Brexit - it simply cannot be escaped. The British public are inundated with it every time we turn on the television, bombarded with it every time we pick up a newspaper or listen to the radio. In fact, in the three years since the referendum, we have even seen the creation of movies and TV dramas on Brexit before the task of leaving the European Union has even been accomplished itself.
Brexit acts, metaphorically speaking, as a case study for the charity sector. It is fair to say that crisis management is a part and parcel of the work that we, as charitable organisations, do and Brexit, similarly, is a national crisis which is in the process of being ‘managed’ and ‘negotiated’. As such, when we identify the key players within the management of Brexit and juxtapose them with the crisis management structures within charities, we can draw interesting parallels that help us to reflect on the charity sector and the process of which we deal with crisis situations.
To illustrate, we divide the parties related to Brexit into three sections: the government, parliament, and the public who voted for or against Brexit. When we apply the actors within a charity to match these three sections: the government becomes the executive, Parliament becomes the governance structure and the public who voted become those who support the charity or receive services from it. Now that we have established the actors, we need to now establish a ‘crisis’ to help show the way in which our sector reflects Brexit.
For instance, a natural disaster occurs, or conflict arises somewhere in the world. It is unexpected and requires rapid action and the immediate raising of funds in order to administer the necessary humanitarian response. So, when difficulties arise, how must we navigate this? When we fundraise, we do so on the basis of a promise: ‘If you donate X, we will supply Y to this community for Z amount of months/years?’. What happens if this promise can, for whatever reason, no longer be upheld?
When the votes for the referendum were cast and the results came flooding in from every phone, laptop and television speaker, many of us did not anticipate the difficulties of what were to come. The question of the border in Northern Ireland rarely, if ever at all, featured in debates before the 23 June 2016 – yet it is evident now that it certainly should have. The reality is, there are many instances where what is promised cannot be easily delivered. We see this in numerous scenarios within the charity sector – perhaps logistically an organisation cannot access the specific area, maybe the necessary response was overstated, perhaps the project is just not feasible or possible, or the needs of the community have changed and decreased since the money had been initially fundraised.
We need to do more and work harder to ensure transparent, effective communication with donors and adopt a sense of realism and the honesty to admit where things have gone wrong, changed or have been misjudged. We must do more to hold ourselves to higher standards and plan more strategically and develop trust with donors so that they can be reassured that their money is being utilized as effectively as possible.
Furthermore, we have a duty not only to donors but to ourselves. Within our organisations we must work to foster good governance and establish healthy relationships between the executive and our boards of trustees. Working together, without any party attempting to undermine the other, helps us in times of crisis and in times of need, to ensure we are acting in the best possible way and mitigating some of the challenges we may face.
Communication and clarity
The key takeaway is the need for communication and clarity. It is so important that we work to ensure we are not only communicating internally within our organisations but also working harder to translate issues we may face to stakeholders. Our donors and the people we serve have the right to be informed of any of the challenges or major changes that do and/or could affect the process or the delivery of the project. This is particularly crucial in scenarios whereby some of the facts were unavailable earlier.
Ultimately, we must remember what unites our sector: our collective desire to make the world a better and fairer place for all who inhabit it. Things do happen and may not turn out the way we intended them to. The reality is that we are may not be happy or familiar with a decision or our plans are disrupted along the way – but we must always put the cause before our personal, departmental or organisational interests. By failing to communicate the realities of the difficulties we may face – we do a disservice to the sector and its real potential.
Brexit is a great learning opportunity for charities - and it’s about time we started taking notes.