It’s hard to read our new report ‘Gone Viral’ and not feel it's inadequate! It is impossible to summarise the complexity of the response and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic with just under 20 interviews. It would take far more interviews to really capture all the different ways that organisations have reacted. Moreover, the world with Covid-19 is changing so fast. How an organisation felt 4 months ago may be very different by now and could feel different again in 4 months’ time. In total, we have produced four reports on the impact of Covid including this one, and six dedicated public polls on Covid:
- Going Viral | Covid-19: How did charities respond to the first phase of the crisis?
- Hidden But Vital: Charities and the Pandemic
- Covinformation Report May 2021
- Our sixth wave of public research on charities and the pandemic
Despite the potential inadequacies of the research, we are in as good a position as anyone to draw some conclusions on the impact of Covid-19 on charities.
FATE IS THE CARDS WE’VE BEEN DEALT. CHOICE IS HOW WE PLAY THEM
- Marshall Goldsmith
1. The impact on charities is very varied, but on balance largely bad
From all the evidence we have, alongside that collected by Pro-bono Economics, the Charity Commission and Sheffield Hallam University, it is clear that the impact of the pandemic has been very varied. Some organisations have seen their income, services and profile all go up. It is a minority who would say that the Pandemic has been (on balance) good news. The majority of charities, especially small charities, have found the pandemic tough. For some it has been a perfect storm of increased demand, decreased income, and fewer volunteers.
2. The scale of the impact on any given charity is partly down to luck…
Risk assessments are a favourite thing in the world of charity governance. What might go wrong? What risks might our charity face? How many risk registers saw the risks of a global pandemic? Probably not that many. Only a psychic risk register might have predicted how much those with charity shops, fundraising events, and older volunteers would have been so at risk during a pandemic. For many charities what made them struggle (or thrive) in the pandemic was difficult, if not impossible, to predict: and let alone do anything about it.
3. …and partly down to the way a charity responded
What is less down to luck is how charities responded to the turmoil they were faced with when the full force of the pandemic struck in Spring 2020. Some charities were unable to respond quickly enough, or decisively enough. They couldn’t provide the leadership needed to keep staff, trustees and volunteers motivated. Of those charities that might have been really devastated by the pandemic, some did ok because of great leadership and management. Others which maybe should have done well struggled to survive. Perhaps luckily for some, disentangling the cards that an organisation was dealt and the way they played them is very difficult to do.
4. Flexibility is everything in a fast-moving world
Flexibility is probably the single most important ingredient in success during the pandemic, not just for charities but for any kind of organisation. In the fast-moving world of the pandemic, 3 weeks felt like 3 months, and 3 months felt like 3 years. This meant that plans had to keep changing as the situation changed, but at the same time leaders couldn’t be left frozen by the uncertainty. Often any kind of decision was better than a ‘let’s wait and see’.
5. Embracing digital is key, but not a panacea
There is a lot of talk about the importance of going digital during the pandemic. The volume of online retail sales is nothing short of incredible. There is a lot of talk about the importance of digital fundraising, though the figures for growth are harder to come by. The need for remote working has been the most important change; however, having a remote working capability isn’t a precursor to working out how to use it to best effect. During and after the pandemic digital is a key starting point for changing an organisation and the way it works, but cannot be viewed as a magic bullet all by itself.
6. How the older generation see charities now is going to be key
The evidence we have at nfpSynergy from our tracking research with the public is that volunteering and giving amongst the older (over 45) age groups was down during the pandemic and still hasn’t fully returned to pre-pandemic levels. If this situation doesn’t change, it will spell major changes for charities. We may see a shortage of shop volunteers that dwarfs the shortage of HGV drivers. The committed dependable donors for charity appeals and events may no long be there, or not in the same numbers. What impact will that have if that’s the case?
7. Furlough was vital - but now what?
The charity sector’s relationship with government has been unsatisfactory during the pandemic. While the Chancellor set up the £750 million funding scheme early in the pandemic, many charities felt this was too little and too inflexible. Indeed, in our research the furlough scheme was almost universally welcomed as hugely useful, even if charities weren’t allowed an exemption to let their own staff volunteer. With furlough gone, the future relationship between charities and the government is unclear – and at the heart of that is a lack of clarity about what charities actually want government to do.
8. Charities still don’t get the credit they deserve in the public and political eye
Charities have made a massive difference to people’s lives during the pandemic. They have saved lives; they have changed lives; they have supported the vulnerable, the poor, and the and dispossessed. Yet somehow this role is barely acknowledged either in the media, or by politicians. The gap between how critical charities think they are, and how important the wider world thinks charities are is huge. The pandemic has highlighted this in sharp terms, but it is a gap that has existed for some time: Covid has just bought it into sharp relief.