The ways that COVID-19 is affecting the charity sector – and what can be done about it

In this blog, Joe Saxton identifies how COVID-19 is likely to impact charities and suggests ways the sector can cope with the challenges ahead.
Joe Saxton
 

The coronavirus COVID-19 is changing society in a huge range of ways, and more dramatically and more fundamentally than we could have imagined even a week ago. In this blog, Joe Saxton looks at the impact on the charity sector and what can be done to mitigate things.

Impact on the charity sector 

Greater demand for advice and support

There is going to be a big increase in demand for advice for a range of medical charities. People who are worried about the impact on their underlying medical conditions are contacting charities.  Asthma UK and Diabetes UK are going to be the first port of call for many worried individuals. Equally, there is a need to help people at the grassroots: ensuring elderly isolated people are getting food and support. Interestingly this type of support doesn’t appear to be being co-ordinated by charities or even community groups but by concerned individuals in many places.

Fundraising and finances threatened

Public fundraising is going to grind to a halt. Event fundraising is going to stop – even the iconic London marathon has been postponed. So for many charities their sources of income will be reduced, in some cases dramatically. At the same time, those with reserves have seen their value dramatically decrease if they were invested. Suddenly money under the mattress seems very appealing!

Public places, cafes, shops and venues shut

Many charities rely on income from their shops or their visitor attractions. This affects charities small and large.  I talked to a woman this week whose charity ran three cafes helping people with learning disabilities to get skilled in the world of work. It’s hard to see how they will stay open and if they do their visitors are typically older. At the other end of the scale, the National Trust has shut all its paying attractions. That’s a big hit on their income.

Key volunteers tend to be in high risk groups

For those organisations that are run or supported heavily by volunteers, many of those volunteers are in the high-risk groups: those who are over 70, and those with underlying medical conditions. These people need to now be self-isolating and can’t be volunteering unless doing so remotely. Reading Twitter and other social media it’s clear that baby boomers are not so good at doing what they are told – even if it’s by the Chief Medical Officer.

Uncertainty and turmoil for staff

All this change and uncertainty is not good for anybody’s mental health. Many staff will be worried about their jobs, their livelihoods, and their own health. At the same time, these people will now be working from home, with less social support. At nfpSynergy we are trying to make sure we get video contact from all the team every day, that we keep people busy, and that we try and tell them what is going on.  For any organisation that has moved to a ‘working from home’ model staff morale and motivation is key. And that’s if working from home is even possible, which it isn’t for many jobs.

Parliamentary and media interest in charities limited (again)

As Brexit came to an end, charities were looking forward to a media and political landscape that might be a bit more interested in their issues and campaigns. Well I’m afraid that coronavirus is only bad news on that front. The media and parliamentary world are completely, and rightly, tied up with COVID-19 for the near future.

And what’s to be done

It’s tempting, indeed easy, to be fatalistic about all that is happening. So here are some suggestions for how organisations can cope.

Use your reserves if you have them

I remember talking to a group of hospice leaders in 2008 just after the financial crisis struck. One trustee complained that her hospice was having to ‘dig into our reserves’.  If the worst financial crisis in half a century isn’t a reason to use reserves, I asked her, what is. The same is true today. This is exactly the kind of crisis that reserves are for.

Talk to your supporters and stakeholders

If your charity is suffering because of the current crisis, make sure your supporters know and understand. Ask them for money. Explain how the crisis has affected you. Share your challenges with them. That’s what supporters are for – they are there to support you.

Plan for at least 6 months of turmoil

One of the most difficult things at the moment is knowing how to plan ahead. At nfpSynergy we are reckoning on the next month being the worst as the situation changes and worsens probably every day. After that, terrible as it is to say, people will be desperate for a bit of normality. However, it will probably be around 6 months of severe turmoil overall. But remember, vaccines are already being tested, and some existing drugs are beginning to possibly be effective.

Tell local and social media what you are doing

Use the voice of local media and social media to tell people what you are doing. Tell interesting human stories, highlighting both the good, the bad and the uplifting. It’s so important to remember that this isn’t just a medical crisis, it’s a human crisis. People’s lives are being turned upside down. Use the media to tell those stories.

Our sector bodies need to make their voice heard

It’s at times like this the contrast between the amazing work of charities and the lack of recognition by politicians could not be starker. I sometimes feel we should be called the Cinderella sector. We’re down at the coalface, making a difference to people’s lives, but invisible in the eyes of politicians, bar a token pat on the head. Our sector bodies need to raise our profile, and drive home our importance in the social fabric of society. Without that recognition in the eyes of minsters, we won’t get the support we need.

 

These are extraordinarily difficult times. Over the next 3 months, we will be releasing a range of new research which will help charities understand their audiences and their sector. They won’t necessarily be related to the current crisis, but we hope they will provide insights and ideas to alleviate the tedium of social isolation or just working from home. Ideas in isolation we’re calling it.

To all of you, stay strong and stay well.

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