Brexit arose from a sense of disenfranchisement and it presents serious challenges for charities but also opportunities

Brexit is civil society's opportunity to think differently and shape the post-Brexit world, Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive, NCVO told an audience of charity delegates at a debate jointly hosted by law firm Russell-Cooke and accountants Sayer Vincent at London's Law Society on 6th February.

The key findings of the debate included:

  • charities missed the opportunity to speak up at an earlier stage of Brexit
  • they have been feeling the impact ever since the referendum – in funding losses, falling value of the pound and labour market shortages
  • international development charities who will lose EU funding still have no plug for that funding shortfall
  • some charities may not survive the social and economic changes that result from Brexit
  • some charities need to reconnect with their beneficiaries and change how they deliver their activities
  • Brexit is a wake-up call to the sector and could be an opportunity for renewal.

Sir Stuart was joined for the Question Time style debate by Clare Pelham, Chief Executive, Epilepsy Society (speaking in a personal capacity), 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. 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 could 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: having a brass plate office arrangement may not be enough.

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 also criticised the original version of guidance from the Charity Commission on campaigning in the context of the EU referendum as being, 'a dog's breakfast'. He said a Brexiteer was part of the board of the Commission and the guidance, which was later challenged, did nothing to help charities.

Caron Bradshaw added that civil society has been 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 the changes that are taking place.

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 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?

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." She said 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.

Conclusion

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 refocusing on mission and new opportunities in fundraising."

Chris Rowse, partner, Russell-Cooke said: "It was my privilege to chair such a distinguished and experienced panel of speakers on Wednesday at our Brexit panel event. The charity sector has always taken a lead in healing social divisions and speaking up for the voiceless and the vulnerable. It was clear from the discussions between the panel and the audience that the charity sector has an important role to play in shaping the post-Brexit world. To do this, charities will need to be bold and adapt to wider changes that are taking place in society, to ensure they can best serve their beneficiaries.

Russell-Cooke was delighted to support this event. Our charity and social business team provides support to the charity sector, by using our commercial acumen to assist our third sector clients with timely, practical but thoughtful advice in these times of upheaval and uncertainty."