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That was then, this is now

4 July 2016

Here at Forster we have spent the last week or so mostly sighing – with resignation, exasperation, discombobulation, surprise and disappointment. However, you can only be struck dumb for so long, and we’ve pulled ourselves together specifically thinking about what all this means for the voluntary sector.

Let’s start with a statement of the obvious – these are challenging times. The Brexit result has revealed a country divided. It has pitched old against young, the poor against the well-off, England and Wales against Scotland and Northern Ireland. The outcome has raised profound questions about race and culture. Amid great uncertainty over what happens next, an economic downturn seems unavoidable, and the government is looking again at how public spending can be reduced.

As many are beginning to realise, the result and subsequent fallout is revealing something about our relationship with Europe but a whole lot more about some of the profound issues facing us here. Many feel abandoned, cut off from the power, influence and prosperity evident in places like London. Communities are continuing to struggle with the double blow of ongoing economic sluggishness and public sector cuts, particularly in areas where traditional industries disappeared.

Many of those communities and the people and families within them are already reliant on charities and voluntary organisations to keep their head above water. So it is crucial the sector considers how it can respond to ensure it can provide support for all those who need it.

This is easier said than done when charities face the loss of hundreds of millions of pounds in funding as a result of Brexit. If that wasn’t enough to contend with, charities must respond at a time when they are beset by a significant loss of public trust. The Charity Commission’s latest report on public trust and confidence in charities shows deep concern about how voluntary organisations are managed and how they spend their money. Until confidence is restored, public support for charities, in terms of time and money, may well decrease at exactly the time when it is needed most.

Tempting as it is to pull the duvet over our heads and hope it will all go away, that is simply not the voluntary sector way. Forward-thinking charities will survive and even prosper, for as well as challenges there will of course be opportunities. Here are our top reasons for how charities can write a more positive future for themselves and the people and issues they support:

  • Leadership: At the moment many are casting around for someone, anyone, to tell them everything will be all right, while others are looking for the leaders with a vision and a practical plan. Our main political leaders have instead turned their attentions inwards, but voluntary sector leaders (and that means much more than just CEOs) can and should be taking a lead on what they are doing to tackle some of the issues laid bare by the campaign and result, and providing a voice for the people and communities who are most affected
  • Engagement:  More people are engaged with political and social issues at the moment than has been the case for a very long time. Whatever their views on Europe, across all age and demographics, people are looking at what they can do to make things better and make themselves feel better. The challenge for voluntary organisations is to capture this energy, becoming the go-to place to bring about positive change through the right kind of volunteering and campaigning opportunities.
  • Diversity: The modern UK is an extraordinarily diverse society and this will not change. Brexit has given rise to tension in some communities but this has mostly been met by an outpouring of goodwill towards our neighbours and a commitment to stand by friends and colleagues. #LoveOurEUStaff was just one example of a spontaneous and positive response. Charities have the authority to take a lead on this area, particularly where it cuts across the issue area they specialise in.
  • Modernisation: A changed relationship (in whatever form it eventually takes) with the EU gives an opportunity to make a fresh start. Even the EU’s most passionate advocates will admit that not everything that came from Brussels was golden. Membership organisations, NGOs and charities can play a role in reframing legislation in areas as diverse as employment, vehicle emissions, medical research and agriculture, setting new standards that our former partners in the EU will want to replicate. It doesn’t have to just be about protecting what is already there in times of likely pressure to ease up on standards and commitments, it can and should be about being ambitious and aiming for globally leading approaches, policies and legislation in these issue areas.
  • Untapped potential: The Brexit debate brought into sharp focus the inequalities that exist in our society. Amid the disagreement about our place in the world, a consensus is emerging that we must redouble our effort to provide greater opportunity by investing in our people and building social cohesion. This is as much about the one million over 50s who are involuntarily out of work as it is about poor attainment at school. Voluntary organisations rooted in our fractured communities can show the way.
We have opened Pandora’s box, whatever happens next our relationship with the EU has fundamentally changed so we are at a reset moment for our country. That moment is crying out for a movement for positive change and the voluntary sector should be leading it.