The impact, the successes and the failures of the charity sector and the Covid pandemic

2020 has been a year of ups, downs, twists, turns and u-turns. In this week's blog, Joe Saxton reflects on an unprecedented year within the charity sector discussing the successes and failures that have characterised 2020.

By Joe Saxton

The impact on charities

Fundraising and income down

Fundraising is down, and so is charity income more generally. Direct debit sign-ups are down (https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/new-direct-debit-sign-ups-down-by-54-in-april.html), Charity shops are closed (https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/charity-shops-will-lose-28m-month-during-second-lockdown-charity-retail-association-warns/fundraising/article/1698996), fundraising events are not happening in the same way, and shares and investments have been volatile to put it mildly.

Charity trust unaltered

Our tracking research shows that trust in charities is largely unaltered (https://nfpsynergy.net/blog/why-have-charities-not-benefitted-pandemic-boom-trust). This sounds like good news but a whole host of public institutions from supermarkets to government has seen record levels of trust this year. But not charities. We were ‘the dog that didn’t bark in the night’ on trust – those whose trust increased were those bodies seen to be particularly important this year. Charities don’t appear to have been among them.

Volunteering down – particularly among the over 45s

Our tracking research shows that although volunteering levels have been stable for over a decade at around 20%, they dropped in August this year to 16% of the public volunteering in the previous 3 months. More concerning is that while the under 45s have been broadly stable, rates have dipped particularly for the over 45s. There has been some excitement in government that volunteering has flourished in the pandemic. There is little evidence for this. The RVS’s volunteering scheme has recently delivered a million tasks by 360,000 volunteers (https://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/news-and-events/news/nhs-volunteer-responders-scheme-extended-to-support-the-public-and-nhs-staff-over-winter). Sounds good. Except our research shows that 20% normally volunteer in the previous three months. With a UK population of 53 million this means 10 million people have volunteered every 3 months. So, 360,000 volunteers is 3.6% more volunteers, but over a longer period, and of course many of them may well already have been volunteers. Good but not a boom.

Service delivery up

The demand on many charity services has gone up. Food banks, citizens advice services, health advice, homelessness services and many more charities have seen demand take off. While this increase in demand isn’t universal, it is typically done by organisations with fewer resources, staff who are sick or isolating, and under great duress. Charities are definitely Covid heroes.

Non-Covid Campaigning impotent

With the success of Marcus Rashford and the free school meals campaign, it’s tempting to imagine that campaigning rules. The reality is that most campaigning is entirely impotent during the pandemic. The media barely has time for non-Covid stories, MPs are busy dealing with the economy and local businesses, social care, affected constituents, NHS services and more. The bandwidth they have to deal with other, non-Covid, issues is distinctly limited.

 

The stars and successes

Grant makers

In our research with the John Ellerman Foundation we found charities thought that funders had stepped up to the plate during the pandemic (https://nfpsynergy.net/blog/new-research-finds-funders-have-responded-well-outbreak-covid-19). They have released more funds, relaxed their grant criteria, shortened their decision times, and generally helped out in a raft of ways that have stopped many charities going to the wall, and allowed them to keep delivering services.

The Charity Commission

The charity sector’s uncomfortable relationship with the Chair of the Commission shouldn’t disguise the fact that the Commission has been very accommodating during the pandemic. It has provided extra time to submit accounts, and understood how much harder it is for charities to undertake normal governance activities. I have been involved in two cases where the trustees of grant makers were granted permission to spend their endowment to help grantees during a pandemic – which one of my fellow trustees, a former high court judge, said it would be ‘impossible’ for them to approve.

People’s humanity

There is no doubt that many individuals have gone above and beyond in helping out at a hyper-local level. One colleague told me she had 13 leaflets through her door back in March from individuals asking if she needed help. Indeed, the desire to help has far outstripped government ability to harness it in many cases. As a result, people have started organising their own local support in many communities. Good for them. I suspect that the energy for help locally isn’t quite as strong at the end of the year as it was at the beginning. Perhaps the most important question is how does that energy get harnessed? Most volunteer managers will tell you it’s easier said than done.

Frontline workers and services

Another group of heroes during this year have been frontline workers. We have clapped for the NHS and for carers, but the less visible group have been those charity workers still delivering on homelessness and social care. People who have risked their lives by contracting Covid, and still kept going. Of course, this isn’t just charity workers, many public (and private) service workers have kept going despite the personal risk. Charity sector service delivery has been a literal and metaphorical life saver for many, and it is sobering and humbling whenever people put their own lives on the line for others. We expect it in wartime, but we have also seen it during this pandemic.

Less worrying about Brexit

A year ago, many people were fed up with politics and the news cycles being dominated by Brexit and Boris. Well their wishes have been granted (ok not on Boris)! Brexit has been well and truly relegated to the back seat in the public consciousness, but this has come at the price of something far worse than Brexit: a pandemic which has personally affected just about everyone in the country. It is equally tempting to say that in a year’s time all the kerfuffle about Covid or Brexit will have died down, and normal life will have returned. Anybody who banked on that certainty would be, in my view, foolish. We can but hope however.

 

The failures and flops

Years of progress in so many areas

In so many areas of our life in this country, and around the world, human progress has been stalled or disrupted. Children are missing education. Poverty and inequality have increased. Government spending has been diverted just to stand still. Bill Gates set out the numerous ways that Covid has set back progress, well beyond just those directly infected (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/09/bill-gates-pandemic-has-erased-years-progress/616444/). So many of us know people whose lives have been disrupted, become severely ill or died, lost income, seen their business or livelihoods decimated or destroyed. And that personal experience is sadly and terribly matched around the UK and the world. The Covid pandemic is a global tragedy on many, many levels.

Strategy and planning ahead

The old adage that a week is a long time in politics can now be mirrored by another: a month is a long time in a pandemic. The foreseeable future is now little beyond three months. It is all but impossible for most charities (or any other body) to have a meaningful strategy for the next five years: we don’t know what will happen in 2021 with a vaccine or vaccines, with Brexit, with economic recovery, with societal changes. Strategic planning depends on some degree of certainty about a range of assumptions, yet there is almost nothing that we can assume about how life will be for charities in 12 months time.

Woeful levels of charity visibility

The profile and status of charities has not fared well during the pandemic. As I wrote in a previous blog (https://nfpsynergy.net/blog/brand-charities-paradox-pandemic) the paradox is that while charities have never been more needed, they have rarely been so invisible as during the pandemic, compared to the scale of the tasks they were stepping up to. We have seen the arts and sports sectors (deservedly) getting large amounts of coverage for the specific challenges they face, and getting government to try and act to address those challenges with money and protocols. These sectors have long standing built-in head starts in getting profile (like having arts and sports correspondents and programmes in the mainstream media). In three focus groups we ran last week, not one participant referenced any stories they had heard about the charity sector facing funding challenges.

Never more needed campaign has never been less effective.

The most visible sign of sector collaboration is the Never More Needed campaign. In my view it simply isn’t up to the job. The name of the campaign isn’t self-explanatory at all (it doesn’t mention charities for starters), the campaign asks are vague, unclear and wishy-washy (or VUW as opposed to SMART). And it’s not just me who is less than impressed. We recently asked the public about their awareness of 30 different charity campaigns, and #Nevermoreneeded came 2nd from bottom.

A lack of charity sector collaboration

One of the reasons that our sector has been so invisible is that our sector bodies have collectively failed to lead. While they have each no doubt had their own challenges and supported their own members, there is no sign of a greater plan to get charities the support they deserve and need. The charity sector has not acted together to create a more powerful voice. It has not created synergy. I have been hugely impressed by the passion, energy and anger of leaders like Caron Bradshaw and Vicky Browning. But to tackle a problem of this scale and scope we need a co-ordinated, resourced, campaign with clear ideas about what charities need, and why they need it. As I have just said the #Nevermorecampaign does not do it in my view. Ten months into the pandemic there is no sign of big picture thinking, and big picture messaging, to match the scale of the challenge that charities face.

In two weeks’, time, in the second part of this blog, I will look forward to how the sector might change as a result of the pandemic, and we’ll launch an updated version of 20 predictions for 20 years from now to incorporate the effect of the pandemic.

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