Bees, butterflies and Brexit: charities and the EU referendum

The bitter debate over membership of the European Union is increasing in pace and as polling day draws closer and with many still undecided. It seems that everyone has an opinion – politicians of every stripe, FTSE 100 leaders, even Rabbis have even throw their hats into to the ring. The list is endless. Up until now, however, charities have largely been conspicuous by their absence – perhaps for good reason.

The charity sector has faced tough decisions over whether to enter the debate. Restrictive guidance from the Charity Commission of England and Wales, issued in March, warned charities that chose to campaign in the EU referendum that they risked breaching guidelines on political campaigning. Charities complained, not altogether unfairly, that they were being muzzled and a climb-down predictably followed. The advice is now a little clearer – with charities now told that they can support a particular outcome if they take the view that one or the other outcome would support their charitable objectives.

Given the twists and turns that have got us to this point, it is little wonder that charity trustees and senior management teams, already preoccupied by the day-to-day business of fundraising, operational delivery and so on, think twice before throwing themselves into the melee. In weighing up the pros and cons of speaking publicly, it must seem to many in the sector that such a step could bring many risks and little reward.

So far, so risk averse, and quiet neutrality seems be the preferred stance. However not all charities have taken this view. Last week, two of the UK’s leading environmental charities took up the ‘remain’ mantle on behalf of Britain’s butterflies, bees and rare birds who, they said, would be more at risk if the country voted to leave the EU. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, the heads of the RSPB and WWF argued that the ‘safer option’ for UK wildlife would be to remain part of a Europe-wide environmental initiative.


Is this going to open the floodgates? Will we see a rush of charities jockeying for space, desperate to give their two-cents on the Brexit question?

The fact remains that charities need to think hard about whether to take a stance, even where they are satisfied that they won’t be breaking any rules in doing so. There is the risk that next to charities’ primary functions, entry into the EU debate will be seen as, at best, a distraction or at worst a step that alienates more than it achieves.

This is not to say charities should stay silent in all cases. There may well be circumstances where a charity can – and should – comment. The rationale needs to be clear, and one that can be explained to supporters, staff and colleagues in the wider charity sector. It should be carefully considered whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks to reputation and support.

The risks of speaking out are arguably similar to that faced by any consumer-facing organisation or company whose fortunes depend on the goodwill and support of a considerable number of stakeholders. Alienating supporters who take a different view could have a significant impact on donations, volunteers and receptiveness to other key messages from a charity.

There are no easy answers and no substitute for a nuanced consideration of the pros and cons. While a brave few have stuck their head over the parapet, it looks likely that most will err on the side of caution. As the saying goes: “better to let them wonder why you never spoke, than to wonder why you spoke at all”.

Jewish News, in partnership with the Union of Jewish Students and J-TV are hosting the community’s EU Referendum Debate with Douglas Carswell MP and Nicky Morgan MP. 

You can purchase tickets to the event here:

About the Author
Kate Turner is a PR Consultant and Public Affairs Advisor at The PR Office, who is a trained journalist and worked in Parliament for three and a half years, engaging with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
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