Big news. After what feels like a year-long campaign, Rishi Sunak finally got around to announcing the much-speculated-about bespoke package of support for the charity sector to help it through the coronavirus crisis.
In case you need a reminder, charities have seen much of their income disappear overnight. Charity shops are closed and fundraising events cannot take place, but at the same time demand for many care and advice services has skyrocketed.
Before the crisis, online giving and virtual events made up a very tiny proportion of most charities’ income. Other sources of income, such as investment and legacies, are also looking uncertain as the global economy falters.
So the sector was waiting with baited breath for the promise of government support to materialise. Penny Mordaunt, paymaster general, had hinted this would be “large” and others had suggested it needed to be in the low billions.
It started well for the chancellor, as he spoke earnestly of the importance of charities and their role in the coronavirus response. “By George he’s got it,” you might say.
But things went downhill as Sunak built towards the big moment where he announced the multi-billion pound bailout.
The figure that came was not in the billions, but in the millions. £750m, to be precise.
Ok. Maybe there’s more? There must be more? Charities haven’t exactly kept their £4bn funding gap figure a secret. Few had expected it to be the full £4bn – there are of course an number of fundraising and philanthropic efforts underway. But £1-2bn seemed a reasonable amount to hope for.
Targeted not strategic
As the details emerged, it became clear that the funding was not for charities per se, but will be targeted at charities the Treasury can clearly see.
For years charities have been telling the government that strategic interventions have been needed to help strengthen the whole sector. And the government has responded with targeted pots of money, like the Tampon Tax fund or the Libor fund, or targeted tax reliefs.
It has done the same here. Up to £200m of the funding announced is to go to hospices, which desperately need support.
It is unclear how other types of charities like animal shelters or medical research institutes will benefit from yesterday’s announcement, if at all.
Many of these charities will now be looking to furlough their staff so that they can emerge at the other side.
We also need clarity about how and when funding will be available. The announcement yesterday contained no details of how to apply. Typically this detail follows at a later stage.
Some £370m has been ringfenced for smaller charities, which is welcome news. But charities will be anxious to make sure that money will be distributed quickly and flexibly.
Overall, the money is enough to stop sections of the sector from falling off the cliff edge, for example, preventing the PR disaster of large hospices collapsing in the coming weeks. But does not do a lot for the longer-term future of the wider sector.
Weak links in the charity ecosystem
The reason strategic support for the whole sector is needed is that charities don’t exist in bubbles. It is very much an ecosystem.
Charities often speak about working collaboratively with others to solve complex social problems, sharing resources, skills or learning. The problem is that when one charity in the ecosystem is weak or disappears, that will weaken and burden those around it.
Without more money, and better policy, there is a very real danger that the charity sector that emerges the other side of the coronavirus crisis will be more fragile and less sustainable than it was at the start of this year.
It will be months or years before the true scale of the impact will be felt, as charities scale back activity or even close in the coming weeks and months.
‘We need their gentleness’
Sunak closed his statement saying: “At this time, when many are hurting and tired and confined, we need the gentleness of charity in our lives. It gives us hope. It makes us stronger. It reminds us: we depend on each other.”
I agree that charities can be gentle, especially if you are thinking about care and hospice charities. But they are so much more. They are competent, expert, knowledgeable and compassionate.
In the right context they should be strong, determined and relentless. If I was drowning I wouldn’t want the RNLI crew to be gentle, I’d want them to be fearless.