Third Sector's manifesto for the future

Amid the disruption of Covid-19 is an opportunity for the voluntary sector to commit to building back better. Rebecca Cooney asks Third Sector readers what they want to change for good

As the initial shock of the coronavirus crisis wears off and we begin adjusting to a strange and unstable new normality, one of the biggest questions facing the charity sector is: “What now?”

The sector has achieved incredible things in the face of overwhelming odds in the past few months, but it is not out of the woods yet: some suggest there could be a second wave of infections, prompting further lockdown measures, and many charities are still locked in a desperate day-to-day battle for survival. 

But as organisations begin to look from crisis action to the longer process of recovery, the need for a long-term vision that will enable charities to continue supporting those who desperately need them is becoming increasingly apparent. And traumatic though the crisis has been, it has presented the sector with a unique opportunity to commit to changing its processes for the better.

To find out what changes could be made, Third Sector surveyed about 100 people from across the sector and conducted a series of in-depth interviews on what the future might bring. Many responses threw up more questions than answers (and, as one policy expert commented, crises often have a tendency to reinforce people’s pre-existing pet theories), but the comments made by our respondents show there is a real appetite for change, both in the way the sector works and in how it thinks.

The charity sector, in its very nature, is one that can look at the world and imagine how it could be better, and it does not shy away from turning that radical, reforming gaze upon itself. 

This is Third Sector’s manifesto for the future of the charity sector.

Get creative with the money 

The response of many funders to the coronavirus crisis has been fundamental to the survival of numerous voluntary organisations.

Moving forward, however, funders themselves are likely to see their own spending power diminish. As the economy shrinks, the investments so many rely on are likely to bring smaller returns in the next few years. Statutory funding, too, is likely to come under pressure if the government responds to the financial crisis with austerity measures. 

Although survey respondents generally appreciate the constraints on the amount of money available, many strongly believe the more crucial issue is how the remaining funds will be allocated. 

Sarah Mitchell, chief executive of the London-based charity Heart of the City, says the sector needs to think again about restricted funding, which she says “severely hampers responsiveness and investment in charity infrastructure and research”, and is “symbolic of grant-makers’ lack of trust” in the sector.

Laura Solomons, head of donor relations at the Sutton Trust and trustee of a grant-giving organisation, says she hopes the crisis will prompt more partnership working between funders and fundraisers. “Fundraisers should be confident in what their organisations need: flexible, multi-year funding,” she says. “And funders need to start looking to create systems change and fund missions rather than being so project-led.” 

Crispin Truman, chief executive of the countryside charity the CPRE, agrees that trusts and foundations “need to get over their aversion to core funding” and be prepared to let the delivery organisations set the agenda based on their experience of the beneficiary group. A government return to grant funding rather than contracts would also help to stimulate the innovation that will be needed for Covid recovery, he adds. 

According to one sector policy expert, who asks not to be named, central and local government funding is too often for short-term, output-focused work. This not only fails to meet needs or support citizens and communities, this person warns, but also fails to invest in more efficient preventive approaches.

Sustainability is also the watchword for Jane Ide, chief executive of the local infrastructure umbrella body Navca, who says the pandemic has highlighted the need for lasting sector infrastructure. She believes funders’ perceptions have shifted during the crisis, but worries that those lessons will be forgotten and infrastructure will, within months, “once again be cast back into the shadows in favour of the ‘sexier’ option of funding only the front line”. 

  • Funders must work collaboratively with those they fund, offering unrestricted, long-term funding and funding for core costs as well as projects

  • Fund infrastructure and strategy, rather than simply front line work

  • Government must offer grants rather than contract funding

Fundraise with purpose

Covid-19 has breached the digital fundraising frontier, and the innovations and progress since lockdown prevented events and face-to-face fundraising must not be allowed to disappear if, and when, life returns to normal. 

“The past few months have proved to us that our failures to embrace digital in the same way as all other sectors was negligent,” says Paul De Gregorio, founder of the consultancy Rally. “We all knew disruption would come in some form. Now that we have it, we need to reflect on the reasons why we have not done well in digital and take active steps to address them.”

De Gregorio is among those who believe fundraising reforms must go beyond simply starting a digital campaign. Over the past couple of years a group of radical fundraisers has been calling for income generation to radically change in order for charities to continue to exist in the future. They argue that the public is seeking a more direct way to be part of doing good, and that in the age of crowdfunding charities will have to view donors as partners in change rather than merely financial backers if they want to remain relevant.

They have also challenged charities to develop a more entrepreneurial mindset, harness their existing assets to generate diversified income and rely on smaller, agile ways of working, rather than the hulking corporate mega-structures of the past. 

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic and its impact on fundraising has done nothing to change this view. 

“We’ve put all the focus on the thing we want people to do and not what we want to achieve or what the impact of the public’s support will be,” De Gregorio says. Charities must switch to models that recognise that “people want the same things we do”, he says. 

“Our job is not to flog transactional products, but to use our values to attract their long-term support and then give them useful things to do, rooted in our mission and values, that bring around that change.”

Marcus Missen, director of fundraising and communications at WaterAid, says the crisis has accelerated many of the changes that were happening anyway across society – technology development and usage, societal attitudes and expectations, and a shift in the balance of economic resources and power – and these will all affect fundraising.

He says the next generation of supporters will be more motivated by purpose than an inherent sense of duty to give to charity.

“As the sector faces more financial challenges, the temptation to just focus on optimising the old tried and tested needs to be resisted, because focusing on tomorrow is the strategic imperative,” Missen says.

And, he adds, there’s likely to be more competition as companies move towards adopting social purpose as part of their marketing mix.

“At the start of the crisis, as sales dropped, we saw corporates switch to building brand love with ‘stay safe’ messages,” Missen says. 

“Some are now building to promote the human face of their brands. I doubt they’ll go back to the previous normal, but rather will build this to the next level of delivering social purpose as part of their core propositions.”

  • Explore sources of income that do not solely rely on traditional direct debit giving

  • Work to connect with donors and service users more directly, allowing both to feel part of creating change

  • Consider joint fundraising campaigns with other charities, focused on the causes or issues they want to solve

Change the government conversation 

Charities are increasingly vital for informing policy-makers, politicians, the public and the media about current events, argues Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy, communications and research at the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales.

Shrubsole says: “Think of all the issues around homelessness, prisons and universal credit, where positive changes were made in response to Covid, all of which were initiated and pushed for by charities.” 

Despite this, he adds, the government remains “hostile, or at best entirely ambivalent to charities and their expertise”. So how can they get better and smarter at influencing and campaigning within and outside the system?

Shrubsole recommends tackling the disconnect of the government wanting charities to work like businesses for procurement, “but then only like small charities that look and feel like their view of charity”. He adds that charities need to be more involved in shaping government policies, rather than criticising them once they’ve gone wrong. 

Ide agrees. Beyond the obvious and important point that the sector has saved and improved the lives of thousands of people affected by the crisis, there is also “the lesson that sustainable, meaningful investment in people, communities and the voluntary sector will make us far better equipped to face any future crisis”, she says.

During the pandemic, the sector has tried to make this argument, particularly around the desperate need for funding through the #EveryDayCounts and #NeverMoreNeeded campaigns. But many argue that this should be the start of a fundamentally different conversation with both government and the public.

Shrubsole says charities need to consider how their role and services can be seen alongside the NHS, social care and key workers as part of the basic essentials: appearing in the media to talk about wider issues, not just their own narrow cause areas, and being more vocal about the work they are doing to inspire change.

Some respondents argue that the government could help to build public trust by publicly backing charities and explaining the need for fundraising and overheads, although this can only really happen once the government’s own approach shifts. Others question whether the profile of the Minister for Civil Society can be raised by giving the role more prominence within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, or by moving it to another department.

  • The sector should continue to build on #NeverMoreNeeded, creating a campaign that explains the vital work that charities are doing to the public, media and government

  • Government should also play a part in promoting the sector and the work it does to the public

Break out of “institutional silos” 

For organisations struggling with the impact of coronavirus, merging and pooling resources with another organisation might be a far more appealing idea than it was six months ago. And there have long been those who believe the sector needs to be streamlined and stripped of duplication. 

Heart of the City’s Mitchell believes it is something charities need to consider, not just when they’re in dire financial straits. “As charity leaders and trustees, we need to recognise earlier when there is an advantage to our beneficiaries from a merger,” she says. 

“Too often we gesture towards this when we’re in financial difficulty, but joining two failing charities together is not good for anyone. We need to be focused on the quality, sustainability and scope of the services we can run in future. That means mergers have to be part of the picture.”

However, consultant Phyllida Perrett argues that mergers should really be considered only for organisations that have similar objects, missions and visions, adding: “It might be worth thinking about ‘loose federations’ more than total mergers.”

Many respondents agree that new ways to work collaboratively need to be found. 

Graham Duxbury, chief executive of Groundwork, says it might be possible to achieve the benefits of scale without the complexity and risk of a merger, for example “through shared service arrangements or group structures that can combine national or regional infrastructure with local insight, relationships and relevance”.

Truman of the CPRE adds that the sector needs a renewed effort to break down sector boundaries and “start working across the artificial silos that we create to make our lives easier”.

He says: “The voluntary sector is uniquely placed to deliver in a joined-up way for its beneficiaries, yet we consistently tie ourselves to the institutional silos invented to organise government and other sectors’ work.

“Some of the most powerful impacts of recent years have been achieved by organisations working together across traditional specialisms, and this needs to become mainstream.”

The response to the pandemic has brought many organisations together for the first time and has prompted never-before-seen levels of collaboration, from umbrella organisations to small grass-roots groups. Many are now wondering what could be achieved if charities were to lay aside their egos and branding and continue this level of collaboration, communication and partnership after the crisis subsides.

De Gregorio is optimistic: “The idea that a single organisation can throw its logo on something and lay claim to being the sole source of change has, I hope, gone – or, at least, has started to go.” 

  • Focus on working together in formal and informal ways to achieve the mission, not who takes the credit
  • Mergers should be led by consideration of what is best for the beneficiaries and mission, not just finances

Shift power

Could 2020 be the year that the charity sector finally shrugs off its Victorian beginnings? Once upon a time, the good people of the world put money into a charity, and the charity made decisions on what help the deserving poor needed, then spent that money accordingly.

Yes, they were radical for their day and, yes, they campaigned for change, but the system was inherently top-down, with perceptions about who gave money, who needed it, who was deserving of it and, crucially, who had agency, operating along lines of race, class, gender and ability.

The world has changed since then, as has the sector, but many of the Victorian assumptions about how charities operate still cling to it like an ill-fitting skin it is ready to slough off.

In recent years, new models such as direct crowdfunding or the loose, non-hierarchical structures of Extinction Rebellion and mutual aid have come along to challenge the assumption that good can be done only in a centralised way.

“The world has shifted,” Missen says. “New power balances are being set, questions are being asked and the old-world belief systems and models are being openly challenged. 

“Within this the question of the role and relevance of charity comes into sharp focus. Is the current model now part of the problem? Is the distribution of power fair? Does our sector’s operating model, with its collection and disbursement of funding as well as benefit, engage and empower?”

Many believe there is a long way to go to rebalance the way power is distributed in the sector, pointing to a range of issues, from the “flies in their eyes” advertising campaigns for development charities to the lack of consultation with service users about what they actually want. 

De Gregorio argues that the way power has been used in the past is like currency: hoarded by those who have it, with its use driven by a few people at the top. But he adds that power can be viewed and used in an open, participatory and peer-driven way, where the goal is not to hoard it but to channel it.

But what does moving away from a top-down, paternalistic structure look like in practice?

Laura Solomons, head of donor relations at the Sutton Trust says the most important thing for her is ensuring that service users are “meaningfully involved” in the decisions that affect them.

The consultant Leesa Harwood says charities need to consider how they can co-create materials and support with beneficiaries and supporters, or even just curate and support work others are already doing separately from the charity. 

If the organisation sees itself as the sole creator of change, she says, it risks maintaining “hierarchical, centralised, patronising cultures” and missing “a significant opportunity to improve the sustainability of organisational output, which improves massively when owned and controlled by the people it has been designed for”. 

Instead, she says, charities should worry less about control and brand, and focus instead on empowerment and relevance. 

The sector’s lack of diversity, with many of the “major players, funders and faces remaining so white, so graduate, so London, so middle class”, as Shrubsole puts it, also contributes to unequal power dynamics. While much of the focus in recent times, quite rightly, has been on the issue of race, there are a whole host of ways in which the sector has failed to be as diverse and inclusive as it could be. 

“We not only have appallingly low numbers of those with protected characteristics working within the sector, but we also pigeonhole those we have: disabled people working in disability charities, LGBTQ+ people working in LGBTQ+ charities and so on,” Ide says. 

As many people point out, it’s not just a moral imperative, but also a survival issue for charities: in a time of crisis, how can charities justify ignoring pools of talents, experience and creativity by excluding swathes of the population?

Digital meetings for workers and service users during the pandemic have done much to rebalance power imbalances around geography and access (to services, decision-makers and stakeholders), and many survey respondents are keen to see this maintained alongside face-to-face meetings and services in the future.

  • Charities must consider how power works in their organisations and what can be done to empower those they support as equal partners in the process of creating change

  • Video meetings should remain an option even when social-distancing measures are abandoned, allowing non-London organisations access to decision-makers

  • Charities must wholeheartedly commit to improving the diversity and accessibility of their organisations across the board, through mechanisms such as training, quotas or mentoring as appropriate

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