Rob Jackson: Brexit and volunteering

I wasn’t going to write about Brexit this month. It’s the obvious topic, we are all talking about it, but it just felt to soon to say anything meaningful about the subject in regard to volunteering. With weeks - if not months - of uncertainty ahead of us now is not the time to making bold predictions about what the future holds for us. We just don’t know.

What changed my mind was a post referendum flurry of articles and predictions that talked only about the economic impacts of Brexit on UK civil society. "What will it do to our fundraising income?", was the consistent theme. Yet again, commentators and sector leaders talking like businesses, as if the only resource we have to do our work is money and therefore the most pressing issue is the extent to which Brexit might reduce those financial resources, especially in the face of potentially greater need should we return to recession.

I have made this point before in my Third Sector column - when the voluntary and community sector starts to think the only resource it has to get things done is money then its distinctiveness from the private sector is weakened. I am not saying money isn’t important to our work but it isn’t all we have at our disposal to realise our missions. In fact, the vast majority of charities have no paid staff and comparatively little (or no) income at all, for them talk of the impacts on fundraising can be meaningless.

A key element of what makes the sector distinctive is our capacity to engage volunteer support. There are 23 million volunteers in the country, the vast majority working for and running good causes across the UK. We must not dismiss them and volunteering from our considerations of the potential impacts of Brexit.

Volunteers are at the coal face of working with the communities likely to be hardest hit by any economic ramifications of leaving the EU.

Volunteers are part of the family and friend networks who have been divided by the Leave and Remain campaign.

Volunteers are young people, many of whom seem to be passionately committed to the EU ideals and so likely to want to act, to campaign, to volunteer for change.

Volunteers are the baby boomers, many of who seem to have been passionately committed to leaving the EU, and so will hopefully be enthusiastic towards wanting to make our post-Brexit society better.

Volunteers are citizens of other EU countries, some who have made the UK their home and others who take part in EU exchange and volunteering programmes like Erasmus.

Volunteers are non-EU citizens living in the UK and refugees and asylum seekers, people who might fear for their status and future now, especially in light of recent increases in appalling racially motivated behaviour towards others.

So, when a major challenge like Brexit faces our society we have to think broader than the financial implications. We have to consider our volunteers, the opportunities and challenges that face them personally, and what that might mean for us in terms of their ongoing support.

This is a key part of thinking broader than just the money we have as a way to get things done. Failure to do so not only robs us of our distinctiveness but risks selling short those who we work with and, most crucially those who we serve, those who deserve better from us.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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