Covid-19: The immediate issues
This page explains what we've learned from our grantholders in the period immediately after the lockdown.
What are the key issues right now?
- We're hearing from grantholders and research across the sector that the coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic is having an immediate and dramatic impact on charities’ ability to deliver services to the community and will disrupt usual patterns of community resilience for months to come and, perhaps, permanently.
- Many are fearful for their immediate survival. Few charities carry large reserves and maintaining cash flow is extremely challenging in the face of loss of income due to cancelled or postponed fundraising events or loss of regular revenue from things like venue hire, training and events and charity shop income.
- Furloughing staff, to help stay afloat financially, feels an impossible choice for many charities, particularly those working at the grassroots who are mobilising to support the communities they live and work in.
- Getting food and money to people in crisis is a fundamental immediate concern to many grantholders. In some cases, making anything else feel like a luxury.
- New groups of vulnerable people are emerging, and those who have never needed support before may suddenly be. How do services identify and support them?
- The dramatic loss of a vibrant and active base of volunteers, many aged over-70 to self-isolation is causing some organisations, especially food banks to close their doors when their services are needed the most.
- This is balanced by huge numbers of people volunteering through mutual aid groups, and NHS and Red Cross schemes and through targeted local call-outs. Grantholders are mobilising to work collaboratively with other others to be part of city- or district-wide initiatives to recruit volunteers and finding new ways for volunteers to work remotely.
- Greater coordination of activity is important, however the spread of local infrastructure organisations to support this is very variable and there are real fears about the potential collapse of local VCS infrastructure.
- Many charities are adapting quickly and creatively to online and remote delivery, others are realigning their energy and resource to support their wider community’s response.
- Charities are undergoing digital transformation, that would ordinarily take months or years, in a matter of days, but tackling the digital divide remains a fundamental concern.
Loss of income, scaling back and closure of services
Few charities carry large reserves and balancing cash flow in the face of loss of income is very challenging. Being able to pay staff to keep services running is essential. Whilst furloughing them may help balance the books, it will also mean scaling back or stopping service delivery. Charities are also grappling with the rules that mean furloughed staff are not able to ‘volunteer’ for their own organisation.
Some are responding by arranging swaps between furloughed staff allowing them to volunteer for another organisation. For example, Furlough Go has been set up to enable charities and community groups to connect with and involve skilled and experienced furloughed staff as volunteers.
Although we can’t yet quantify it, a significant number of our grantholders have had to stand down staff and close, or scale back, essential services. In Northern Ireland, we reviewed a 71% sample of projects funded through People and Communities, who are at project delivery stage. Just two projects are delivering as planned, with one other maintaining its frontline activities (phone counselling), but with significant changes to back office support with the closure of their offices. Many have closed their premises altogether.
Responding to immediate need vs. planning ahead
Most organisations talked about the utmost importance of meeting immediate needs - the safety of people, saving lives, maintaining vital services and being able to offer reassurance about organisational continuity plans. Our Advisory Group shared the enormity of the need to get money and food to people, with other work, to some, feeling like a luxury at the moment. Most organisations are approaching their response on a day-to-day basis, finding it hard to engage in longer-term thinking and planning before urgent needs are addressed.
Even some larger charities have told us they feel they have no choice but to ‘make it up as they go along’ and worry about usual process later, whilst recognising that some processes still need a degree of rigour, particularly relating to safeguarding/DBS, GDPR and data protection, and cash management. Updated and amended guidance from regulators is assisting with some of these challenges.
Our ability to move beyond the short term and absorb and embed the changes in social behaviour will also depend on how we act now.
There are a clear and consistent set of pressing issues that we are hearing need to be addressed immediately:
- Fundamental needs such as inability to afford food, rent or sudden unsustainable debt.
- Other challenges arising through trying to work remotely include allocating destitution/hardship payments as well as food to the most vulnerable, providing hot food/food parcels, well-being of staff and volunteers, ensuring healthy working practices, and social isolation of beneficiaries.
- Having to undergo digital transformation in matter of days – both for organisations themselves and their beneficiaries
- Reaching and supporting the most vulnerable and socially isolated people: homeless people, people facing increased risk of domestic and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol users, people with mental health issues, members of some BAME communities, sex workers, refugees and asylum seekers and people with long-term or life limiting conditions.
Our Advisory Group made a strong call to use existing local infrastructure and networks to identify and support those most in need, rather than setting up new, competing mechanisms. We’ve heard dozens of stories of existing grassroots organisations quickly adapting to the crisis, and many examples of local authorities and VCS infrastructure organisations stepping up to help better coordinate action.
In order to do this, geographical anchor organisations need to have an active membership; be well connected; have expert knowledge of the local area; be enablers not gatekeepers; and align with our values as an organisation. These are often small and specialised organisations with the trust of the community.
Local Trust have flagged that it’s important to recognise the patchy local infrastructure, especially in areas that have been considered 'left behind'. Here these vital organisations may not exist at all. And even where they do exist there’s concern about whether or not they’ll still be there in the medium to long-term. Many are already reporting having to adapt at pace, whilst also coping with significant reduction in their normal income (in some cases 75%) as they are unable to hire out rooms, run training courses or provide services like community transport. Others are acutely aware that their funding runs out in the next few months, presenting a perfect storm of both logistical and financial challenges.
We know that infrastructure organisations need a mix of funding to resource the continuation and stability of their own activities. Many micro grassroots organisations rely on an intermediary, like the local CVS, to receive and make payments on their behalf.
We’ve heard sobering anecdotal examples of some local authorities taking the difficult decision to close down vital places like community hubs. Whilst some groups have been able to adapt - commandeering vacant shops as meeting places instead - others have not been able to replace these centres with alternatives from which they can coordinate and collaborate their response to the crisis.
We’re hearing of the “massive impact” of the loss of volunteers, many of whom are drawn from a cohort of, “energetic, committed over-70s” who are now having to self-isolate.
Grantholders are mobilising to work collaboratively with others to be part of city- or district-wide initiatives to recruit volunteers to support isolated and vulnerable people. Some have talked to us about redirecting their staff resources to supporting these kind of initiatives as they can’t deliver what they are specifically funded to provide at this time.
Whilst greater numbers of new volunteers, notably younger people, are bringing a diverse range of professional and personal skills, creating new options and opportunities; coping with a large influx of new volunteers also raises challenges in inducting, training, supporting and managing them well. Many new volunteers are passionate and committed but may not have the skills, experience or local knowledge to work as effectively as needed.
This is exemplified by two examples we heard: SCVO explained that lots of behind the scenes work was done with ReadyScotland to offer a collective approach to volunteer coordination, influencing and supporting infrastructure. Whilst in Bath, a local infrastructure group put out a call and received 900 volunteer offers in four days, leaving their only paid member of staff struggling to cope with the sudden volume.
Data protection and safeguarding issues are complicated for newly formed groups. Some, like Your Scholes are linking up with more established organisations like Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL) to provide DBS checks and support training needs.
Also important is induction for new volunteers, and training in new or unfamiliar skills - for those switching to working in different ways and providing services which are very different from what they are used to. National umbrella organisations like NCVO and SCVO have provided guidance on their websites on how to manage volunteers during the crisis.
Other areas of need that we’ve heard are around increasing supervision and support for volunteers, particularly when they are themselves isolated or have lived experience of the issues they are supporting others with. There is an increasing need for clinical supervision.
Charities also need to find money to cover simple but un-budgeted volunteer expenses for things like phone calls, shopping and other practical support tasks that might otherwise leave them out of pocket.
Grantholders and partners
We're currently carrying out interviews with existing grant-holders and other partners we work with.
These will try to understand how communities are responding to the COVID-19 crisis, what will be useful in the next four months and how the Fund can help communities weather the storm and thrive beyond it.
We’re making sense of what we’re seeing and hearing from our grantholders at pace, so there’ll be things we’ve missed, haven’t noticed yet or, perhaps, misinterpreted.
We welcome comments or challenge, so that we can continuously improve and develop, and make this work practical and useful.
Please send feedback and suggestions on this content to firstname.lastname@example.org
This page was last updated: 17 April 2020