16/06/2016 08:56 BST | Updated 16/06/2017 06:12 BST

EU Referendum: Charities Should Speak Up

In just over a week, the British electorate will have decided what is probably the most important political decision for generations, and for which the outcome will impact hugely on future generations.

The EU Referendum is vital for the economic, social, environmental and political future of this country. It also has major implications for the other EU member states, and still more internationally.

Clearly, this is, ultimately, a matter for the electorate (the citizens of the UK) to decide. However, there is a duty and responsibility for charities and others to at least consider the issues at stake, whichever way the vote may go; and to make their analysis of and views on these issues known to their members, supporters and other stakeholders. Indeed, it could be argued that a charity, its senior leadership and its trustees would be failing in their duty if they had not considered the possible consequences of the Referendum resulting in a decision to "Remain In" or to "Brexit".

Whether a charity is concerned with poverty, children, refugees, the environment, animal rights and protection, health, education, employment or what so ever, it is almost certain the Referendum result will have an impact on their beneficiaries, the policies they are advocating, and potentially on the charity itself.

If, as most economists and internationally respected economic institutions and commentators currently forecast - that a "Brexit" vote will inevitably lead to a weaker British economy and a further squeeze on public expenditure, this will clearly have a major negative impact on the well-being of many charities' beneficiaries, and at the same make fund raising that much more challenging.

Similarly, if employee protection and rights were to be at risk from "Brexit", for some charities this would of significant concern.

Likewise, if the standards of environmental protection were to be reduced and ceased to be effectively standardised across the continent, this would be of considerable concern to many charities working in this field.

And the same applies to all charities involved across the full spectrum of concerns, policy areas, client groups and communities that the UK sector addresses.

In addition, for many charities there could be a negative financial impact of a "Brexit" vote given that many are in receipt of EU funding. Indeed, many have recently been involved in the latest round of European Social Fund bids, whilst many others receive money from public bodies that in turn are in receipt of EU funding.

Research undertaken earlier this year by the 'Britain Stronger In' campaign found that British charities would lose more than £200m in funding each year if the UK votes to leave the European Union (the research conducted found that 249 charities received £217m from the EU in 2014, the most recent year for which there are available figures).

If the UK were to leave the EU, there is no guarantee that the UK or devolved governments or other public bodies would replace the lost funds from the EU. In fact, and in all likelihood, they could not and certainly would not make up the entire lost funding.

This serious risk to the financial security of charities should be of major concern to senior sector leaders and trustees.

I have no doubt that others may argue that "Remaining In" could have disadvantages to some charities and to their beneficiaries. However, in order to know (or at least, reach a reasonable judgement on these matters), charities do need to 'think' and 'analyse' the facts and likely prospects as best they can.

If the previous few paragraphs have given the impression that charities should be most concerned about the potential adverse risks of the Referendum results, there are positive considerations to be taken into account too.

Many environmental, social and economic issues, which charities are concerned with, can best and sometimes only be dealt with on an international scale, and through collaboration across politically-drawn national boundaries. Indeed, some require collaboration between governments, and/or between charities and civil society organisations, themselves collaborating internationally.

If the UK votes to "Remain In", I believe that there will be many more opportunities for UK civil society and charitable organisations to build upon and extend existing European co-operation. This already takes many forms, including: joint campaigns to influence the EU political leadership and its institutions; co-ordinated campaigns aimed at the domestic governments and citizens in member states; joint programmes to address pan-border issues, such as support for refugees and much more; and the sharing of learning and experience between and across member nations.

The UK charity sector is at the forefront of civil society and social action. What could be more powerful and a greater stimulant for a more socially responsible Europe than a pan-EU social movement for change, progress and social justice. In fact, for these last few words, one could easily substitute 'environment', 'climate improvement' and many other goals core to the mission of so many charities.

My plea to charities, their senior leaders, trustees, supporters and other stakeholders is that over the next week, you consider five key questions and share your thoughts widely on the answers to them. These are:

  • if the UK were to "Brexit", to what extent would our charity and its ability to fulfil its mission be diminished or enhanced?
  • if the UK were to vote to "Remain In", to what extent would our charity and its ability to fulfil its mission be diminished or enhanced?
  • can our charity, and others with similar missions in the UK, achieve more by collaborating and working with sister organisations across the EU; and would be this be easier and secure better outcomes if the UK is a member of the EU or not?
  • how should and can we share our analysis and views on the benefits and risks of the UK voting to leave or to stay within the EU?
  • should we be offering advice to our stakeholders and/or the wider electorate on our preferred Referendum decision, or simply share our analysis of the two possible Referendum decisions, or should we stay silent?

I recognise that some charities will wish to be silent but this should be a conscious decision and not one born out of a failure to consider the questions.

There may be just a days until the polls open but there is still time for charities to consider and answer these questions - if you believe that they are appropriate, and if you believe it is appropriate to engage in the campaign.

After ten o'clock on the evening of 23rd June, it will be too late - and the die will have been caste.

My personal expectation is that most charities would, if they were to be objective in their approach, want an affirmative vote for the UK to "Remain In", because this will best enable them to pursue their mission.

And it is significant that some charities have already made their views known - or at least, shared their analysis.

Ultimately, I fully recognise and accept that the decision is one for the citizens of the UK, but charities not just politicians should speak up and do so for their beneficiaries. But let's remember that it is those same citizens who together form civil society and are members of, work for, support and/or benefit from charities.