The EU and the Referendum Matter to Charities and VCS - They Need to Engage Positively

20/05/2016 15:57

The outcome of the UK wide referendum on 23rd June will have significant long term implications for the country's governance, politics, economy, environment, public services, employment rights, social mobility, migration, refugees, asylum status ... and so much more.

Indeed, whatever the outcome, the referendum will result in what is effectively a new constitutional settlement, which will have implications for many charities. In other words - it matters!

Charities concerned with social wellbeing, fairness, social justice and inclusion, employment, the environment and much more simply cannot ignore the referendum. In particular, they should not assume that the vote on 23rd June has nothing to do with them and their beneficiaries. Quite the reverse - if they value the benefits of EU membership, it most certainly does matter. And I expect that many charities do value the benefits of membership - especially after any analysis of the issues.

Many charities, whether aware of such or not, are in receipt of EU funding, either directly, or via public bodies, or from public bodies that are using EU funds to support programmes involving charities. It is also the case that charities and community groups will be working in places and with communities which are the beneficiaries of EU grants and investment. And they will often be working with people who have enhance employment rights and protections as a consequence of EU legislation. Those charities which fall into this category would be ill-advised to ignore the referendum. It matters.

Some charities contract with the public sector and consequently are subject to EU procurement regulations. For those charities in this category, there is an immediate and direct reason to be concerned about the referendum. And no one should think that if the UK leaves the UK these or similar procurement rules will not continue, so it matters.

My advice to every charity board and senior executive is to ensure that you fully understand and are well briefed on the potential impact of the referendum on your beneficiaries, their communities and for your charity itself. You need to understand what could be at stake if the UK were to vote to leave the EU, including the implications of the inevitable economic turmoil.

Such activity is simply what any responsible board and senior leadership of any prudent charity should be doing; and indeed should be doing constantly in terms of: anticipating political and economic change; being confident of understanding the implications of any national or macro change; assessing the risks and identifying the opportunities; and ensuring appropriate strategies to respond are in place. This is what good governance is all about.

Charity trustees have an absolute and overriding duty to act at all times in the interests of their charity and deploy their charity's resources only to advance its charitable purposes, for the benefit of the charity's beneficiaries. So let's be clear, for in the case of the EU referendum, this may require some charities to use their resources to make their voice heard and to explain why they are so doing. They can and should be willing to explain why their evidence-based analysis suggests supporting staying in or leaving the EU, and what this means for their beneficiaries. Failure to do this could very easily be deemed to be a dereliction of their responsibilities.

Of course, I fully acknowledge that charity trustees and senior executives will wish to avoid being drawn into partisan and over-politicised debates - but this does not mean they should avoid the issues raised by the referendum and engage in it. Far from it.

If trustees decide that a particular outcome of the Referendum is likely to support the charity's ability to further its objects, they might well and quite reasonably decide to publicly advocate that outcome in the referendum campaign. And in doing so, trustees will clearly need to be mindful of the law and your charity's reputation. Equally, however, you should also be aware of the risks of damaging this reputation by simply standing aside and remaining silent.

In any event, the Charity Commission has softened its original guidance that sought to dissuade charities from being engaged with the referendum debate. And significantly, the civil society minister has urged charities to speak up in the referendum debate. Rob Wilson, the Cabinet Office minister for the charity sector who backs staying in the EU, said it was legitimate and valuable for the voice of voluntary organisations to be heard during the campaign.

I share Rob Wilson's view and similarly urge charities and voluntary and community groups to be ready to defend and promote the objectives of their charities and the interests of their beneficiaries.

As you will have gathered, my firm personal opinion is that the UK will be stronger if we stay as members of the EU. I believe that this is in the economic, environmental and social interests of the country and most charities' beneficiaries. And I would be surprised if most charities, having undertaken an analysis of the issues at stake on 23rd June, did not come to a similar position (and many, like me, will also wish to argue and campaign for reform of the EU's institutions and policies post-referendum).

There is an opportunity and, I believe, that there would be great advantage from the EU strengthening its current and adopting even more enlightened social policies and frameworks including addressing inequality and poverty across the members states, adopting an more enlightened approach to migration, creating a stronger sense of an Europe of communities as much if not more than of nation states and supporting pan-European social movements and social action. Many charities will agree with this and if Britain votes to remain a member of the EU this case can and should e made with vigour.

Any charities that believe that their beneficiaries would benefit from a "Brexit" should be ready to say so too. I would expect that such charities will be in a small minority.

Some may wish to work with others in the sector and / or with those engaged in the wider referendum campaign. Whatever you do, charity trustees should think and act positively; and above all, decide what if anything you should be doing and saying.

If charities and trustees in particular wake up on 24th June and think "Oh no this result is going to be very damaging for our charity and our beneficiaries" or 'what a missed opportunity", this will be too late. Now is the time to do something. It matters - so act.