'The voluntary sector does not die': How charities took on Covid-19

Smuggling burner phones to women locked down with abusive partners, mobilising volunteers in their thousands, warning that lives will be cut short – the charity sector shows its true value amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Rebecca Cooney reports

The coronavirus pandemic has touched every aspect of life in the UK. How we work, how we live and how we interact with each other have all been transformed by its presence.

The same can be said of the charity sector. Both have worked their way into every corner of society, affecting everyone, but having the biggest impact on the most vulnerable.

And one has had a devastating effect on the other: as incidents of Covid-19 rocketed in March, and social distancing became lockdown, it became clear that the pandemic was going to be a catastrophe for the voluntary sector. Fundraising events were cancelled, charity shops closed, face-to-face fundraising became impossible. As stocks fell and donors became increasingly concerned about their own economic position, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimated the sector would lose £4.3bn in just the first 12 weeks of the crisis.

Simultaneously, demand for services spiralled as those who were already struggling financially, emotionally or in terms of health were hit by the impact of the restrictions and the ability to deliver services was hampered.

Yet despite these overwhelming obstacles, the voluntary sector has continued to do amazing work to support those who need them most. This is the pandemic through their eyes.

Doubled demand

Solomon Smith (left) founded the Brixton Soup Kitchen, a south London charity that provides hot meals and legal advice to homeless people and those in need. He recently spent £25 on a small bottle of hand sanitiser after panic buying left local supermarkets and cash-and-carries empty of supplies.

“We usually buy a pack of 7 for £7.99, but we needed it, no one else had it and we wanted to keep our staff and the vulnerable people we help safe,” he says. Demand for the charity’s services has doubled since the beginning of the crisis, with many people approaching it for the first time. With its dining spaces closed, the charity has had to be creative to deal with the shame many feel about the depths this crisis has pushed them to, while still maintaining social distancing.

“A lot of people are embarrassed that they use us, so we’ve been arranging to drop food off in the old BT phone boxes,” Smith explains. Before the pandemic hit, he says, the workload was hard but manageable, “but now we’ve had to reduce the number of volunteers in order to keep them safe”.

The charity has applied for emergency funding, but Smith says he’s yet to hear back about it.

In Leeds, Shantona Women and Children’s Centre supports women, particularly from BAME communities, providing training, early years education and domestic violence support.

The charity (right) normally works face-to-face, often with women who aren’t known to any other services, so the lockdown prompted a massive overhaul, with services moving to Zoom and WhatsApp. This has been a huge challenge, says Nahid Rasool, the charity’s chief executive, because many of those the charity is in contact with are not computer-literate or don’t speak or read in English.

Yet, even with one staff member hospitalised with coronavirus, Rasool says morale is high: “Most staff are from the community, so they want to help.”

The charity has expanded its services, providing food parcels for the most vulnerable families and, despite a lack of digital knowledge at first, launching YouTube videos, including cooking classes to help service users prepare unfamiliar ingredients in the food parcels and activities to keep young children engaged while stuck indoors.

Rasool is also trying to work out how to get hold of mobile phones to smuggle to women who are locked down with abusive partners so the charity can check on their wellbeing.

For Jane Ide, chief executive of the infrastructure body Navca, the pandemic has been “a classic example of how, at local and front-line level, we’ve all been getting on and doing what needs doing.”

Rita Chadha, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, agrees, saying charities have been reaching out to support each other like never before. “We often find the poorest in society give more, and we’re seeing a lot of charities thinking this way at the moment,” she says.

But money is a constant concern. More than 100 charities are known to have folded so far, but many more are teetering on the brink. Ide says she’s routinely hearing from charities that are mere weeks away from closing their doors. “What happens if the beneficiaries of those charities continue to need that support?” she asks. “That’s more pressure on the NHS and on local authorities, which are themselves facing a financial crisis. If those services can’t help, they’ll be abandoned.”

Source of hope

A source of funding hope for many small groups is the National Emergencies Trust, established after the Grenfell fire and the London and Manchester terror attacks in 2017 to enable public generosity to be funnelled quickly to local level after major incidents. It has raised £80m from the public, trusts and foundations, corporates and government match-funding in six weeks since it was launched in March.

Chief executive John Herriman says he’s been struck by how focused on their missions grass-roots charities are during this crisis. “They are so incredibly proud of the work they are doing to support vulnerable people and the way they have been able to adapt and repurpose to do it,” he says.

Thanks to its strong relationship with community foundations, NET was able to get its first tranche of funding, totalling £2.5m, to community groups on the ground within the first six days of the appeal. Since then, it has distributed £5m a week, with an average grant of between £3,000 and £5,000.

“We measure our success from how little money we’ve got in our bank account, because as soon as the money’s in we’re pushing to get rid of it,” Herriman says. Yet these grants can only go so far. They’re aimed at dealing with the immediate crisis more than the long-term impact and, despite being a lifeline for smaller organisations, they might not be enough for medium-sized groups.

Volunteer mobilisation

Chada views the sector as swinging between extremes: “The motivation in the sector to do good has never been higher, but the ability and capacity has never been lower.”

It’s a statement that could easily be applied to the volunteering conundrum triggered by the pandemic. A call for volunteers to support the NHS in mid-March met its 750,000 target within four days. The British Red Cross coronavirus relief effort has attracted 74,000 community response volunteers. According to Navca, another quarter of a million have signed up through their local infrastructure bodies. More than 4,250 mutual aid groups – networks allowing people to support their neighbours – have sprung up, the smallest consisting of a handful of members, the largest comprising more than 1,000 volunteers.

The Royal Voluntary Service was already working with the tech company GoodSam to develop an app that allowed people to sign up for volunteering quickly and easily, and it rapidly became the recruitment point for NHS volunteers. Now the app directs up to 5,000 NHS volunteers a day to transport medical equipment to patients’ homes, or pick up food or prescriptions. The RVS estimates that about 70,000 such tasks had been completed by the beginning of May.

But the groundswell of community mobilisation is not without complications. Initially, many NHS volunteers who were raring to go had to wait as supply outstripped demand: charities needed volunteers, but weren’t ready to take them, RVS chief executive Catherine Johnstone explains.

The RVS has not been alone with this issue. Vicky Browning, chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo, says there’s a sense that a volunteer is a free resource. “The time is freely given, but there’s a cost attached to using volunteers well,” she says, explaining that, after volunteers have been recruited, they have to be checked, deployed, motivated and supported. And, with “vast numbers” of volunteer managers currently furloughed, there’s a danger volunteers will find themselves out of their depth, dealing with people with mental health, drug or alcohol issues, for example.

Paul Reddish, chief executive of Volunteering Matters, says the rush to volunteer has also highlighted the severe lack of investment in volunteering infrastructure.

“Our ability to respond has been diminished not by our expertise, but by the fact that volunteer centres, CVSs, local infrastructure and overall investment in volunteering as a discipline has been decimated over the past decade,” he says. “You’re finding organisations absolutely creaking at the seams trying to manage the influx of people.”

Despite this, he says, voluntary organisations are doing amazing things: mobilising people, getting to hard-to-reach people and saving lives.

Many people might have thought of themselves as just “helping out” rather than volunteering, Johnstone says, and if the sector wants to maintain the momentum it has built up during the pandemic it needs to make it easy for people to continue, giving them clear opportunities. But she thinks the willingness to help out will outlast the crisis. “This is about the fabric of society,” she says. “The crisis has made us realise we’re all stitches in it, and we all have to be part of it if we want to recover.”

Balance at the top

Leading a charity is often a question of balance, between meeting need and conserving resources, between cause and organisation, between heart and head. Recently, that balancing act has become infinitely more delicate.

“The chief executive role is one of responsibility: the buck stops with you and it feels that much more heightened during this situation, which no one was expecting,” Acevo’s Browning says.

Increased workloads, working remotely with blurred work-life boundaries and concerns about staff mental health mean chief executives are taking on more than ever, as well as facing high-stakes decisions on pay and furloughing through the government’s job-retention scheme.

It’s not a straightforward choice for charities. Sarah Vibert, director of policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says furloughing can help to protect organisations against the worst financial impacts of coronavirus. But “the majority of charities we are talking to are not delivering services that can be interrupted for a period of months the way a pub can just mothball the kegs and close down”, she says. “They need to step up to support the public, which means the expenditure related to those services has to continue and often increase.”

For Together Co, a loneliness charity based in Brighton, furloughing would have been an easy solution. But it would have resulted in beneficiaries and the Brighton community losing out, so it has stayed open.

“If we furloughed all of our staff, we’d have £39,000 a month for doing nothing,” chief executive Jo Crease, says. Instead, the charity (picture shows Steve Verrall, a volunteer befriender, setting out on a shopping run) has increased its befriending work by 91 per cent and its volunteer sign-ups by 228. “We’re part of a cross-sector team responding to city-wide need, we’re involved in the council’s strategic planning to get food to everyone and we’re feeding into the policy planning for the rebuilding effort,” Crease adds.

As Browning puts it, staying open might mean haemorrhaging money and risking closure, but “what’s the point of you if you don’t do anything when your services are massively in demand?”

The children’s charity Barnardo’s expects to lose between 25 and 35 per cent of its income this year and took the decision to furlough 3,000 of its 8,500 staff members early in the crisis. It has pledged to top up furlough funding to ensure staff receive their whole salaries for as long as possible.

Most furloughed employees were from the charity’s shops, which were shuttered in March. But several hundred were from other services, particularly back-office support, where remaining employees are doing the work of two or three people as the charity fights to continue supporting children who need it, in person or digitally.

“It’s wonderful to see the inventive work that’s going on, but to say anything other than ‘it’s really tough’ would be a misrepresentation,” chief executive Javed Khan says. “Something has to give to get us out the other side. It’s going to get more and more difficult the longer it goes on.”

Charity leaders are also having to find balance between the short-term emergency and the long-term survival of their organisations. Funders were quick to respond: more than 300 have pledged to be flexible about financial, outcome and reporting requirements while charities they fund deal with the crisis. Hundreds more have launched emergency fundraising appeals.

But Fatima Iftikhar of the anti-racism campaign group CharitySoWhite warns that many funders have been so focused on providing emergency funding that they could find their resources depleted when the costs of recovery hit.

She also warns that funders have (understandably) stepped up to ensure the futures of organisations they already support. “But BAME-led and focused organisations were underfunded to begin with, and lack the connections they really need,” she says. “So we’re looking at a situation where these charities are deprioritised further.”

At a time when the crisis is exacerbating existing racial and economic inequalities (a report by the London-based charity the Ubele Initiative has warned that nine out of 10 BAME micro and small voluntary and community organisations could face permanent closure within months), CharitySoWhite has called on leaders to ensure racial equality is at the heart of their responses.

“There’s a false binary: that either you keep your work going or you focus on issues of social and race equality,” Iftikhar says. “But it is civil society’s role to put social justice at the heart of what you do.”

‘Stunning’ collaboration

The sector’s infrastructure and support bodies are not immune to the devastation wreaked by the pandemic, with the NCVO and the Directory of Social Change among those to have furloughed large chunks of their workforces in the face of considerable losses of income. But from the earliest weeks of the crisis, something remarkable has happened in the sector.

For years, everyone has agreed on the need for greater collaboration. Since March, that idle dream has become a fully-fledged reality.

The NCVO, Acevo, Navca, the Institute of Fundraising, the SCC, the Charity Finance Group, the DSC, Volunteering Matters, CharityComms and many others have moved to form a coalition calling on the government to provide urgent financial support. The group talks daily across Zoom, email and WhatsApp. Several members say they see each other more than their own spouses.

“I’m so proud to be working with this group of people,” Browning says. “We have different types of members with different needs: local, national, big, small, a whole mix of causes and a spectrum of views, from cautious to gung ho. Yet throughout we’ve remained partners in all this.

“Sometimes it’s been chaotic and sometimes it’s been like a well-oiled machine, but the sense of camaraderie might last longer than some of our own organisations.”

The DSC’s chief executive, Debra Allcock Tyler, says the collaboration has been “absolutely stunning” observing that “egos are being well and truly managed” to make the coalition work. DSC head of policy Jay Kennedy says he believes the all-encompassing impact of the lockdown has, for the umbrella groups at least, been a great leveller, pushing aside old power dynamics.

“If there had been some other situation that required all of this collaboration, you’d have had to attend a specific breakfast meeting in central London on a Thursday morning at 8am to be a part of the group, but all that’s gone out of the window,” he says.

The coalition has also opened up the opportunity for new relationships with government and Whitehall in particular, Ide says, something the sector has struggled with in recent years.

And the campaign has achieved results, though how significant they will be in the long run is open to debate.

Daily struggle for existence

Under the banner #EveryDayCounts, the coalition hoped to ram home to government the dire, daily struggle for existence that many charities suddenly found themselves faced with in the absence of that £4.2bn of funding.

And the government listened, sort of. On 8 April, three weeks after the campaign was launched, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £750m of funding earmarked for the charity sector.

The move was almost universally greeted by the sector as good, but really only the start. More troublingly, a month after the announcement had been made, not a single penny had yet reached the front line.

“Every day counts, but apparently only every day in June,” one charity chief executive comments ruefully.

As time ticks on, more charities are nearing the end of their reserves, and more casualties are likely in the next few weeks.

The sense of frustration is palpable. Comments by Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, that the package had “done the job” and that the government “can’t save every charity” have done little to comfort the umbrella bodies that the plight of charities, and the work they do, is being understood.

Ide says it’s not about protecting the organisations that make up the sector, but the people they work with, people who will die, have their lives shortened and their life chances reduced without the right support.

“If someone could say to me ‘we will lose every charity in the country but the people they support are going to be fine because we’ll do X, Y and Z to support them’, then fine, that would be job done,” she says.

Kennedy adds that, beyond the moral argument, there is a financial one to be made. “There’s no sense in letting these services fall apart more and more, and letting people get into worse and worse states, from a cynical political economy point of view,” he says.

“We’re not asking for a bailout. We’re saying let’s prevent the worst of the damage so we as a country can come back from this.”

Ide says it’s hard to know whether that message simply hasn’t got across, or whether it has and it doesn’t matter to government. She suspects it’s a bit of both. So the campaign has morphed into #NeverMoreNeeded, a bold statement to the government and the public alike of the importance of charities’ role in dealing with the coronavirus crisis and the recovery.

The campaign is calling for more money to support the sector, that measures for business be altered to include charities and for the current package to be distributed quickly and fairly, with equality and diversity at the heart of it.

Similar support

Beyond that, Ide says, it’s also calling for a similar level of public awareness of and support for charities as there has (rightly) been for NHS workers, for shop workers and for refuse collectors, to take just a few examples.

Allcock Tyler believes it’s unlikely that the money will arrive in a single package, but rather that the sector will have to keep pushing for each small parcel of support to help charities make it over the line, wherever that is.

As the country, the government and the sector begin to look to the future, there are positives that can be taken from the coronavirus pandemic. New ways of working, a level of collaboration and accessibility, and the opportunity to redefine its relationship with the government, all are things the sector has been striving towards for years and which have come into being overnight.

And although many organisations in the sector and the people they support are facing a deeply uncertain future, among the small charities, the national giants and the umbrella bodies that have come together to support them there is a sense – if not of optimism – then of pride in what has been achieved, and fierce determination.

“The voluntary sector doesn’t die,” Allcock Tyler says. “Charities might – and it’s wrong that they do – and people that charities work with will die, and it’s wrong that they do. The government could alleviate the damage that will be done and has chosen not to.

“But the sector will bounce back and recover, because human beings want to help each other, and we won’t stop trying to do that.”

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