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Can Independent Foundations Inspire a Social Brexit?

Lead ‘Social Brexit’ Report Author Dr. Henry Kippin and Collaborate Director Christine Elliott reflect on research findings and future options.

The story of Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) already dominates our lives, and we haven’t even left it yet. Whichever version you prefer – hard, soft, or red white and blue – he truth is we are all in the dark as to the implications. Brexit has polarised families and communities and fostered linguistic ghettoes.

Evidence suggests that the entrenched views are based on root causes that go way beyond the role of the EU in our lives. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise in a country split almost 50:50 in the referendum. Analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, British Future and others shows that the old binaries by which we tend to split the public (or at least the electorate) no longer serve us so well. Nor do the traditional views of what particular industry and services sectors should do.

This is a story of discontinuity, disconnection, and the evolution of a society and economy in which feeling disempowered has become an endemic, complex and structural problem. As European Foundation Centre Chief Executive Gerry Salole so astutely observed, we need to, “sit in the shock of the moment”. However, it is also timely to ask: what kind of society are we trying to create? Could this be a progressive movement? And if so, how could it be brought into being?

In summer 2017, Collaborate embarked on a piece of research asking what a social Brexit could look like, and what the role of independent funders and foundations could be in helping to make it happen. We tried to imagine a future for the UK which is not based on zero-sum political calculation or an economic race to the bottom, but which instead starts with a more important
question: what kind of society do we want to be a part of? And how does the Brexit vote hinder or stimulate progress to get there?

Bringing the Social Back In

Collaborate’s research – built on a wide range of interviews within the sector and civil society more broadly – suggests that a ‘Social Brexit’ will require us to navigate six contextual challenges:

Changing shape of community development – shifts in the role, nature and power dynamics of community organising and development

Shifting role of the state within communities – a trend sharpened by seven years of fiscal austerity and the uneasy relationship between community, belonging, cohesion and morality explored.

Political flux at a national and local level – the ebbing and flowing of Labour and Conservative party politics, and declining trust in the political class in the wake of the expenses and abuse scandals.

Changing modes of support for Civil Society – including a well-publicised shift in state support from grants to contracts, a harsh financial climate, threats to the independence and campaigning ethos of many charities and CSO’s, and questions about the viability and role of infrastructure bodies.

The rise of devolution as an organising force – with Scotland and Wales cleaving away from England in their approach to health, care and support for vulnerable people; and experiments in English devolution taking place in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and London.

Rise of movements and ‘new power’ – an emerging era of movements: where the incumbency of traditional institutions is being challenged, and technology, demographic change and social unrest are being channelled into some exciting – and also potentially dangerously populist – new politics.

Read our new report here.

Enabling the Social Brexit

No-one that we interviewed wanted a race to the bottom, nor did they believe that Brexit necessarily presages one. But people have been equally clear that positive outcomes depend on Foundations supporting a step change in collaborative practice around a set of socio-economic issues that go well beyond the capability of any one sector to address.

1. INTERNATIONAL – proactively reaching out beyond national borders, and rejecting the notion that Brexit must necessarily lead to a more inward looking culture. Cross-cultural and cross-border collaboration have been critical in areas like migration,human rights, climate change and foundations need to think creatively about how this is sustained as new arrangements emerge.

2. NATIONAL – Foundations must help create a vision for a Social Brexit. This means playing a convening role – building for example on the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society — and doing more than ever to protect and fight for the rights and livelihoods of the most vulnerable, particularly after the likely withdrawal of European Structural and Regional funds. The traditional lobbying and campaigning routes for civil society are no longer sufficient. Foundations need to collaborate on new ways of influencing the long term agenda on the issues and people they were set up to serve.

3. LOCAL – More focused work in ‘place’ will be increasingly critical. Foundations can play a key role developing ‘social city deals’, making sure that the voice and energy of citizens is present in a way that devolution processes have often failed to ensure to date. This challenges the sector to use its independence and convening role in more powerful ways, enabling collaborations between civil society, business and the state that will be vital to ensuring that the social and economic schisms exposed by Brexit are addressed over the long term.

Foundations do not wish to overstate their role in navigating the tectonic plates of a complex and shifting landscape. That said, they have the means, the will and an ambition to help sketch what Britain might look like in a decade or so; to celebrate Foundations work and that of their partners — not as self-congratulation but to inspire, energise and inform the wider sector; and to strengthen the growing alliances and task forces on the Continent. Foundations are strongly placed thanks to their longevity and independence to think and act together for the long term. In fractious times, Foundations and their networks can be advocates and experts for collaborative social change that could assuage even the most hardened Brexiteers.

Read The Social Brexit report.

If you are Foundation and would like to engage with the next steps, contact Christine Elliott at

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