Ahead of the prime minister’s announcement of a month-long lockdown in England, charities and social enterprises, along with many other parts of the economy, are expecting a difficult winter. So what does the changes mean for the sector? And how might we expect this lockdown to be different from the one in the spring?
The broad outline of what is being asked of most people for the next month is similar to the spring lockdown.
However, the context is very different. Confidence in the government has plummeted, and people are exhausted and frustrated. There is a real chance that public support and cooperation just won’t be there this time.
The idea that we might all cheerfully stand outside our front doors and clap to show support for the NHS feels like another world.
This will likely create additional challenges for a voluntary sector that has been placed under unprecedented strain over the last few months.
Last week Civil Society News reported on two research projects, which provided stark warnings about the coming months and demonstrated the scale of the challenges being faced.
Firstly, nearly half of respondents to a survey conducted by Pro Bono Economics said they expected donations over this crucial winter period to be lower than in previous years. And secondly, 56% of those that took part in research by NCVO and academics in Nottingham and Sheffield said that demand for their services would increase.
Both these pieces of research were conducted prior to this weekend’s announcement, ie when the government’s position was to avoid another full lockdown.
What is covered by the announcement?
From this Thursday (4 November) until 2 December, all non-essential shops will have to close. This means at least a month-long pause in income generated by charity shops, at a point where people will be making spontaneous purchases during their Christmas shopping.
As you would expect, the Fundraising Regulator and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising have said that they expect charities to halt all in-person fundraising for the duration of lockdown, meaning the sector will again need to rely on virtual events.
All indoor and outdoor leisure and culture facilities, many of which are run by charities, will also be ordered to close.
Charities running support groups can continue, however most in-person youth activity will come to an end.
Importantly, the guidance explicitly states that buildings can be used for organising voluntary activity, such as foodbanks.
Extending the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for the month will no doubt save some jobs, and by ensuring the government will cover 80% of wages for furloughed workers, will no doubt bring some respite for those on the scheme.
For charities that have been told to mothball for a month, this offers some valuable breathing space.
However, for parts of the sector that are anticipating a surge in demand, the scheme did not work in March and does not do so now.
A familiar narrative in the spring was that an army of volunteers had sprung up to help their neighbours who were isolating or shielding. Those wishing to cast a positive light were quick to praise the efforts of mutual aid groups and talk optimistically about a supposed surge in volunteering.
Throughout the pandemic, political leaders have been keen to show their support for volunteers doing vital work, and it is welcome that volunteering is a clear exemption to the requirement to stay at home.
However, sector leaders have been more cautious about embracing this narrative about a “surge”. To an extent, these “new” volunteers could have been people who already volunteered and had just pivoted to new activity.
In fact, a survey carried out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about levels of public engagement during the pandemic actually found that volunteering levels had tapered off between May and July.
Just over half the respondents reported having volunteered in the preceding four weeks in May, with this decreasing to 40% of respondents in July.
People were also asked whether they had spent more or less time in the last four weeks doing each activity compared to before 23 March 2020. One-fifth of respondents said that by July they were actually volunteering less than before the pandemic, and just 9% said they were volunteering more.
The challenge is not people’s willingness to participate, but that there needs to be sufficient support in place to facilitate the kind of opportunities that fit in with people’s lives.
Time and again, sector leaders have stressed that there is no shortage of volunteers, but that it cannot happen in any kind of sustained way without infrastructure and coordination, which brings us to the money issue.
Money, money, money
The key question on everyone’s lips is: will there be any additional funding for the sector?
Indeed, it was one of the first demands from the Labour shadow charities minister, Rachael Maskell, over the weekend. She followed up in parliament yesterday, asking the prime minister directly what he would do for the sector.
Johnson promised the sector “much more”. It’s an easy gesture for him to make; after all, who is to say what defines “much”? And charities won’t have forgotten that in March it took weeks before the vague promises from politicians materialised into anything substantial (and even then it was less than a third of the estimated funding gap).
During the first lockdown, the initial tranche of emergency government funding (when it arrived) was targeted at the parts of the sector very directly involved in the health response, such as hospices and emergency response charities.
The prime minister indicated in parliament yesterday that there would be support for mental health charities. It is vital that a more holistic approach is taken to support charities across the board this time around.
For now, the government's spending review is expected to take place on 25 November, when the chancellor will set out his vision for the year ahead.
A quick note on fundraising from the public. The Charities Aid Foundation revealed that there had been something of a boost in fundraising during the first lockdown. However this should not be taken as evidence that extra donations can make up for lost income.
£800m is not to be sniffed at, but it does not get close to covering the £10bn gap created reduced income and increased demand. Public sympathy was also, understandingly, targeted at NHS charities and other health causes.
Other really big challenges
Meanwhile, the end of the Brexit transition period is looming on the horizon. Yesterday the government published guidance setting out what civil society should be doing ahead of next year.
For anyone who has shoved the prospect of Brexit to the back of their in tray, this is a stark reminder that there are some very nuts and bolts things that charities need to get to grips with if they employ EU nationals or have any dealings with organisations or people in the EU.
Fingers are crossed for an announcement, finally, about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund at the spending review (this is the fund the government promised would replace much of the EU funding that some charities benefited from). A note of caution though – that there has been no formal consultation about how this fund will work, so there may well be some unintended consequences.
Beyond that, the inevitable public discussions about the UK’s future relationship with the EU can only lead to the reopening of some old Brexit wounds and divisions in society.
That’s full circle. We’re back to my original point about the context this lockdown is happening in being very different.
This does mean that the convening power of charities and community groups has never been more vital. Nonetheless, the scale of the challenge is not to be underestimated.