Here at whatCharity, we want to shed light on shifts in the environment that directly impact the charity sector. One such external factor which is hard to ignore is the political climate through which charities must navigate. Charities are generally expected to respond directly to the needs of the political atmosphere. However, as Claire Baxter explains in the following article, recent shifts in government post-Brexit are about to change that…

Brexit is far from over, but with the 31st January now behind us and a majority government in place, NCVO is anticipating the welcome return of a domestic policy agenda. Its latest outlook for the voluntary sector, The Road Ahead 2020 – an annual report that keeps those interested in the voluntary sector up to date with political, economic, social and technological shifts, check it out! – anticipates that urgent social issues will now get attention as political space opens up for charities to push forward important campaigns.  These add a vital element to democratic scrutiny and debate.

NCVO conclude with a challenge to the sector – how will you get your voice heard?

The good news is that some in the sector are well-placed. Work hasn’t stopped during the Brexit hiatus, and by accident or design, charities have shifted their approach to bringing about effective change. Normally, charities and their partners would be looking for ways to respond to social challenges set by the government’s agenda. However, the government’s preoccupation with external affairs during the hectic distraction of Brexit has meant charities have been able to focus more in depth on their own agendas.

This bodes well for charity sector’s influence over future policy debate for three reasons:

Firstly, they have turned their attention to exploring the issues that matter to them, in depth and on their own terms. Without the background noise of front bench politics, charities have been able to set their own agenda.

Second, it means charities will have credible evidence ‘ready to go’. We’re all bought in to the mantra of evidence-based policy, but evidence takes time that politicians lack.  Charities have had breathing space to test, to co-produce. There is rich information coming through on complex issues that might not ordinarily get debated, such as teenage coercive relationships and therapeutic models for people experiencing multiple disadvantage. The impact of this is a sector that has had much more time to focus on niche issues that might not usually be a high priority for the government.

Third, some have turned their attention to local decision makers. Examples include changes to council tax policy for care leavers and local custody suite practices. This area is perhaps the one offering greatest potential, by creating long lasting relationships and by shaping activities with a more direct impact on local people.

How much does this really change things?

Many of these excellent initiatives may have happened anyway. But I wonder whether they would have received the same energy or focus if it was business as usual for the government over the past few years. If the government’s political focus had not been so preoccupied with external affairs, charities might still feel they had to respond to the government strategy proposals.

Of course, influencing is never easy. This does not alter the age-old dilemmas that charities face. For example: How to take the experiences of individuals and turn them into policy proposals? How to constructively challenge the agencies that fund you?  How to make a social challenge politically appealing without stigmatising the people you are trying to empower? 

Nevertheless, charities are entering this parliament well placed, with new agendas, new evidence and new allies. With a return to more stable politics, it’s time to speak up.

Claire Baxter is the director of Richmond Baxter Ltd, an organisation that helps charities with their strategies, business plans and work with decision makers. She conducts research and facilitation to help trustees, staff and beneficiaries decide priorities and ways to deliver these.  Claire is also a trustee of a grant giving foundation and an art gallery.

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