The other day I saw a job ad, inviting budding campaigners to join a major development charity. The tagline along the top of the ad read: ‘Come and help us change the world’.

It’s hardly a humble slogan. But then the world faces some pretty daunting challenges, so maybe we shouldn’t be too snarky. As my boss pointed out the other day, it is no bad thing that there are large, professionalised charities which are big enough to try and make a lasting impact on very complex problems.

Will charities be in a position to change anything in a meaningful way, though? The mood music from Whitehall about charity campaigning—and trying to influence underlying social structures rather than just fix problems as they emerge—isn’t encouraging. The argument is that charities have become too political, and too free with how they use public money to influence government. Hence the demand that the voluntary sector ‘sticks to their knitting’, along with the effect of the Lobbying Act and the new proposals on advocacy; and hence fears that some charities are making poor decisions about how to influence the people who matter.

The EU referendum will be another moment to test this. We now have a date, 23 June, announced after the Prime Minister’s bleary-eyed negotiations in Brussels last week.

NPC held an expert roundtable earlier in the month to try and unpick the topic, where one attendee advised that ‘every charity should, as a matter of course, be doing research into the impact of the EU referendum’ on its mission.

Which begs another question: where will such research take you?

If your mission is, say, to relieve the suffering of refugees in Europe, and your knowledge and experience tells you that a No vote will hit your beneficiaries, can you come right out and support staying in the EU? Or will you fall foul of rules which ban overt political positioning?

At our roundtable, one participant argued that ‘it is permissible for a charity to take an express view on whether it’s best to be in or out’ of Europe. This is extremely welcome, although other people around the table were quick to point out that, with existing legislation already causing such confusion (‘an echo chamber of worry,’ as NPC has noted), it is a big step from knowing this to taking the risk of acting on it.

The government is sending out its mixed signals. Addressing the world’s industry leaders in Davos in January this year, David Cameron had some encouraging words for the ability of charities and NGO to force positive change:

I will back a major push on tackling global hunger, under-nutrition and stunting this year. And I applaud the NGOs, the charities, the organisations that are motivating public opinion, business opinion, world opinion on this absolutely vital issue’.

This doesn’t just sound like permission to change the world. It’s practically an invitation for charities to give it a go. Yet meanwhile at the Cabinet Office guidelines are being prepared which will make such ambitions much harder to realise.

Whoever the young campaigner is who answers that ad, they are stepping into an uncertain future.

Let us know whether or not your charity is planning to campaign on the EU referendum via this anonymous twitter poll.

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