Paul Streets: For all the opportunities and speed brought by digital, it could struggle to replace face-to-face fundraising

With so many small charities relying on group-based fundraising, we must work to fast-track learning for new, socially distant models of generating income

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

Through the 700 charities funded by the Lloyds Bank Foundation, we’ve heard an impressive story of small local charities adapting what they do to respond to Covid-19. These charities are becoming emergency relief organisations that provide basic provisions to people whom they would normally have seen at their premises. They also told us how they do it: shifting to online and telephone support.

As they continue to reach the people that need them most, charities are also thinking about their own survival after the immediate crisis, as cash-flow and income questions come to the fore. They will be needed even more as the prolonged economic impact plays out on the poorest and most marginalised people and places. Many specialist charities are anticipating spikes in demand because of hidden domestic abuse, sexual abuse and poverty as people already on the edge are pushed over it.

Some groups have welcomed new ways of being reached, especially young people who instinctively use the smartphone as their channel of choice, as have charities that reach people in wide rural geographies. Challenges of travel costs and childcare are overcome through digital media used where you live. But that relies, of course, on having enough money to pay for a phone with decent data and the ability to use it, given that good broadband is a luxury some of the most marginalised people that charities reach through our funding can’t afford.

Refugees and people with learning disabilities are especially badly affected and can feel even more isolated. We have also seen some indicators of a rise in “cuckooing”, whereby county line drug gangs take over a vulnerable person’s house as a “safe” base from which to operate.

But in recent weeks I have been increasingly concerned that, for all the opportunities and speed that this switch to digital has brought, it presents enormous risk, risk that is largely unseen by those of us who at least partly welcome the partial liberation from our offices and busy commute.

In my many visits to small charities a common theme I hear is the critical importance of connectedness with people who face common challenges. Many of the organisations we fund are led, staffed and governed by people who have lived through the same challenge, either directly or through close family. They understand and immediately empathise with the plight of a refugee, a woman or man living with an abusive partner, someone who has just left prison or is facing addiction challenges.

Hearing at first hand from someone who has been through it and survived, despite all the ups and downs, is crucial to the model of charities I visited in recent years. Charities such as the Living Room in Stevenag) or Recovery Connections in Middlesbrough, which both tackle addiction, Threshold DAS in Llanelli, which addresses domestic abuse, and Emmaus, which supports homeless adults in Bristol.

Like all charities, they also heavily rely on group-based, income-generating activities in their communities, or, in the case of Emmaus, retail trading, all of which will be severely compromised as we ease gradually out of lockdown but are required to social distance for some time.

Of course, service and business-model innovation is positive, and the disruptive impact of Covid-19 has accelerated much that we will no doubt come to welcome.

But the speed at which this has been enforced presents real risks. These group-based service and fundraising methods existed because they worked and were effective. And yet, as we realise it might be years before we have any chance of returning to them, we have no choice but to find new service and business models that work as well.

Thousands of charities around the country will be asking the same question, and funders can play a crucial role in fast-tracking learning between peers leading similar organisations facing these challenges. Facilitating this will be a central part of our work, alongside funding, over the next 12 months.

It might be the most important contribution we can make, because to fail is to fail the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on support from #SmallButVital local charities.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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