Mark Flannagan: After Brexit and Trump, is it time to rethink our assumptions?

The chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer asks if the sector is too divorced from the public mood

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

Along with, I would guess, the vast majority of charity sector staff, I have felt pretty down about the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election. It isn’t party political to say that much of his rhetoric during the campaign alarmed many of us and made us worry about the general drift on issues we deeply care about and are working to address. Like Brexit, the result across the pond came as a profound shock and it is safe to assume too that many charity offices have been a bit gloomier since.

However, the results of both these public votes should be taken by our sector and everyone in it as an opportunity to rethink our assumptions and behaviours. In particular, we should now ask whether we are too divorced from the public mood, whether this matters and what we are going to do about it. Put starkly, are we too liberal and cosy compared with a British public that is looking for a fundamental shift in attitudes and power?

If we are really honest with ourselves, I think we would agree that the charity sector is pretty much metropolitan, middle class and not actually representative of the lives of "ordinary working people". In fact, in recent years and with recent scandals, our sector has at times been seen as somehow part of "the establishment". How did that happen? In reality, of course, there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people working within charities with diverse views and diverse experiences. But in any charity audience in any venue it will be a predominantly Guardian-reading, liberal leaning, higher-educated and high-culture group.

Now I’m not saying we should somehow feel guilty that we managed to get a university degree or that we can appreciate a fine wine. I am, however, saying that we should pause, reflect and consider just whether what we automatically think and believe – and these drive our actions and values every day – does actually connect with our potential audiences. Maybe it is just worth thinking that our reaction to recent so called "attacks" on charities has not connected with the wider public. Just like Hillary Clinton in the US and the remainers in the UK, are we taking for granted that our views and assumptions are shared by most of society when all the evidence is that there is at least a significant minority that feels dispossessed and ignored?

I have a university degree in an arguably esoteric subject, mediaeval history. I prefer wine to beer. I rarely watch reality television shows. I don’t have a second home in the country or spend a great deal of time schmoozing with the great and the good. I still consider myself to be "working class" because everything I earn I do so through my own work and I have no assumptions that I will be comfortable in retirement. I am also, possibly against the grain, a pragmatic centrist, who gets exasperated when I hear others’ desire to "educate" right-of-centre voters to be better.

Is it not time that our sector challenged its under-current of comfort with views that are out of touch with much of the public? If we don’t we will, at some point, see a decisive split between what we are seeking to achieve and what the public will support. I am not, to be clear, arguing that we all have to blindly accept views and beliefs at odds with our values. I’m saying that we need to listen more and condemn a little less.

Mark Flannagan is chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer. @MarkFlannCEO

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