Ed Mayo: The next phase of charity action could be a compelling one

Greater demand is the opposite of what many charities are working to achieve, but it makes the question of how they respond all the more urgent

The most common phrase heard right now in our pro bono work across charities and social enterprises is “survival mode”.

This is true for the organisations. It is also true for their leaders. They have held their teams together and talk of a sense of fatigue.

There is a stark gap in resources for the sector, with more demand for the services of charities, and less income to fund them – producing what we call a “scissors effect” on many charities. It is a story of stress.

But my sense is that the next chapter could be a compelling one for charity action. Is there a brighter blue dawn to come?

The case for optimism starts with the sheer resilience of the sector. When I joined Pilotlight last summer, some of the predictions aired were that up to a third of charities could fail. This has not happened.

We can pay tribute to funders that stepped in and genuinely stepped up, but the key dynamic is a simple one – in tough times, the voluntary sector becomes more voluntary.

The smallest charities hunker down, operating without staff until conditions change. With trustees who have rallied round, or volunteers who have stepped in, charities draw on reserves of goodwill, not just financial accounts.

When the 2020/21 data is in, the toll of charity closures will be a serious one, but I expect it will be significantly lower than that of wider business.

While it may be harder to start a charity, it is also harder to end one.

It seems that after so many years of tough times, resilience has become part of the sector’s DNA.

When Pilotlight and Garfield Weston Foundation started the Weston Charity Awards, a programme of pro bono organisation support, seven years ago, we started with charities in north-east England facing funding cuts.

The reality facing the 20 frontline charities selected from the north of England, the Midlands and Wales this week is no less challenging.

The Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Wales is looking to improve local youth services for the most disadvantaged young people after a time of turmoil. Charities like this face a second, more uncomfortable dynamic for optimism, which is the growing scale of need.

As the Young Foundation argued a decade ago, what drives social action is a response to unmet needs.

Many emerging needs the foundation pointed to at the time, such as mental health and key life transitions, have been points of leadership, growth and action by charities and social enterprises since. In other areas, such as racial justice, the sector has been found wanting.

Greater demand is the opposite of what many charities are working to achieve, but it makes the question of how they respond all the more urgent.

This month, Pilotlight starts a programme of pro bono support for Swaca (Sefton Women's and Children's Aid).

Like a number of community charities, the organisation has seen its income grow by attracting emergency funds during the pandemic. The focus now is how to attract long-term funding and make lasting change.

The Sarah Agnes Foundation is a small mental health charity that has used support and advice from our volunteers to expand its counselling services online, growing what was formerly only a local service.

The inclusive theatre charity Hijinx, which Pilotlight will work with later this year, is an inspiring example of a charity using technology to support the people it works with. Check out its video Hijinx Lockdown Rewind for more.

The value of the growth in digital skills in the voluntary sector has been proved, but this is a step beyond. It is about innovation across multiple players.

It sounds perverse to argue that charities are at our best when conditions are at their worst, and when we are most needed. Perhaps we all want a quiet, sympathetic environment, with supportive policy and space to breathe.

But this is not what is coming.

We will be tested and the quality of our response will define the relevance of our sector for years to come.

Ed Mayo is chief executive of Pilotlight, a pro bono skills charity that provides free organisational support for charities and social enterprise

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