I recently asked the chief executives of five small charities – all of whom are based in the East Midlands, and who work in rape crisis, domestic abuse and mental health, and with refugees and ex-sex offenders – a simple question: “How are things?”
“Horrid, the worst experience of my professional and personal life,” was the immediate response of one, amplified by the others.
They went on to talk about how much harder this third national lockdown has been than previous ones, echoing many of the end-of-year themes we picked up from 180 of the charities we support in our December report.
Small charities described the pressures on staff, with traumatic and sensitive issues brought, literally, into their homes, alongside children in homeschool.
Service users are also affected. Vulnerable people are leaving prison with virtually no support and moving immediately into homelessness.
Needs are becoming more complex, and lasting longer, with statutory services that are quite happy to refer people in, but not prepared to later take them back.
Time is even more stretched, as group work translates into protracted one-to-one phone calls or online connections.
There is an overwhelming sense of feeling abandoned and underappreciated: “I need a pat on the back – but I don’t know who is going to give it.”
Yet scratching beneath the service reveals an enormous sense of pride about how “robust, resilient and resourceful small charities have been”, often in stark contrast to statutory services.
For many of these charities, face-to-face services have continued because they have been necessary life-savers, recognised by public services unable to provide them.
Alongside that, services are cutting through physical barriers, with online provision independent of location.
Rape support beyond county boundaries is now possible through 31 virtual rooms thanks to online support, compared with the five physical spaces they would normally have access to.
Another organisation found, for the first time, a volunteer chemistry teacher to provide online support for young refugees studying for their GCSEs. And the comment, with some surprise, that these new approaches “really work”.
New support services, and active interest, are also on the rise from local employers, who have begun to realise that their employees’ domestic abuse and mental health issues can no longer be left at home when home and workplace are one and the same.
For the moment, there is no cash crisis. But a real fear persists that the short-term magnanimity that has seen significant immediate funding flow in 2020 will not translate into long-term underpinning support, to see them through the next 12 to 18 months.
Charities dealing with those who were already disadvantaged before the pandemic have a sense that, in a post-pandemic world, with so many causes to support, compassion fatigue will only stretch so far – with the most marginalised pushed even further to the back of minds.
More worrying is that this will be reflected in the minds and actions of funders like us; at exactly the moment when statutory funding shrinks even further, and an avalanche of pent-up demand is unleashed in areas like domestic abuse and mental health, as we emerge from lockdown.
What is to be done?
As we recommended in our December report: longer-term funding; a stronger welfare safety net for the most vulnerable; a decent settlement to local authorities who provide core funding; and retaining the pandemic recognition of the value of the small.
There is also a pressing need to continue support for improved digital services, so we do not lose the best of what we have learnt, and enable hybrid models where they have shown they can work.
But beyond all that lies a plea that, as new needs emerge in the aftermath of the pandemic, we don’t forget those that were there long before Covid-19, and have got a whole lot worse as a consequence of it.
Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation England and Wales