What will Brexit mean for Charities?
“Brexit is Civil Society’s opportunity to think differently, assist government to make the transition and for major improvements to fix the cause of Brexit” Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive, NCVO told an audience of charity delegates at a debate jointly hosted by Sayer Vincent and Russell-Cooke Solicitors at London’s Law Society on 6th February.
Sir Stuart was joined for the Question Time style debate by Clare Pelham, Chief Executive, Epilepsy Society, Caron Bradshaw, Chief Executive, Charity Finance Group and Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive, Internews.
The panel was introduced by Jonathan Orchard, Partner, Sayer Vincent and Chaired by Chris Rowse, Partner, Russell-Cooke.
How have charities been affected by Brexit?
The panel said charities have felt the impact of Brexit since the Referendum vote. Issues include funding losses, the falling value of the pound and labour market shortages, particularly in social care. Charities are also anxious about regulatory changes, the loss of research opportunities and the future challenges of attracting international researchers.
For international charities there are other issues. Daniel Bruce said that once Brexit occurs, international development charities will immediately lose their contracts for European funding, but they will still have contracts to honour to serve their beneficiaries. This issue hasn’t been solved by government and it will have a diabolical impact on those that rely on the charities’ support. He also said the solution isn’t for charities to register an office in an EU country like Dublin or The Netherlands. He said having a brass plate office arrangement won’t work.
How has the sector worked with government?
Sir Stuart said Brexit has crowded out the government’s ability to engage in other policies; the country is deeply divided and nothing has been done to fix the issues. He criticised the original guidance from the Charity Commission as being, ‘a dog’s breakfast’. He said a Brexiteer was part of the board and the guidance, which was later challenged, did nothing to help charities.
Caren Bradshaw added that Civil Society has been similarly preoccupied with Brexit and now it was time for charities to go back to their business models, their objects and missions and speak to their beneficiaries about how Brexit is impacting them and act. She added that some charities won’t survive Brexit.
Have charities spoken out enough about Brexit?
Clare Pelham was surprised by how little there was from charities in the media about Brexit since the initial Referendum vote. She said,
“I wish I had said more. I think the sector could have been a bit braver about speaking out. We seem to have moved from despair to complacency and complaining.”
But she added, the sector is risk averse.
Sir Stuart agreed. He said charities have been in a ‘bubble’ and have lost sight of what are beneficiaries have told them on a local level but now there is an opportunity to change that.
What is the role of the sector now to heal the issues?
Claire Pelham highlighted one big opportunity was the fact a leadership vacuum has emerged that the sector can fill. She said:
“The kaleidoscope has changed. On a positive note, Brexit has reminded charities of their duty, what is important and the needs of their beneficiaries and that is a good thing. Charities should be talking to their staff and beneficiaries about how they are impacted and do other practical things such as review their financial strategy and look for new opportunities.”
What are the new opportunities?
Sir Stuart said Brexit offered the sector a real opportunity for change. He said there was an opportunity now to “change how we deliver. The voiceless and disenfranchised have spoken for a reason and let us be their voice.”
The panel agreed that there was a real need now to put politics aside and speak up for beneficiaries. Speaking after the event, Jonathan Orchard of Sayer Vincent said:
“The evening was a great opportunity for staff and trustees from a wide range of charities to share views and experiences on how they are preparing for the potential implications of Brexit. As well as highlighting some of the challenges, it was refreshing to hear about some opportunities for refocussing on mission and new opportunities in fundraising.”