Kirsty Weakley: Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures so that charities can do what they do best  

17 Mar 2020 Voices

As the extent of the coronavirus becomes clear, Kirsty Weakley looks at what it tells us about the charities' resilience and what they need

For the last couple of years it has been common to greet colleagues and professional acquaintances with a wry smile and comment about “what interesting times we live in”.

This covered a myriad of political and economic factors such as the way Brexit was dominating political discourse to the exclusion of almost everything else, the impact of years of austerity on charities delivering services to vulnerable people, and the series of scandals that afflicted the charity sector.  

It was sort of a code for agreeing that everyone felt very busy and under pressure. 

But we are no longer in “interesting times”, we are in “unprecedented times”. 

Things are moving incredibly quickly and people are still struggling to understand the likely scale of the crisis, but it is clear that things are not normal and probably won’t be for some time. 

Charities and volunteers will have a crucial role to play in the coming weeks and months. But for that to be possible, funders, trustees, regulators and government need to do what they can to create a flexible and supportive environment. 

Nothing untouched 

Covid-19 and the measures being put in place to protect people will have an impact on almost every aspect of our lives in the short and medium term. This includes how charities function, fundraise and support people needing to change. 

In the longer term, cuts to funding could see charities downsize, or even close. And a reimagination of the workplace will be required for those charities whose staff have become accustomed to working from home and who wish to continue doing so. 

There are also interesting questions about how new self-organised, incredibly local, volunteer groups will affect the sector's overall eco-system once the immediate crisis is over. Will they be absorbed into existing structures, fizzle out, or become permanent fixtures? 

It is no surprise that now, as in other times of national crisis, charities and volunteers are stepping up to get things done. But, sadly, it is also no surprise to learn that the conditions they operate in are being needlessly complicated by a government that has sidelined the sector for too long. 

Charities under pressure 

Many charities can expect to be squeezed on two fronts. Income and cash flow will come under pressure as fundraising events or activities are postponed or put on hold, and a global economic slowdown will hit those that rely on income from investments, as many grant funders do. 

At the same time charities are expecting to see demand on their services come under pressure. 

Many have already reported an increase in people contacting them for advice or support in light of coronavirus and the impact of self-isolation measures.

Vulnerable people come in all shapes and sizes, and an array of health, social care, community and youth charities will now be thinking about new ways of working.

Charities showing real leadership 

Charities are already showing real leadership and stepping up. 

For example, the Scouts has suspended face-to-face activities and is working on sending out home activities for young people. Mind has launched wellbeing advice for people feeling anxious or concerned. 

These are just two of examples of how charities are offering support. We’ll be covering more on this in the days and weeks to come.

The trust and foundations sector should also be credited with its quick response to reassure grantees about relaxing restrictions on existing funds. The question now is could they go further? Is there new funding that could be made available?

After a false start last week when its initial advice was panned by the sector, the Charity Commission has said charities struggling to complete their annual return can ask for an extension. 

Emergency measures must include charities 

It’s important to acknowledge that for many charities, this comes at the end of a decade of funding cuts.

Not all will have a financial cushion to fall back on because they already been using reserves to keep the lights on.

The government is expected to announce further further measures later today. But last week’s Budget did not explicitly include charities, and it later transpired that many charities would not be eligible for the Business Loan Scheme. 

It is not the first time that the government has failed to include the sector in its thinking, sometimes to charities' clear detriment. It is exasperating.   

But this time it really matters, because charities are the ones that are best placed, able and willing to step up and help during this crisis. 

Just think how much more the sector could do if it was being helped instead of hampered by government. The NHS has been promised a blank cheque to get through the crisis - charities delivering vital new and existing services deserve support too. 

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