VCSE Futures - What does Brexit mean for the sector

VCSE Futures - What does Brexit mean for the sector

13 December 2016

As Building Change Trust prepares to enter the final 2 years of our 10 year life span, we’ve decided to conclude our overall programme of work by engaging with the sector and others to look at the future issues facing the sector.

Even more importantly we want to articulate the actions organisations, funders and policy makers need to take to ensure the benefits of voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations in Northern Ireland are maintained and maximised into the future.

As we were planning this programme of work, which we’ve loosely titled “The Future of the VCSE sector in Northern Ireland?, the UK electorate as whole voted to leave the European Union.

We began to think if Brexit would be key future issue for the sector and if it might be an issue worthy of any specific intervention by us in our programme.

NICVA’s recent Brexit survey with the sector indicates that the majority of organisations - 78% of respondents - are concerned about Brexit with the funding and economic impacts to the fore.

Conversely, according to NICVA’s CEO Seamus McAleavey, speaking at the NICVA Brexit event on 10 November, only 12% of the survey respondents anticipated some benefits from Brexit - identifying in particular a reduction in bureaucracy, return of decision making to the UK and changes in tax regulations as the anticipated benefits.

According to Queens University Belfast’s Professor David Phinnimore, speaking at the same event, we can only start to sketch out what might happen next after having left the EU.

According to Proffessor Phinnimore  – we are in totally uncharted territory with a huge amount of complexity and uncertainty - of which the particular position of Northern Ireland, and the arrangements with the Republic of Ireland, and the border, are one thorny example.

There are many issues to think about for organisations, some are questions with answers, others are questions relating to preparedness for dealing with change and uncertainty.

Many of the issues pertaining to Brexit apply to VCSE organisations no matter where they are located within the UK, but of course there are many NI specific issues relating to the political process here.

The fact post-Brexit Northern Ireland will have a border with another EU member state and the implications of that for the movement of people, goods and services, being the most obvious.

On top of that, we have VCSE and other organisations working on a cross border and all Ireland basis. As well as this, some health and other public services are also delivered within that context.

Thinking again about that NICVA Viewfinder survey, and the small percentage of organisations that identified benefits, we wonder do we need to look at the question of benefits or opportunities in a different way.

It’s not only there might not be any benefits and/or opportunities from Brexit but the bigger issue is that we just don’t know, or can’t tell, at this stage and it’s hard to predict if, and when, we might be able to discern any.

For VCSE organisations in Northern Ireland, opportunities are better considered as needs, either of people and place, that organisations respond to meet.

It’s telling, when we look at the Viewfinder survey, that not many respondents highlighted what Brexit might mean in terms of their beneficiaries – although it might be the case that concerns about funding and the wider economic impact in NI are both proxies for this.

Maybe it’s just too early to tell, and most likely, these implications will be best identified by organisations keeping abreast of information and developments through their own membership bodies and wider infrastructure organisations such as NICVA.

The Directory of Social Change published a helpful guide in July past which set out some practical steps that organisations could take to help ensure as they said “keep calm and carry on helping people”.  

As Brexit develops and clarity emerges in time around the UK position and the circumstances that will appear here – the implications in respect of needs and opportunities locally may become easier to discern and at that stage there will be a need for the sector to begin to think about the future implications and how to respond individually and collectively.

Right now, however, and at a strategic level, I wonder if the biggest opportunity is not specific issues emerging from Brexit itself, but rather the sector asking itself is it ready and equipped to deal with the uncertainty and change that will come along with it.

Living in uncertain times where the only thing that is constant is change, then we’re surely about to experience even more of it given the complexity of Brexit, which could develop, and take place, over decades.

What then do we as a sector need to do to ensure the needs of our beneficiaries – people and place – can continue to be identified and met into the future?

This was a question we at Building Change Trust asked back in 2010 as we sought to define our own strategy to support change in the sector.  

Circumstances were different then – the much anticipated RPA had been delayed and the global financial crisis effects were still rippling and reverberating. 

We honed in on some areas of instrumental support to the sector – providing support for collaboration, supporting the development and uptake of social finance and equipping organisations to look at their impact practice.

Whilst we’ve made significant investments and supported real practical work in these areas, they’re not to be considered problems that have been solved – they’re areas that both individual organisations need to consider and areas of needed long term support from funders, policy makers and infrastructure bodies.

These must surely be considered when organisations are looking at their resilience.

But beyond these areas of what might be considered instrumental support – we also identified themes more related to the purpose of the sector itself.

This brought us to identify the themes of Social Innovation and Creative Space for Civic Thinking as key domains of change in the sector.

We’ve been supporting change in the sector but there are surely many dimensions to change and a lot of work to be done to equip organisations and individuals to deal with uncertainty.

The need for resilience and adaptability must go beyond what individual organisations and needs to be at the forefront of thinking by membership, infrastructure bodies, funders and policy makers.

Our conclusion about the VCSE sector and Brexit isn’t an answer – it’s a number of questions:

What needs to be done to equip organisations and individuals to deal with the uncertainty emerging?

What’s already being done that needs to continue and develop?

What else needs to be done?

The answers to these are many, and complex, but it’s time we started developing the answers because it’s only then that we’ll be able to take the action needed before it’s too late.

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