Going viral: how is Covid-19 affecting charities?

We conducted 24 telephone interviews with charities in the last week to find out what life is like for them and their organisations at this time. Find out what they told us.

“The situation is desperate, but good things are coming out of it”

 

The month of March 2020 must be one of the strangest on record. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, most charities have now closed their offices, staff are working at home and service delivery is changing. The vast charity shop network across the UK is closed, face to face services have gone online and fundraising events have been cancelled.  Talking to our clients over the last month we were hearing that organisations were reacting in different ways, depending on their mission, resources and leadership. We also heard that charity staff wanted to know what others were doing and how they were coping with the crisis. So, we decided to do what we do best and interview staff in a variety of roles and organisations. The aim being to understand what immediate decisions different charities are making, how it is affecting service delivery, fundraising and staff in a period of unprecedented and fast-moving change.

This blog looks at the key themes from the research. The full report is available free from our website. We conducted twenty-four interviews speaking to a range of charity sector staff; CEOs, directors, heads and officers working in fundraising, marketing, communications and on front-line service provision. We tried to make sure we interviewed people working within a range of sectors to ensure we gathered opinions from across the sector as a whole. We managed to speak to staff working in the fields of health, social welfare, human rights, international development and homelessness, to name a few.

Given the changing nature of the current climate, producing timely and relevant research meant working within a tight timeframe. The interviews took place between 27th March and 2nd April 2020. We opted for telephone interviews in the majority of cases, using online platforms such as Zoom or BlueJeans for the others.

“Breathe and reconnect with your mission”

In general, staff were still accepting the scale of the crisis but felt that things were settling down a little and some were cautiously optimistic about the future. Many respondents felt that we are still in the first stage of the crisis and variously described it as the ‘shock’ or ‘emergency’ phase. Business continuity was a key theme for many and various different responses had been set up; from initial strategic analysis, weekly meetings, to scenario planning for the longer term. This phase was predicted to last between 3 and 6 months, with most people feeling that there would still be relatively high levels of restrictions during this time. Respondents described trying to get back to a version of business as usual as quickly as possible as staying in firefighting mode is not sustainable. In addition, they discussed the importance of moving into the ‘reflection’ stage where charities learn and process the changes they have made.

However, planning in a situation that was so fast-moving is hard and means that there was only so far that you can think ahead at this stage. “We are still in reaction mode”, as one respondent put it. For those who were used to long-term planning, working in this ‘emergency’ mode was difficult and stressful.  Trying to remain flexible, with an awareness that you can only plan so far ahead was one of the key tips from our respondents. Remembering to ensure that the basic principles of learning, monitoring and evaluation are still applied will be important to showing how money was spent and decisions made in the crisis.

Fundraising and income is the key issue for many

“The economic reality is beginning to settle in”

 

Income is the over-riding concern for all our respondents and this is causing high levels of worry and stress. Staff in some organisations have already been furloughed and others are facing this or the more difficult decision of redundancies. For many there is a concern that they will struggle to remain relevant or visible as their cause is not directly connected to the current crisis. A small number discuss the opposite - their income is increasing as they are seen as more relevant or people are cleaving to the causes they feel close to. For those with reserves, there is some resilience, but for many the pressure on the sector over the last few years has resulted in little financial protection.

Events fundraising is key to the financial health of many organisations and along with shops it is the most affected. Most organisations have cancelled their own planned events. In addition, the cancellation of events such as the London Marathon, Pride, Chelsea Flower Show mean there will be deficits causing some tough decisions to be made about the future of staff and service provision.  The concern from respondents is that this money will never be made up, leaving a big hole in budgets (and for unrestricted expenditure particularly).

When it comes to individual giving there is concern around regular giving being cancelled due to individual financial circumstances and major donors in particular may have less money to give. Though balanced by an element of hope around potential new online donors.

There is a complexity of messaging for those working on a cause that is not seen as directly relevant to the Covid-19 crisis. How to continue to raise money appropriately? For example, emergency appeals were controversial in our sample, some believing they were necessary and had been handled well with others feeling there is a danger it looks like the sector is using the situation to ask for help to fill gaps. In particular, this may be the case with the NHS, where desperate need may eat up any spare cash, and still need subsidising from charitable funds.

Staff welfare, isolation and mental health are key challenges

“[I have a] deep anxiety about work, especially monitoring breaking news and missing something, when is the right time to stop and how to switch off?”

 

Alongside money, staff and their welfare were the biggest initial concern for our interviewees. Working at home was described as either exciting or challenging depending on your home circumstances. It was recognised that it is particularly difficult for those with children, and those without were very conscious that they need to support their colleagues and take up the slack. Most were learning to adapt and many were enjoying the new connectivity that has resulted across teams.

The daily structure of going into an office has gone and there was an awareness that employers need to help people with the loss of that. Concern about isolation was mentioned frequently, particularly for staff who live alone or in small/cramped accommodation. Employers were trying to re-create some of the social interaction of being in the office and were aware of the importance of this. Working from home can also create tension and conflict particularly for those with children, while for those on their own can increase isolation and anxiety.

Managers and colleagues are worried about anxiety levels, both for themselves and those around them. Awareness of the impact of potential job losses, clients’ needs, their family and friends all take their toll. Fear of catching Covid-19 and impending bereavements, meant that supporting each other was a key theme of this research.

Leadership really matters now

Leadership really matters at any point but particularly in a crisis. Many respondents were full of praise for their CEOs or senior management teams, feeling that they had reacted and communicated well, and were managing the line between openness/ honesty and keeping up morale. However, there was a significant minority for whom clear and supportive leadership had been absent. Keeping morale up, ensuring welfare is met are essential tasks that shouldn’t be put aside.

Staff are really stretched trying to respond with reduced resources and/or increased need, and this is causing stress. Some described a feeling of ‘panic’ because they should be doing more. Burn-out is a very real concern, and in the longer term, the feeling that staff have not done enough, or could have helped more will be present. Unfortunately, there will be long-term psychological effects, at the moment we don’t know what.

Because it is difficult to predict what’s coming this creates massive uncertainty and stress. Many feel unable to formulate real long-term survival plans as the whole political-economic landscape could be shifting - this means security is low and some are unsure if their charity will survive.

Respondents also talked about how amazing their staff were. They praised the creativity and energy being shown to find solutions to all sorts of problems. Many talked about how their teams have become much closer “I like you when you are this far away!” And they felt that the situation has been humanising; we like seeing our colleagues’ children on their knee, their pets walking across the keyboard in a meeting, or the pictures on the wall at home. This has put working from home firmly on the agenda for the future.

Good communication is critical

“I now feel more connected to my team than I have ever done, that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in this situation.”

 

When we asked people what had changed within their organisations (apart from working at home) communication was the most frequently mentioned topic. Most felt that communication had changed and often improved to support dispersement of teams.

Use of online tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Trello had facilitated communication between and within teams. And most organisations had increased the volume of internal communications eg monthly meetings changed to weekly.

However, respondents warned of over-use of some of these tools, describing their teams as ‘frazzled by too many Zoom meetings’. The recommendation being that once top down communication is sorted, and the crisis phase of communicating is over, teams should be left to choose how they work together. Or a schedule of meetings in place more aligned with pre-Covid ways of working.

External communication continues to be key, remembering the need to stay in touch with stakeholders is important. The unusualness of the situation allows an opportunity to connect with audiences in a different way – eg digitally or with a different tone. 

Service-delivery has been massively impacted

“Marginalised communities need to be at the heart of response to this - issues like diversity and inclusion remain vital, can't be seen as 'nice to have'.”

 

For some charities, there is a massively increased need from service users. Staff are really worried about their clients, and are hearing and seeing heart-breaking stories. This is particularly difficult when service users don’t understand what is going on, or can’t keep themselves safe. Even if charities are managing to keep up their own services, the knock-on effect of other services closing or being reduced is causing tension e.g. street shelters.

For most organisations we spoke the crisis has not changed what they do but has affected how they do it. Principally this is the inability to provide face to face services. For others they are adapting their services to meet unexpected need, to support others in their sector.

For some, moving services online actually represents an important innovation and could be really helpful in streamlining services going forward. However, it’s important to remember that the inability to provide services face to face is particularly concerning for vulnerable service users. Digital online/telephone services only works for those with the access or skills.

Innovation and adaption of service delivery appears to changing in response to the crisis. Service provision returning to the grassroots as providers are having to ask searching questions about what the real need is right now, and update their services accordingly.

The charity sector and the wider pandemic

 “In this sector we have some great ideas and thinking about how society and the world can be better, this will be an opportunity to implement some of this, be ready with our ideas and implement them.”

 

Many respondents felt that they didn’t really know what was going on in the wider sector because they had been ‘head down’ focussing on dealing with the situation in their own organisation. For those who had, NCVO and ACEVO came in for praise for their championing of the sector with government.

Collaboration was key them for respondents, whether that was internally across teams, or externally with other charities and sectors. This was felt to be one of the ways the sector can meet need and will drive efficiencies. 

While there was general, appreciation felt towards the government for the furlough scheme, which would otherwise have meant mass redundancies. There is still a strong desire for them to do more, both to support and recognise the value of the charity sector.

There also a sense that the general public are focussing on what’s important, and connecting with issues in a way that has not happened in recent years or even decades? For some this means that it’s a motivating time to be working on these issues. For others, it presents a fundamental opportunity to drive and influence the debates going on about how we run our world. Charities have done the thinking, gathered evidence and have great ideas about how the world should look, it’s now our opportunity to stand up and help shape it.

This could be the chance to cement the image of the sector as pivotal in standing alongside and supporting communities. Amidst the heartache and devastation that this pandemic is wreaking on our world, you told us that innovation is thriving, creativity is flourishing, and we are already adapting to new circumstances. We have to act fast, accept that mistakes will be made, and do our best. And that’s okay.

We had a great response to this research process, and are intending to repeat it in the next few months. If you would be interested in taking part please email insight@nfpsynergy.net

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How have charities responded to the first phase of the Covid-19 crisis? nfpSynergy Report

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