A stark question maybe, but three years since the vote and after a couple of false starts, there’s no time left to mince words. Despite some figures from within the sector speaking out, the likely impact of Brexit on charities, and the people, places and causes they care about, has received neither the attention nor the debate it rightly deserves.

We’re hoping to change that next week. Together with the Brexit Civil Society Alliance (BCSA) and Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales (LBFEW), we’re launching ‘New Frontiers’, a short conference series which aims to start a debate about the future and evolving purpose of the social sector as we pick our way, gingerly, through Brexit. The first conference will be held in London on 26 April (book your place before they run out!), with a second in Greater Manchester in June.

Where are we and how did we get here?

We undertook the fieldwork for our first State of the Sector research report in the summer of 2016, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. While politicians went into meltdown, charity leaders were keeping their heads: 63% said that Brexit would have no impact—positive or negative—on their charities or on demand for their services. Only 36% thought that the result might adversely affect the cohesion of the communities they work in.

Fast forward to the summer of 2018, and charity leaders were much less sanguine about the future. In research that we did for our short Snapshots of the Sector series, they were vocal about how the continuing state of uncertainty on Brexit made it difficult to prepare for life post-departure:

There’s a hell of a lot of uncertainty, we haven’t really talked about implications but there is just an acceptance that there will be less funding down the line… there’s so many unknowns, it feels like larger organisations are holding back on launching new programmes until they see what the lie of the land is [after Brexit].

Our research is underlined by CAF’s most recent Charity Landscape report, which suggests that 63% of leaders now fear that Brexit will have a negative impact upon their charities (with 37% expecting charitable donations to drop as a direct result)—an almost complete reversal of our 2016 findings.

The vortex Brexit has created in Westminster & Whitehall, consuming politicians and civil servants alike, has compounded these fears of uncertainty and scarcity. As one of our respondents put it:

My biggest worry [about Brexit and the sector] is distraction in Government from the issues people are facing… instead everyone is thinking about trade agreements and medicine stockpiling, while there is a policy vacuum on many of the policy issues that charities are dealing with.

In normal times, many of the issues charities deal with can be considered crises, but now almost all of them have been eclipsed by the ur-crisis that is Brexit. How do we adapt to this new reality?

Systems change in a changing system

This is the fundamental question that the sector needs to address: how can we take back control of our own destiny and our own agency in the face of the challenges likely to confront post-Brexit Britain?

And if Brexit never happens—if Parliament revokes Article 50 or a second referendum vote swings the other way—the scale of the potential social revolt amongst Leavers could be such that our charities and community groups, the very spaces that civil society creates, will be needed more than ever. Are we fit for the task?

I think we need to take both outcomes very seriously, but also pay attention to an under discussed third possibility that is more likely than either No Deal or Remain—the inevitability of a long Brexit.

All of the stress and strife we have been through so far has only been about the terms of withdrawal and the transition. There’s a range of possibilities but it seems likely we will have a great deal of uncertainty and political wrangling over the future trading relationship. As these trade deals often seem to take many years to be negotiated, we cannot expect either the attention of politicians or the machinery of Whitehall to suddenly become available once the withdrawal is negotiated.

So while charities in recent years have got more and more into changing systems and tackling problems upstream, by working with government (and at NPC we fully support and advocate for this), we need to think about what we will do when the slow, tortuous pace at which we have made progress on issues at Westminster over the last few years becomes the norm.

And, perhaps a shift away from thinking about Westminster can help us in other ways. Do we fully understand the role that the sector might have played in Brexit happening in the first place? The words of one of our Snapshots of the Sector respondents have stayed with me since I first read them last autumn:

The Government and the charity sector had a role in letting those places go to wreck, and there’s a role for the charity sector to help support those areas that have been left behind… There is a massive place-based opportunity, I don’t think charities do nearly enough to help those places.

Swirling around inside my head for the past six months has been a worry that instead of fundamentally connecting with those people, places and causes that need our advocacy and support; instead of listening to their fears and worries, we’ve interpreted what they’ve told us and passed this on as part of a narrative that suits our own purposes and mirrors our view of the world as we see it.

I don’t have the answers to these questions—and I’ll be posing them to our conference next week. I hope you can join me to help find the answers, and think about the solutions for the future, together.

Sign up for the our Brexit conference or see our recent snapshot on Brexit. And don’t forget that we’ll be discussing this, and all the other challenges facing the social sector at our annual conference in October. 

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