Stella Smith: Local groups could be the silver lining to post-Brexit storm clouds

The landscape the sector is working in bears little resemblance to the world we knew a year ago, writes the consultant

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

As we get back to work and settle back into routine, memories of sunshine fading as fast as the tan lines, so we return to reality with a bump and the big question lingering over the sector looms ever larger: what does Brexit mean for us? How will it affect our beneficiaries, funding, staff and volunteers?

There's no doubt the referendum result will have huge implications, as the flurry of comment on 24 June demonstrated. What will happen to the EU funding that has been so important? And to the status of the many EU staff on whom the sector relies? Financial uncertainty is bound to adversely affect public sector funding and charity investments. It will also discourage wider investment, which will lead to a fall in wages and growing unemployment, all of which will mean fewer donations and greater demand for charity services. We will certainly have our work cut out.

But before we get stuck into managing the inevitable threats, let's pause and reflect on what's going on and how we got here. After all, the landscape we're working in today bears little resemblance to the world we knew a year ago. We're faced with the Labour Party tearing itself apart, a surge in anti-immigrant hate crime, the possibility of another Scottish referendum on independence and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. How indeed did we get here?

The referendum sent a huge ripple across the UK. Not only did it signal disillusionment with Europe, but also widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, with large distant bureaucratic authorities that don't seem to hear, let alone listen or care. The institutions, which were meant to be giving people a voice, haven't been paying attention and the mainstream political parties have misjudged the public mood.

There had been indicators of this changing atmosphere for some time: a growing suspicion of big centralised bodies and increased demands for clear accountability. The calls for local decision-making have been growing louder. Today people want to see where their money goes and understand why. They want to know they have some control and that their voices matter. This is the pervading sentiment that has brought us to where we are now.

Of course, we'll have to work out how to manage the threats of Brexit, but we should also be mindful of these wider trends. This could be a particular challenge for the mega-charities, which can struggle to be seen as transparent. Post-Brexit, however, it might be through neighbourhood community groups, clubs and societies that charity really comes alive.

For example, it could be the local groups that deliver meals on wheels or raise money for a hospital scanner or campaign on behalf of local asylum seekers. Run by volunteers, these groups don't need to explain the costs of head office or their fundraising tactics. They don't need to invest in flash campaigns or establish a working group to draft text to explain what they do. It's plain to see why they're there and what they achieve.

And, above all, these groups build bridges across disparate communities, which is exactly what we need right now. There might well be a bumpy ride ahead for the sector, but a renewed and reinvigorated local voluntary sector just might be the silver lining to the Brexit storm clouds.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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