of the political spectrum) in whether the informal action we have seen during the pandemic can point towards new directions in which philanthropy could evolve. (E.g. in this recent article by Lucy Bernholz from the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society)

But there is a danger that in some cases all the enthusiasm potentially masks a crucial point: that the activity we are seeing is not necessarily about charity or philanthropy. Yes, there have been plenty of people volunteering and giving to charity in the ways we would expect, but the focus of many of the new groups we have seen emerge has been markedly different: emphasising instead a narrative of “mutual aid”. This raises important questions: what is mutual aid and how does it relate to charity? What is the historical lineage of the concept of mutual aid and why has it come to the fore again now? Is this just a reflection of the unique conditions caused by the pandemic, or does it herald any sort of longer-term shift? And what role is technology playing in facilitating and driving the upsurge of interest in mutual aid?

Mutual aid is certainly not a new concept. It has a long history, which is closely intertwined with the history of charity and philanthropy (as we shall see). Understanding some of the historical context surrounding mutual aid, and where it fits in terms of different political traditions and views about the role of civil society is important, as it can bring more clarity about how to understand what is happening as a result of COVID; how this fits into various political agendas; how we should understand the relationship between some of the new models emerging and the existing elements of civil society; and what sort of questions we should be asking as we look to the future.

The History of Mutual Aid & Charity in the UK

Defining Terms

Before we can usefully explore the history of mutual aid, we need to be clear on what we are talking about. This is not always that easy, as there is a whole basket of terms related to mutual aid (such as self-help, mutualism, co-operativism, communitarianism etc.), which overlap, and in some contexts are used almost interchangeably. Furthermore the lines between mutual aid and charity have sometimes become blurred (as have the lines between mutual aid and trade unionism or socialism).

The basic difference however, is that charity implies the idea that a group of people with assets (and who may be unaffected by a given issue themselves) use those assets to benefit others who are affected; whilst mutual aid is about creating structures within which people of similar means or who are all affected by an issue are able to help one another (so that everyone within a group is both a giver and a receiver of help). William Beveridge identified a clear distinction between two different motives ─ Mutual Aid and Philanthropy ─ and the divergent traditions they had given rise to;  making this the centrepiece of his 1948 book Voluntary Action. According to Beveridge, mutual aid “has its origin in a sense of one’s own need for security against misfortune, and realization that, since one’s fellows have the same need, by undertaking to help one another all may help themselves”. Philanthropy, meanwhile “springs from the feeling which makes men who are materially comfortable, mentally uncomfortable: to have social conscience is to be unwilling to make a separate peace with the giant social evils of Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance, Idleness, escaping into personal prosperity oneself, wile leaving one’s fellows in their clutches”.

Mutual Aid: Origins

The history of mutual aid as a motive for creating organisations stretches back at least as far as the middle ages. The medieval guilds ─ which were a major force in society in Britain and Europe during that period ─ had religious and economic functions but also played an important social welfare function by providing guarantees of support in the form of food and shelter for members who found themselves in need, and in some cases even running schools or almshouses. Those who have sought to provide intellectual underpinning to the concept of mutual aid, such as the influential anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, claim that this long history should come as no surprise and that it simply showed that the mutual aid reflects a basic truth of human nature: that we are inherently driven to collaboration and cooperation in groups. He argued that we should reject the Hobbesian/Darwinian view which sees competition as the basis of social interactions and claims that, left unchecked, society would descend into a violent state of nature “red in tooth and claw”. Instead, Kropotkin claimed we should take a more positive view of human nature, and recognise that “the mutual aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all the vicissitudes of history”.

The “vicissitudes of history” that Kropotkin refers to are important in understanding why it might be that, despite the apparently fundamental nature of the mutual aid motive, organisations founded on mutual aid have not become the norm over the longer term. For instance the medieval guilds, due to their Catholic associations, were decimated by the Reformation (along with much of the rest of the infrastructure of medieval charity). At other times, meanwhile, views on the nature and role of the state or the market have also presented barriers to those wishing to associate on a mutual basis to provide welfare: either because mutual aid organisations were seen as an unwelcome form of competition and thus actively restricted, or simply because many of the functions that might be performed by such organisations were already been served by the state or the private sector so there was little space left in which to develop.

But there have also been periods in which mutual aid has been very much in the ascendancy, and sat on something approaching a level pegging with charity and philanthropy. This was most notably the case in the Victorian era, when mutualism (and the related notion of self-help made famous by Samuel Smiles’s 1859 book of the same name) came to the fore. Some clear remnants of this 19th century enthusiasm can still be seen in the business world. There are many co-operative enterprises, for instance, which still adhere to principles similar to those established by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers back in the 1840s. There are also examples such as Building Societies, which have their roots in mutualism but over time have become more commercialised and, in many cases, have gone through a process of formal de-mutualisation to sever links to their origins.

The Friendly Societies

Despite the fact that building societies and cooperatives are still part of our public consciousness today, in the Victorian era they were really but a sideshow to another example of the mutual ideal that is all but forgotten today, but which was hugely prominent in the 19th century: the Friendly Societies. These were mutual aid organisations founded by working men, in which members all paid into a shared central pot that functioned partly like an insurance policy against sickness, injury or death and also (in many cases) also partly like a kitty to pay for social and recreational gatherings. Friendly societies existed well before the 19th century (there is for instance, reference to them in a 1697 essay by Daniel Defoe), and their numbers grew steadily during the 18th century, leading the social investigator F.M. Eden to remark in 1797 that “No institutions have ever made a more considerable progress in a short space of time than has been made within a few years by the benefit clubs or friendly societies”. This was partly a reflection of the fact that society was becoming more industrialised, yet state welfare provision failed to adapt to changing needs so working people needed to look elsewhere for mechanisms of support. Friendly societies were particularly important at that point for religious and cultural minorities (such as the Huguenots and others) who may have had reasonable levels of wealth through success in business but were still marginalised within society and so needed to provide mutual support within their community rather than looking elsewhere.

As the 19th century wore on, the development of a wider working class consciousness across society ─ combined with widespread antipathy towards the idea of state welfare and with the previously-mentioned focus on notions of self-help ─ presented ideal conditions for a huge growth in Friendly Societies. Exact figures are hard to determine, as the sector was a mishmash of large organisations (often federated into local branches with high degrees of autonomy) and small independent organisations; and a requirement for registration was only introduced with the passage of the Friendly Societies Act in 1875 (and even then it was only on a voluntary basis). However, to get some idea of the scale we can note that William Beveridge reports in his 1948 book Voluntary Action that in 1905 there were approximately 20,000 branches of what were known as Affiliated Orders (i.e. the federated model) and around 6,700 standalone friendly societies without branches.

The growth in Friendly Societies did not go unnoticed by government, and the relationship between the two is interesting to consider in terms of present-day enthusiasm for mutual aid. In broad terms, as already mentioned, there was reluctance on the part of many in power for the state getting involved in issues of welfare provision or stifling voluntarism; as the latter was seen as the preferable route to dealing with society’s ills. However, there were nagging concerns about issues like financial mismanagement and fraud, inconsistencies in the way that premiums and payments were calculated, and the worry that some friendly societies were spending too much money on organising nice dinners and drinking events rather than on providing insurance against illness or death for their members. This meant that the question of the extent to which the state should interfere with the autonomy of friendly societies was an ongoing source of debate throughout the 19th century, leading to a number of government inquiries and pieces of legislation, and culminating in the 1871-74 Royal Commission on Friendly Societies and the subsequent 1875 Friendly Societies Act. This led to most of the existing issues being settled, but still maintained the independence of the societies. As Beveridge tells it “In the decades that followed the Commission’s report, the leading [societies] one by one took steps to put themselves financially in order. They showed that sickness benefit could be administered on a democratic basis by a voluntary organization”.

But why, then, are the Friendly Societies not still around today in any meaningful way? Well, in many ways they were victims of their own success: by showing both the importance of providing for those unable to work through sickness or old age and the feasibility of doing so through an insurance model, they paved the way for the National Insurance Act of 1911. This needn’t have spelled the end for the Friendly Societies: As Geoffrey Finalyson notes in his book Citizen, State and Social Welfare in Britain, “if the ideology of the 1911 Act had much to do with voluntarism, so too did its implementation. The original intention was to entrust the administration of health insurance under Part I of the Act to the mutual-aid friendly societies.” To that end the original version of the National Insurance Bill stipulated that in order to qualify as an “approved society” to deliver NI, an organisation “must not work for profit” and “must be democratically controlled by the insured members”. During the passage of the Bill through Parliament, however, these conditions were broadened in such a way as to open the door to commercial assurance companies. Historians are somewhat divided in their views on the impact this had on the Friendly Societies: some claim it was essentially the end of them, while other such as P.H.J.H Gosden claim that they “not only survived but apparently flourished until the 1940s and the changes which were then made in the administrative structure of the national insurance system”. In any case, by the time of the establishment of the NHS and the Welfare State after WWII, the Friendly Societies were very much on the wane.

Mutual Aid, Charity & Social Change Campaigning in post-war Britain

The immediate post-war prospects of the friendly societies was probably not helped by the general antipathy towards voluntarism of many instrumental figures in the Labour government at the time (most notably Aneurin Bevan, as detailed in my book Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain).  This also presented challenges for those parts of the voluntary sector that came from the charitable/philanthropic tradition in the post-war years: there was of course an ongoing layer of voluntary activity happening at a local level, but at a national level many organisations found themselves sidelined or out in the wilderness. Following something of a period of reflection and reinvention, the voluntary sector then found renewed vigour in the 1960s and 1970s. New organisations were formed, and existing organisations found a new role in relation to the welfare state: making up for its limitations (which were becoming apparent) through service delivery to fill gaps in need, meeting a growing demand from citizens for participation, and challenging the failings of the state at a more fundamental level through campaigning.

This latter role reflected a broader new spirit of campaigning which saw the rise of new social movements calling for rights for previously marginalised groups (e.g. women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, homeless people) and the formation of organisations like Shelter, Help the Aged, Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group. Many of these groups deliberately cut across traditional dividing lines within civil society so that, as Finalyson notes, “distinctions between mutual-aid organisations, service-giving groups and campaigning societies were often blurred”. This added a new element into the dynamic when it came to relationships between politics and the voluntary sector because “the emergence of radical activism was a new departure even from the old mutual-aid tradition of trade union and state paternalism; and in that sense it could outflank the position held by the Labour Party, not to mention the Conservatives.”

This kind of new, more radical voluntary activity was seen by many as being likely to engage a younger demographic and one that was more likely to have sympathises with Labour rather than Conservative politics. Indeed, the writer and social historian Ken Worpole argued in 1981 that the new breed of voluntary organisations should be seen as a rich source of “volunteers for socialism”. It is unsurprising, therefore, that when the political pendulum swung back in the opposite direction with the emergence of the New Right and the election of the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, views on the nature of charity and the voluntary sector shifted markedly. The campaigning organisations formed in the 1960s and 1970s were viewed with deep suspicion as a left wing fifth column, and a totally different vision of the charity sector put forward that emphasised notions of community, faith and the Burkean ideal of “little platoons” of social action. The concept of the “active citizen” played an important role in Conservative social policy during the 1980s and 1990s so there was a clear role for voluntary organisations, albeit that role was quite clearly proscribed. In this context, the mutual aid part of civil society faced mixed fortunes: whilst the notions of self-help and the reduction of reliance on the state that it embodied were in line with government thinking, its traditions of collectivism and working class solidarity were much less likely to find favour.

If we fast forward to 1997 we see things change once again. As it did with many things, New Labour attempted to triangulate (or find a “Third Way”) between these differing conceptions of the sector. The government of Tony Blair didn’t outright reject the conservative view of role of civil society that emphasised notions of charity/locality/social duty, nor indeed did it reject the view of the sector that emphasised campaigning and challenging the state, but it added to it an emphasis on the role of charities (or the “third sector” as they were now to be known) as delivery agents for public services and a new set of machinery for collaboration through commissioning and procurement. This technocratic view centred on public service delivery became central to the voluntary sector policy agenda for the next two decades, which some argue detracted attention among policymakers from the other roles of civil society such as campaigning for social change or carrying on small-scale activity outside the purview of the state.

The “Big Society” agenda of David Cameron’s Conservative government from 2010 onwards could then be seen as an attempt to reverse some of the trends in the policy approach towards the voluntary sector under New Labour. The focus on charities delivering public services was not jettisoned, but was now combined with a less technocratic view of what charities are that harked back to the older Burkean traditions and a clear preference for small-scale, informal, local activity (reflected in the shift away from the terminology of the “third sector”- firstly towards the neologistic “Big Society” and then towards the more traditional “civil society” when the Big Society agenda fizzled out).

Under both New Labour and the Cameronite Tory and Coalition governments, there was always a role for mutual aid within the broader context of the “third sector” or “civil society”. At the same time there were a number of other developments ─ including new affordances offered by technology, new political interest in devolution and decentralisation, new enthusiasm within the private sector for “better ways of doing business” and the emergence of a defined “social investment market” ─ which led to something of a renewed interest in the concepts and approaches of cooperativism and mutualism. The emphasis in most cases was still on use cases with a commercial aspect of some kind, and particularly on their ability to become “investees” within the social investment market or to offer new models for outsourcing public services (for instance Francis Maude’s grand plan to support the creation of new mutual groups being spun out of the public sector, which met with a mixed response although as of 2018 it was reported that over 400 new mutual had been created in this way).

This whistle-stop tour has by necessity been very high-level and has obviously glossed over a lot of nuance, but hopefully it gives some sense of the history of the mutual aid tradition within UK civil society and of political attitudes towards it. Which brings us to the present day. Prior to COVID, we were already at a point where views on the nature of civil society; the role it plays in relation to the state; and the balance between notions of charity, philanthropy and mutualism were all very much up in the air. And then the pandemic struck and everything changed (or at least so it seemed at the time).


The COVID-19 Pandemic and Mutual Aid

The early stages of the pandemic, as has already been noted, saw a huge upsurge of activity at a local and community level: much of which was done through a loose network of new mutual aid groups coordinated via platforms such as Facebook. The New Local Government Network reported in July that over 4,000 such groups had been formed, and that they “have been able to reach people more quickly than traditional public services and help them with a wider array of needs… in this way the Mutual Aid phenomenon is a powerful demonstration of “community power””.  

The big question in light of the historical context we have been considering is why, all of a sudden, has the concept of mutual aid come so strongly to the fore during the pandemic? Is it because the nature of a global pandemic in which we are all affected (to a greater or lesser degree) has sparked a new sense of collective spirit which, when directed at efforts to help others, lends itself more naturally to models of mutual aid than straightforward charity? Or perhaps existing trends towards network-based approaches instead of traditional formal organisations (as we have seen with the success and prominence of movements like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter in recent years), combined with critiques of the effectiveness and legitimacy of philanthropy that have gained traction in recent years, have created conditions within which mutual aid as a concept might naturally have flourished anyway and the pandemic was just one possible catalyst?

Understanding better what the drivers for the rise in mutual aid might be is vital if we are to assess any longer impact on efforts to grow and reshape civil society. To that end there are more questions we need to ask:

  • Do these new mutual aid groups have longevity, or were they only ever a short-term response to a unique moment?
  • How important have contextual factors been, such as large numbers of people being on furlough (and thus having time) or people’s inability to travel much outside of their immediate surroundings (and thus markedly increased time spent in their local community)?
  • Does mutual aid offer more in terms of participation than traditional models of giving or volunteering, but also demand more? If so, is this part of what made it appealing during the pandemic (by giving people a sense of agency and purpose), but conversely will it reduce the chances of longer-term sustainability as people return to work and normal life (unless there is a more fundamental rebalancing of our work/life balance)?
  • Does the enthusiasm for mutual aid suggest an opportunity to “enlarge the pie” of civil society, or are we just going to be slicing the same pie differently because people get involved in mutual aid organisations as a replacement for charitable giving or volunteering they would otherwise have done?
  • Is there a dark side to mutual aid? I.e. Can an emphasis on group membership and support within a group becoming exclusionary? Can it lead to a reduction in compassion or empathy for those outside the group and thus seen as “other”?
  • Do mutual aid networks enhance bridging social capital (by building connections between those from different communities or demographics) or only bonding social capital (by strengthening existing bonds between those from the same community or demographic)?
  • What is the role of technology in enabling the formation of mutual aid networks? Is it allowing us to do entirely new things, or merely old things at greater speed and scale than ever before? And if the latter, do the affordances of technology enable us to overcome the known challenges of informal organising, or are simply we going to rediscover them in new forms?(This is a question I explored in some depth in a paper I prepared for the 2019 ARNOVA conference, “Networking Opportunities: Rediscovering Decentralisation in Philanthropy and Civil Society?”)
  • What can we learn from other cultures with rich traditions of informal support and mutual aid? (2020 CAF research into giving in East Africa, for instance, highlighted the importance that notions of individual mutual support and care such as Harambee in Kenya and Ubuntu in South Africa play in shaping the culture of support for civil society, and many other countries around the world have their own comparable traditions).


The final question is how politicians and policymakers choose to interpret what has happened in terms of the rise of mutual aid, and how this will shape any potential policy responses. Here in the UK, Danny Kruger (the MP who previously wrote the government’s Civil Society Strategy and was recently tasked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson with reviewing the government’s policy priorities in this area in light of the COVID pandemic) has shown a great deal of enthusiasm for building on the upsurge in mutual aid networks. In a foreword to the New Local Government Network report mentioned earlier Kruger outlined his view of how these new networks, and people’s support for them, relate to existing elements of civil society:

“The work of Mutual Aid groups during the lockdown may not look very different from traditional charity or public service – in both cases, people with more assets are generally helping people with fewer - but the spirit behind it is very different. ‘Ordinary’ people, not just those usually active in their town and village life, have stepped forward in astonishing numbers. Neighbourhoods have become more than geographies, but active social webs, linked by new connections and reciprocal dependencies”.

The point about mutual aid groups engaging people beyond the usual “civic core” who volunteer and give to charity may well be true (although the extent to which this activity is genuinely additional rather than replicating activity that otherwise would have happened in another form is not yet clear). However, this statement also clearly highlights once again that mutual aid as a concept lends itself to multiple interpretations, and that (as the history demonstrates) the choice about which aspects to emphasise and which to downplay is often tied in with ideological or political view about the desirable nature of society as a whole. Which is not a problem in itself, but is something that we should be aware of as we look to the post-COVID future and consider the role that mutual aid could play within civil society.

Public Good by Private Means

Rhodri Davies' book tells the story of philanthropy through the ages, and examines the relationship between philanthropists, the state and society.

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