Many of us will be feeling stressed as we hurtle through high streets towards Christmas Day. But away from office parties and well-earned time off, many charity beneficiaries across the country will be experiencing real stress that puts our panic over mismatching baubles into alarming perspective. Not just because problems don’t go away at Christmas, but because it’s a trigger for many kinds of crisis. A time for those struggling with addiction to relapse; a time of acute awareness of loneliness or isolation; a time of bitterly cold nights for homeless people; and a time when those struggling to make ends meet find the pressures even greater.
So how will charities respond to Christmas? For some staff, and a vast number of community volunteers, it will mean that Christmas is a day spent serving others. They’ll trade turkey for ten around their family dining table to cooking for 100 they might not know in their local community centre. At the same time, many local charities will be closing their doors, and that’s important too. One of our grant managers, Emma Beeston, blogged earlier this year that, although it’s hard to find time, we need front-line workers to go on holiday so they can care effectively for those in crisis.
Thankfully, where some charities reduce services or close over Christmas, larger organisations with more capacity will hold the fort, and this is when the breadth and scale of the third sector (and the public sector) are invaluable. Health services and larger charities such as Samaritans or Shelter will stay at the end of the telephone when no one else is, often responding to life-saving calls. This means those in need might still have somewhere to turn, until services and support reopen in the new year.
And January will be busy. Issues such as financial crises, addiction and domestic abuse are all exacerbated by Christmas, when good cheer can sometimes put a spotlight on what isn’t going so well in people’s lives. For example, the Somerset and Wessex Eating Disorders Association told us that the prevalence of and emphasis on festive food can make the season hugely daunting for those with eating disorders (it created a video with 12 top tips for beneficiaries while it's closed).
Will charities be ready to respond to the extra demand in the new year? They will certainly try. In truth, many of them will be stringing out their funding, approaching the year-end in April, and because the climate remains tough for 97 per cent of the sector, their future hangs in the balance.
But like every Christmas story there is hope amidst the dark nights. First, the spirit of generosity prompts many to give money and volunteer time, sometimes for the first time – and once engaged they might continue to do so into the new year. Second, those who have a break and time with friends and family will probably return renewed and refreshed, ready to help people wo experience disadvantage.
And finally, just as we are grateful for the downtime and the presents, we should be thankful for all those willing to give of themselves not just at Christmas, but every single day of the year. Charities are fighting hard to stay afloat as a result of poor commissioning and a mismatch between funding and demand, yet they’ll give what they can often, and way above what it is right to expect. A little like a certain inn-owner in a Middle-Eastern town, come to think of it…
Paul Streets (@PaulStreets_ ) is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales. Watch Lloyds Bank Foundation’s Festive Ode