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COVID-19: How can charities harness the public desire to help?

Our Head of Public Audiences has prepared some research-led suggestions for how charities can tap into the public's desire to help in their communities and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jo Fischl

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the world and our daily lives to change in dramatic ways and at a speed that few of us have experienced before – and may never have predicted even a few weeks ago. In the charity sector, the impact will be profound – indeed, many of the predictions from nfpSynergy’s Joe Saxton, from less than two weeks ago, are already being seen.

Signs of a great increase in public need for support are already evident – of course for those individuals at most risk from COVID-19 – but also in myriad of other ways too; from a reported sharp rise in calls to Childline, and warnings of a surge in domestic violence, to fears around eviction and rent payment during the crisis. In the same ways as jobs are being affected across the economy, there is insecurity for charity sector workers too; last week, we saw Oxfam furlough two thirds of its UK staff. And, in terms of government help for industries, specific support for charities seems to have been relatively low on the agenda despite the sector’s vital societal role.

What’s more, we know that the impact on income from fundraising could be catastrophic; the cancellation of events has led NCVO to predict that charities will miss out on a minimum of £4.3bn of income in the next 12 weeks. Further, as shown in research we carried out just last week with the general public – full results of which are revealed in our recent blog and interactive dashboard – almost 50% of the public agreed that their income is likely to decrease in the coming months whilst 42% are worried about their jobs or livelihoods. This is clearly a serious concern for those looking to ask the public for funds.

However, the research we have done with the public so far gives reasons for charities to be hopeful too. If charities can judge the public mood and be responsive to changing events, there is huge potential to harness the public’s desire to help in this unprecedented crisis – allowing charities to continue their work at a time when it’s more needed than ever. Here are three areas where charities need to be building engagement with the public.


Since the outbreak of the crisis in the UK, one of the most heartening responses has been the public’s enormous desire to help. In a week since the scheme was set up an incredible 750,000 people have signed up to the government’s NHS Volunteer Responders scheme. Support has also come from the grassroots, with local mutual aid networks springing up around the country – with neighbours helping each other with offers to collect shopping and prescriptions, cook extra meals for NHS workers, and make phone calls to those feeling lonely. Our own research reports that 17% have already ‘helped out in their community’ whilst a further 60% would consider doing so.

Whilst many existing charities will certainly be doing all they can to support vulnerable beneficiaries, their mobilisation of volunteers has been less visible in the public and media sphere. In some ways, locally based mutual aid groups may have the potential to respond with an agility that may be less possible in large charities. However, many charities – with their existing networks to vulnerable groups and experience in managing volunteering effectively – will have much to offer. In the coming weeks, charities of all sizes have an opportunity to provide support to mutual aid networks and thus make the relief effort as strong as possible. At the same time, they can harness the public’s desire to help through their own volunteer programmes – this may help charities both throughout the current crisis but also allow them to build strong relationships with volunteers which could continue beyond it.


As our research shows, alongside fears about COVID-19, many are now facing significant financial worries. However, it seems that – so far – this hasn’t closed the public off completely from the idea of giving to charity, particularly in the context of supporting the coronavirus relief effort. 66% would consider donating a charity responding to the outbreak, and whilst 25% think their charitable giving will decrease in the next few months, 18% actually think it will increase. And this week has seen positive stories of giving; of the £12.5m donated to the National Emergencies Trust, around £1m has come from individual donations (with the remainder from businesses and philanthropic foundations). Again, generosity may also be happening at the local level; in my own small ward level Mutual Aid group, almost £2,500 has been donated by local residents through a GoFundMe page – the funds from which will be used to reimburse local volunteers for their expenses.

So, if you can show the need for your work, it certainly doesn’t seem that the majority will resent hearing from charities; indeed 57% agreed or strongly agreed that charities should engage in fundraising during the crisis. Of course, asking in the right way, being sensitive to how potential donors want to be contacted and being careful not to alienate those who are struggling financially, will be more important than ever before.


Finally, our research suggests a strong desire for practical action from charities; the most popular activity for charities to be doing in light of the crisis was to provide day to day support for those at risk. And we know that so many charities will be doing incredible things to adapt both their frontline services and their ways of working across the organisation in order to provide support to those directly and indirectly effected by the crisis. Our research shows a limited public knowledge of how charities are responding to the crisis; 66% can’t think of a single charity responding to the current outbreak, and very few organisations stand out clearly. Showing the continued need for your work, sharing how your charity is adapting, and most importantly, providing the public with positive stories of how you are helping really matters. It’s vitally important that the public continue to hear about the work of the sector – to shore up support both now and beyond the COVID-19 outbreak.

What we are doing at nfpSynergy:

At nfpSynergy we will be doing all we can in the coming weeks to support the sector in giving you the insight needed to continue your vital work and – in many cases – meet an increased demand for support.

One of the ways the sector can remain resilient is in coming together and sharing ideas on how the challenges ahead can be met. To play a part in facilitating this, we are currently carrying out telephone interviews with charity staff across the sector to find out how your organisations have been impacted, how you’re adapting, and what plans you have in place for the next weeks and months. We will be analysing these interviews and will produce a free report of key themes to share publicly at the end of this week.

In addition, we will be running a repeat of our COVID-19 General Public Poll.

With events unfolding so fast we want to ensure we keep you on top of the public mood when it comes to charities and the crisis. We’ll be including a number of the same questions as before to allow us to track changes in public mood and behaviour over time, but will also be giving the opportunity for charities to add their own bespoke questions.

These questions could be on anything from finding out whether the public has an understanding of the impact which COVID-19 might have on your area of work, through to testing ideas which you want to put out to the public on how they would like to support you. We are looking for input by Thursday 2nd April, with results to be made available before the Easter break.

To find out more about costs and how to enter your own questions, please contact cian.murphy@nfpsynergy.net.


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