Last week I was invited to speak to a delegation of MPs from the Iraqi parliament. They were in Scotland as part of a visit to the UK, funded by the EU and the Swedish Government, to learn about our parliaments and how civil society plays a part in democratic life.
They wanted to know how our civil society operates, and what they needed to do to ensure that charities, voluntary groups and other organisations flourished in Iraq. At the same time, they were concerned that such groups could be a front for political groups.
So, suprisingly (to myself at least), I found that I was talking about governance structures, reputational risk and trust – all things incredibly relevant to Trustees’ Week.
I explained the role of charity trustees; what a ‘charitable aim’ is; what the benefits of being a charity are; and how the voluntary trustee board plays a vital role in ensuring the independence of charities – making sure, for example, that charities are not fronts for political organisations.
I tried to explain the ‘bottom-up’ nature of Scottish civil society: how it is not orchestrated by Parliament; how organisations and groups establish themselves; how charities choose to be charities, or perhaps choose some other form such as a SCIO; how third sector organisations decide to be part of SCVO, rather than SCVO picking who is ‘allowed’ to be a member. All of this seemed different to what many of them had expected.
I also spoke about the wonderful things the third sector has achieved in Scotland during the twenty years of devolution: the smoking ban, strong climate change targets, the attempts to achieve minimum pricing for alcohol. All of these things are achievements we can be proud of, and I for one am glad that voluntary trustees working across the sector steer our charities so well and ensure that such positive changes can be won.
Whilst the Iraqi MPs left yesterday with plenty of food for thought on how to support their own newly forming civil society, I was left with good feelings about our own very strong and very successful sector.