The Road Ahead: What next for the voluntary sector?

We are starting 2020 – not only a new year but also a new decade – with perhaps a great deal more certainty than we have had for a while. After years of political instability, following last year’s Christmas general election result, we now have a firm government with a clear plan of action, at least in the short term.

But there is still a tremendous amount that we don’t know. The year has started at the height of unsettling global events, and we are facing a number of global political, economic and human relief challenges. All of these will increase the need for the support that so many charities provide to people and communities, both in our country and abroad.

So just as much as in previous years, the message for charities is about the importance of planning ahead.

Charities have always needed to look ahead to changes in their policy or regulatory environment, and now it is just as important for them to be aware of the political, economic, social and technological landscape. Charities must learn to adapt to unpredictability, and plan for a wide range of eventualities when they think about the future.

Our annual Road Ahead report is therefore timely. By identifying the key political, economic, social, and technological trends that are shaping the voluntary sector’s operating environment, it will help charities think about the implications for their work and how they can prepare for the challenges – and opportunities – ahead.

Getting Brexit done

We now have more certainty over Brexit than we have had before. We know that the UK is set to leave the EU on 31 January 2020 and enter the transition period, which will end on 31 December 2020.

This could mean that after a very long time there is a chance for attention to turn away from Brexit and focus on domestic issues. The political paralysis we have witnessed for the past few years could finally make way for some other issues that are in urgent need of being properly addressed, such as education and local government, a green industrial revolution, and health and social care.

But Brexit is a long- term process, not a one-off event. It has already had a massive social and political impact and will continue to do so for some time. Even after we exit, civil service capacity will have to be mainly dedicated to dealing with the implications of us no longer being part of the EU.

Charities may therefore find greater political space to push forward their campaigns, but need to be mindful that continued Brexit implementation means things may ultimately not happen – or are unlikely to happen at pace.

An uncertain economic outlook

The year is also starting in an uncertain economic environment, making it difficult to make accurate forecasts.

For charities, this is likely to mean continued demand for their services and support, as the individuals and communities they serve struggle to make ends meet. From providing employment advice to mental health support, charities will have an increased role in helping people through the times ahead. At the same time, many charities could have their own internal challenges caused by the planned increase in the living wage leading to higher staff costs.

Furthermore, while government spending may increase it’s unlikely to feel like the taps have suddenly been turned on: pressure on voluntary sector funding and support looks set to continue. Charities with income from government will continue to find it challenging to deliver high-quality services with less money to do so.

More unites us than divides us

There has been talk about the need for a period of healing since the EU referendum result, and 2020 could be the year during which this important process starts.

Boris Johnson’s maiden speech as prime minister took a conciliatory tone to reach out across the political divide, promising a ‘one nation’ government that would embrace the feelings of ‘warmth and sympathy’ felt by remain voters towards the other nations of Europe.

This move could also be a reflection of recent research showing that people are much more united in their beliefs and values than media reporting would suggest, and that the divisive narrative of ‘us and them’ has been created on the basis of a gross overestimate of the difference between groups.

Overall there is an important message, not just for politicians and media commentators, but for charities too: instead of focusing on the differences, we should be highlighting the more common similarities that can bolster social cohesion and encourage positive attitudes more generally.

New activism and technology

Concern over the environment is a clear example of how the issues that people care about are increasingly shared, and bringing together people from across different age groups and parts of society.

The sense of urgency to find solutions to environmental challenges is also encouraging people to mobilise in ways and through initiatives that are different from the traditional institutions, including charities. We are seeing the emergence of a new generation of activists, who focus on the cause and embrace a much wider range of ways of ‘doing good’. Charities aren’t necessarily viewed as an essential element of this.

Instead, an increasing role is being played by the ‘tech for good’ movement. For issues that have global significance, technology can dramatically expand outreach capacity in a way that no one charity can match.

But even for smaller scale issues, we are seeing that people’s engagement and support is changing. We can see it, for example, in the increased investment in ‘lifestyle politics’ and the extensive use of social media and peer networks.

Thinking about the bigger picture

As we think about these important issues and the implications they have for charities and their work, it’s striking that there is little room for thought about perhaps less practical but equally fundamental questions that need to be answered.

For example, regardless of what happens, what sort of society we want to be? Who or what will bring our country together? What will build a more sustainable and inclusive economy? And what do we need to do if we are to live in a more integrated, open society?

Charities should be part of these conversations, and offer more than just a diagnosis. We need a vision for the future, rooted in the values and shaped by the traditions of what is best about civil society: community, kindness, fairness, respect, inclusion and above all an impulse to help. It’s up to all of us to help forge this new agenda – with charities helping to define the sort of country we want to be.