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Bothered and Bewildered but not Bewitched.

9 Aug 2019 - 16:10 by Mike Wild

I’ve been wondering what else we could do to encourage the voices of leaders of charities, voluntary organisations and community groups around Brexit. My impression is that charity sector leaders would certainly want to speak up but are unsure how to go about it in the right way. Is Brexit simply too difficult for us to talk about?

Brexit is a political issue. That’s not something charities need be afraid of – our work is fundamentally a political act and a strong campaigning voice is essential in driving change - but Brexit has become a party political issue and that’s dangerous territory for charities. It’s now almost impossible to make comment on Brexit without appearing to support one or other party political stance. Not only are we prevented by law and official guidance from getting involved in anything which becomes a party political issue, there is also the concern that funders will not want to support organisations which are seen as “too political” which could then damage our ability to continue working.

Besides, what can we definitively say about Brexit? We all know it will have an impact on our organisations that’s the bit we can see, test and measure most easily. Such guidance as has been issued is for businesses to make preparations for the potential impact on their operations. Most of the guidance for charities has focused on this aspect too. Very few businesses have, as far as I can tell, developed or received guidance on how it will affect their customers, the communities their workforce lives in and the public service environment in which they operate. Public services are doing lots of resilience planning but they too are operating without really knowing what impact it will have on daily lives and communities (and in a political climate where identifying a risk is seen as scaremongering).

As charity leaders, the bit we’re fundamentally most concerned about is the wider impact on society. Most of us will already be working with operational issues which we’re not fully resourced to deal with (because so few funders cover full cost) so how on earth are we supposed to offer robust research into the possible outcomes of any one of a number of Brexit scenarios? We’re still trying to gather data and stories about the impacts of welfare reform, public service cuts, increased in-work poverty and rising social tensions.

So we have to look for others who are doing research which aligns with our own priorities and knowledge. The problem is …whom do you believe? We don’t have think tanks crunching data - with a few noble exceptions like JRF. We rely on other organisations but mostly these have clear political leanings. So you end up having to check out all of them in order to achieve balance…and we’re back to the problem of capacity. Most charities don’t have much time or headspace for policy work beyond the core messages about their cause – and I’m talking about the simple numerical majority out of 160,000 registered charities, not the rare outliers which are the bigger national charities.

And then there’s the reputational risk. Because it’s such a binary issue (for or against) and has become riddled with crude generalisations, it’s impossible to get into discussion about Brexit without unleashing a lot of anger and abuse on both sides…which is basically, light the blue touch paper....

Like business leaders and public figures, charity leaders have their own unique perspective on social issues and yet on the biggest single political question in recent memory, the sector’s voice has been muted. We need a way for our sector’s collective voices to be heard in a general, sector-wide sense rather than expecting individual charities to put their causes and reputations into what has become a very toxic space. Hoping to create something like this, we’ve been working with New Philanthropy Capital, the Brexit Civil Society Alliance and others to organise an event for civil society organisations in the North. 11th September in Manchester Details here if you want to come along: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/new-frontiers-the-social-sector-through-brexit-tickets-62345039692 

If all of the above sounds like I’m on the anxious side of the street rather than in the “sunlit uplands” well that’s because I am. Everything I'm hearing is making me increasingly confused and angry about it - personally and professionally. As I’ve said before, too much of the narrative of Brexit has been about trade and not enough about our national and global identity, our hopes for the future as a society. Being anxious is now, in the eyes of some, politically unacceptable: even questions such as the Northern Ireland border have now become abstract political points rather than questions of preserving peace, respecting identity and being conscious of recent painful history. Charities largely focus on the people who’ve already got it tough: bringing help and hope. Even the most confident supporters of Brexit say that there will be a “short term” impact. I have a problem with that: we’re talking about people are already struggling and - as the rising figures on in-work poverty indicate - for whom the present system is broken. If Brexit does create new opportunities, it also creates new challenges and many of these will fall to the charity sector to address.

So that’s why I’m wondering what else we can do to speak up. One thought I’ve been considering is we should have some sort of anonymous blog for leaders working in the charity sector to share their views. I’m not normally a fan of anonymous opinions but I am concerned that it has now become too difficult for charity leaders to talk about Brexit. We need a space which doesn’t rely on having to align so carefully to a single organisation’s key messages, values and specific purposes and where the conversation is not stifled by being over-cautious about crossing lines into political issues. What do you think? Might this be a way forward?

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