Scottish and UK flags

Six months out: charities and the #indyref

By Guest contributor 18 March 2014

Dr Jim McCormick became Scotland Adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in November 2007 and was previously director of independent think-tank the Scottish Council Foundation (SCF) for five years. He is co-founder of a research partnership, McCormick-McDowell, and is a board member of Scottish Business in the Community. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Pinch yourself. In six months, Scotland will vote to stay or go. The debate has entered a sharper phase since the turn of the year. The Prime Minister has started to ‘love-bomb’ the Scots from each corner of the union with pleas to stay, and even David Bowie entered a four-word written appeal at the Brits Awards: ‘Scotland stay with us.’

But it’s the realpolitik as viewed from the Treasury, the MoD, DWP and others making the case for the Union that has raised the temperature. In quick succession, and putting it mildly, the future of sterling and Scotland’s place in the European Union have been cast into doubt by UK Ministers. Prepare for the case to be taken to charities before long. The National Lottery? Gift Aid? Scotland’s relationship with UK-wide fundraising?

Unlike the business sector, which is gradually declaring its hand, the third sector in Scotland isn’t grabbing headlines with views about risk and opportunity. Nor are they likely to say much—in  public—about emerging plans for further devolution being unveiled by Labour, the Lib Dems and Conservatives. But that doesn’t mean no response can be detected.

Carnegie UK Trust, active throughout the UK and Ireland, has shone a light on how charities can prepare for possible constitutional change. Its latest report Ten Steps for charities and the #indyref sets out what every charity can do to ensure trustees engage in planning and thought about the potential consequences for their beneficiaries.

Working with OSCR (the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator), Carnegie has convened a thoughtful process which helps charities steer a safe passage through unfamiliar territory. This is relevant to UK-wide and international charities with a Scottish presence as well as those in Scotland only: Carnegie estimates 60% of UK charities have a committee and/or Trustees to represent Scotland. They need to think through the impact for their work in the rest of the UK as well as the kind of operation they would want to have in Scotland.

Some charities view the referendum as, first and foremost, an exercise in democracy—for  example, disability and long-term condition charities are working to ensure beneficiaries have a chance to debate the issues and are registered with any support needed to cast their vote in September. The Scottish Refugee Council’s impressive approach has mapped out what each of three scenarios might mean for refugees—the status quo, further devolution and independence—and what needs to be done within these various powers to deliver on its charitable mission. Non-partisan engagement on core objectives is giving some a chance to improve strategic planning for any eventuality.

The referendum can only deliver one of two results. But various consequences flow from each. What looks like an exercise in arithmetic—where the majority rules—could look more like tricky geometry.

If the result is a decision to remain in the UK but only by 55%-45%, that will send a very different signal to UK political parties than the 65%-35% outcome suggested by early polls (at least once the ‘don’t knows’ are excluded). UK-wide charities might be reading the polls and consider there isn’t much to be done: I’ve heard ‘they won’t really do it, will they?’ often on trips to London. A better response would be to draw upon trustees and staff based in Scotland to spot opportunities to improve understanding of the changing context and share evidence from practice across the UK.

That’s the theme of another Carnegie UK Trust project (in alliance with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation): even if the constituent parts of the UK diverge in law, policy and practice, they are likely to face common challenges and can learn a great deal more from each other. Before the dust settles on the referendum, and ahead of the 2015 General Election, there is a rare moment for charities to do what they are sometimes best at—looking beyond the stuff of risk mitigation and introspection in a spirit of shared inquiry.

Naïve? Maybe. But better than simply keeping our heads down.