May 9, 2018

Earlier this year I addressed a room full of charities about what Brexit might mean for the voluntary sector. At the “very worst”, I pointed out, Brexit shouldn’t scare it, the sector has to overcome far more difficult social situations faced by its users every day. But “at very best”, I went on to say, there could there be huge opportunities from a renewed focus on small, grass-roots enterprises, and some redistribution of finances.

Talk about a hostile environment. If the boos and tutting audible in the room left any doubt as to people’s views, the offensive comments during the question and answer session made them abundantly clear.

Regardless of which way anyone voted in the EU referendum, the level of groupthink among those few hundred charity leaders was startling. The universal view of Brexit as bad news puts the sector completely at odds with more than half of the country. But more importantly, it puts charity leaders at odds with the people they serve – by almost any measure, the more disadvantaged communities voted to leave the EU.

Charity leaders don’t have to agree with Brexit, but they should want to understand why so many of their users voted for it
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Our own research at the Centre for Social Justice showed poorer and less well-educated voters were more likely to back Leave, and by a significant margin.

There is a direct correlation between household income and likelihood to vote Leave — 62% of those with income of less than £20,000 wanted to leave the EU, but just 35% of those with an income of £60,000 voted Leave. The majority of those not in work backed Leave, and social housing tenants backed Leave.

Charity leaders don’t have to agree with Brexit, but they should want to understand why so many of their users voted for it. The angry, singular reaction I received on suggesting leaving the EU could present opportunities for the voluntary sector revealed a complete lack of interest in listening to an alternative perspective.

That echo-chamber mentality stretches beyond Brexit. The first reaction of many of those same charity leaders to the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal in Haiti was to point at government failings in international aid. There has since been some much-needed soul searching and change, but that first response speaks volumes.

Some of this groupthink comes from an understandable bunker mentality. The sector too often has to fight for scraps at the tail end of local commissioning processes, and constantly prove itself to a myriad of funders. It has to search and beg for volunteers, and work on hand-me-down 1990 Amstrad computers. This constant fight for survival leads to a defensiveness, rather than a welcoming of different or new thinking.

But that is no excuse for the increasing pessimism, stagnation and groupthink. Every day charities are fighting major social problems in the belief that they can be fixed. That takes optimism and creativity, and a fundamental belief in the possibility of change.

The work done by the sector is incredible, it quite literally changes lives. But that doesn’t mean it can’t improve. If a room of 300 charities thinks with one mind on an issue like Brexit, over which the rest of the country is completely split, you can be pretty sure it is missing out on ideas and talent.

Charity leaders should be open-minded enough to embrace people and organisations that may make them uncomfortable. There is plenty of evidence that companies with more diverse boards perform better – and that means diversity of thought and experience as much as gender and race. If the mirror you look in always reflects what you want to see and hear, you will never improve.