Anoushka Kenley: Five things we’ve learnt about civil society during Covid-19

16 Jun 2020 Voices

Anoushka Kenley, from Pro Bono Economics, reflects on what its weekly survey tells us about the sector and its response to Covid-19

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During times of crisis, good quality data becomes even more important than usual. Having run a weekly 60-second survey of the charity sector under Covid-19 for nearly two months now, it’s a good time to take stock and reflect on what we’ve learnt.

In doing so, it’s worth remembering the limits to what we can conclude: we’ve averaged just under 300 responses each week meaning any findings have to be treated with caution. But we think we’ve heard from somewhere in the region of 1,000 different civil society organisation in total, and there are some strong themes emerging. Five key insights stand out.

1. Little has changed

The merit of a weekly questionnaire is that it allows us to check in on changing sentiment in the sector on a very timely basis. The survey runs every Tuesday and Wednesday and the results are typically released by Thursday afternoon. When we started the survey, we didn’t know how things would evolve. Would we see a gradual improvement in sector sentiment as organisations found their feet in the new climate and help from government and others became available, or would things grow steadily worse as the cumulative effect of the crisis hit home? 

In practice, we’ve recorded remarkably little change. Concern was high seven weeks ago, and it remains high today. There have been some changes – with the proportion saying they’ve applied for support from the government’s charity-specific package roughly doubling over the past month for instance – but the bigger picture has been, depressingly, steady.

2. Organisations are being asked to do more with less

That picture is one of a sector under extraordinary pressure. The funding challenges are obvious, with nine-in-ten charities telling us their income will fall in the coming six months relative to pre-crisis expectations. Roughly one-in-ten organisations expect to fold within that period, and more than half have already reduced activities in a “significant” way. 

Such supply constraints are made all the more problematic by the fact that demand for charitable support is so elevated. Nearly three quarters of charities expect to see an increase in demand for their services over the next six months relative to previous plans. As the hashtag goes, charities are never more needed than during times of crisis.

“We are awaiting the tsunami of unemployed young people aged between 16 and 24 to come knocking on our door” 

All of that adds up to a serious imbalance, a potential £10bn funding gap over the next six months that will manifest itself in the form of unmet need across the country.

3. Finance isn’t everything… for the moment

While this funding crisis is very visible – and likely to persist for some considerable time – it isn’t the only issue. Indeed, it may not even be the most serious one. To date, survey respondents have ranked the impact of social distancing regulations on their ability to deliver their services as the single biggest negative every week. 

With the lockdown rules now changing, to different degrees and at different paces around the country, that’s a finding that we might expect to change in the coming weeks. And it’s noticeable the extent to which concerns about planning for the future have risen in recent weeks – implying that the nature of organisations’ concerns are starting to shift, even if we’re not seeing any marked changes in the overall scale of their fears.

“Easing lockdown is proving harder than going into lockdown” 

4.Every experience is different

The overall picture may have altered little over recent weeks, but the survey has shone a very clear light on the heterogeneity of the sector. For some organisations the issue is a loss of trading income, for others it’s the damage done to investment returns. Some charities tell us they simply can’t operate under social distancing regulations, others have identified new models but lack the capacity and skills to make the necessary changes. 

“Funding seems to completely miss us. Whenever the chancellor is asked about charities he says they are eligible for support, but local authorities seem to be reading from a different set of rules”

Above all else, the message we have heard is one of feeling overlooked by a blanket approach – that their case is different.

“As usual funding is focused on big and national charities, household names”

What is apparent is that some groups are facing especial problems. For example, small charities appear particularly exposed – making this year’s Small Charities Week all the more important than usual. Nearly half tell us they are braced for a “large” negative impact from Covid-19, and a third are expecting their income to halve (or worse). 

We’ve uncovered tentative evidence of particular pressures for those charities working with Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities too. We know that such groups have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and our survey indicates that those supporting them are feeling especially acute pressure. Small sample sizes make it hard to be definitive, but it’s an issue we want to continue to explore in the coming weeks. 

5. Never more needed

While the crisis has hit the sector hard, and exposed a chronic policy oversight, it has also brought home just how important civil society is. And it has generated a very welcome strengthening of social capital across the country which offers hope for the future. 

Volunteering has soared and innovative new local networks of mutual aid and assistance have sprung up. According to the ONS’s Opinion and Lifestyle Survey, four-in-five of us think people are helping each other more than they did pre-crisis. And we’re hopeful for a kinder and more united country.

Charities and social sector organisations have a vital role to play in fostering that stock of social capital and helping the country “build back better”. But that won’t be possible if charities spend the coming years rebuilding services and reserves that have been seriously damaged by the crisis. It’s a finding that government would do well to note.

“Government needs to address the real value the charity sector provides to the country and not under value it by 90 per cent”

Anoushka Kenley is research and policy director at charity Pro Bono Economics. Take part in this week's survey here. 

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