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What we believe about participation

Free association

Voluntary organisations promote associational life, creating opportunities for people to come together for a variety of purposes or activities. 

People join voluntary organisations out of choice, exercising their right to free association. Many people will choose to participate in civil society for multiple reasons, motivated by their beliefs and values; their sense of community; or simply a desire for friendship and conviviality.

For individuals, questions of autonomy and agency are paramount. This includes the right to define one’s community, whether of interest, identity or place, and to choose to participate in the life of that community or not – the right to be left alone.

Social value

Participation is, by its nature, spontaneous and driven by people’s choices and concerns. Attempts by government to direct participation for its own purposes would undermine this spontaneity, reducing the space for independent action and participation in community life.

Participation, even for fun, is socially valuable in its own right. It contributes to wider goals of social inclusion and solidarity. It is through voluntary organisations that social capital is generated and mobilised, strengthening relationships between citizens, developing a sense of connectedness and fostering norms of trust and reciprocity.


Voluntary organisations facilitate collective action by creating spaces where citizens express different viewpoints and negotiate a sense of the common interest.

In this way voluntary organisations facilitate a dialogue on local issues, bringing people’s concerns to the attention of decision-makers and linking people into formal decision-making processes. They can be a catalyst for political engagement, particularly for marginalised communities who otherwise have the greatest difficulty in making their voices heard.

There is a need for representative institutions that have the trust and confidence of citizens and the legitimacy to take decisions in the public interest. And there is a need for independent organisations such as voluntary organisations to facilitate broader participation in decision-making processes.

Download Civil Renewal and Active Citizenship: A guide to the debate (pdf, 1.09 MB), published in 2005.


Our Pathways through Participation project included a number of recommendations for policy and practice.

Develop realistic expectations of participation

An over-optimistic view of participation can portray it as the answer to all society’s ills. It is important that we acknowledge its limitations and develop realistic expectations of what can be achieved. This requires policy-makers to be clear about the purpose of the participation they want to see happening. And they must recognise that almost everyone already participates in one way or another.

It also requires institutions, organisations and groups to recognise that:

  • participation is dynamic and opportunities need to be flexible
  • participation should be mutually beneficial – participants need to gain something from the experience
  • people have limited time and sometimes just want participation that is sociable and enjoyable.

Understand what policy and practice intervention can and cannot achieve

Policy and practice interventions can influence participation. But there are many other factors that shape how and why an individual participates, and affect the desired impact of policy and practice decisions. Participation is more bottom-up than top-down, and does not always happen in the ways policy-makers and practitioners want or expect.

  • Some factors that encourage participation are easier and quicker to influence and shape than others.
  • People’s motivations are difficult to shape in any predictable way but policy-makers and practitioners should acknowledge their importance and aim to understand them.
  • An individual’s resources cannot be wholly shaped by policy-makers and practitioners, but can be influenced by policy and practice decisions and initiatives.
  • Opportunities to participate can be shaped collectively by policy-makers and practitioners.

Improve participation opportunities

The first step in improving participation opportunities is to establish strong foundations by:

  • starting at an early age
  • providing appropriate formal and informal places and spaces for people to meet and join in activities
  • creating links and pathways between individuals and organisations through networks and hubs.

To improve participation opportunities it is necessary to:

  • start where people are
  • take account of their concerns and interests
  • provide a range of opportunities and levels of involvement so people can feel comfortable with taking part
  • use the personal approach to invite and welcome people in.

Support is needed to enable institutions, organisations and groups to learn how to operate more effectively and therefore sustain people’s interest and involvement. It is vital to value people’s experience and what they do, at whatever level of intensity.

Organisations and government at all levels need to be aware of the benefits of participation, and use these to promote involvement. Similarly, those already involved can tell positive stories about their experience, and encourage others they know to participate. The recruitment of new participants is almost always more effective through word of mouth.

Read the Pathways through participation report on the Pathways through participation website

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