Volunteers building

Covid has changed the charity sector: we need to change with it

An update from our Rethink Rebuild initiative

By Seth Reynolds 22 June 2021 5 minute read

Seismic shifts are occurring in our sector – not just in practices, but also in attitudes. Such a shift is critical. For systems to change, the attitudes and beliefs that created them have to change first. Through our Rethink, Rebuild initiative, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that this is happening across the charity and philanthropy sectors. Although undoubtedly challenging, these shifts make it an exciting time for the sector.

We’ve been speaking with funders, infrastructure bodies, and charities of all sizes, to understand the changes taking place and how to make the most of them as the country rebuilds from the Covid-19 pandemic. In interviews, workshops and roundtables we’ve been exploring the challenges and opportunities created by the pandemic, as well as those pre-existing ones that have been revealed and amplified by it.

We’ve been sharing our responses to these challenges on our NPC Labs site. We have also connected with other organisations who are seeking to shift practices at a systemic level, providing a space for them to share their ideas and initiatives.

Here are three big shifts we think are particularly worth highlighting:

1. The pandemic increased trust and flexibility in grant-making, but it could be fragile

We call organisations ‘grantees’ but using that language highlights the power difference. It should be a partnership… Yet calling it a partnership doesn’t make it one. If we change the language, we need to then follow that with changing our behaviour.

After years of charities trying to fit within funders’ exacting requirements, many funders are shifting to more flexible partnership-based approaches. Funders have told us how they are doing away with onerous reporting requirements, and instead using light-touch proportional checkpoints and doing more of the legwork themselves to research potential grantees using publicly available information.

Of course, not all funders are able to adopt this way of working. Each will have their own context and parameters. It is clear though that many are moving in this direction. Pledges and principles, such as the Flexible Funders model and the Trust-Based Philanthropy movement, are now becoming standard practice.

This rebalancing is long overdue; charities have been calling for it for years. Everybody knew the old funding system worked a lot better for funders than it did for charities. But we must be careful. The danger is that this rebalancing doesn’t in fact achieve balance, but swings to the other extreme. “Trust those you give to” could easily regress into “Give only to those you already trust”.

The question of how funders understand and communicate the value created with their resources whilst reducing demands on charities will certainly require further exploration.

There are no short cuts to this work… Collaboration requires relationships, relationships need trust, trust takes time.

2. Structural inequalities are a growing priority

If we’re going to ‘level up’ the country we need to make sure that the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector is funded to get on and do its job, working with some of the most disadvantaged people

Soo Nevison, CEO, Community Action Bradford and District

The pandemic reinforced the urgency of addressing the deep inequalities across our society. In the charity sector we’ve all become increasingly aware of the need to embed greater equity throughout all our processes:

Through our collaboration strand, we have heard how collaborations can themselves be inequitable, excluding groups that aren’t in the right circles, disregarding barriers to access, or using minoritized groups in a tokenistic and extractive way. We have explored practical strategies for removing those barriers, which we will be sharing in the coming months.

Similarly, in our data strand we have been exploring how equalities data, which is essential for more equitable decision-making and use of resources, can be collected in a way that ensures that those whose data it is are involved in the process and have shared ownership of it.

The Government’s Levelling Up agenda gives an opportunity to tackle social inequalities through better policy. This month we published our recommendations for how government can address the inequalities in social needs through our report ‘Should we ‘level up’ social needs?’. We’re grateful too for the contributions we’ve had from the Race Equality Foundation on how better government policy can address racial inequalities.

The recent soul-searching on embedding equality must not become just a passing theme but must be embedded into all our processes and practices.

3. The pandemic has highlighted the need to work together

We need to rewire [funding] systems so they promote collaboration rather than competition.

The experience of the pandemic has made it even more obvious that complex problems cannot be resolved by single organisations working alone. We’re seeing a significant increase in charities wanting to better coordinate their efforts with others. In response, we are working with stakeholders on support for ‘systems strategy’ to help charities set their strategies not as single organisations but as a whole system.


From abstract to practical

When we began this work, we saw the ‘liminal space’ created by the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect, inquire, and examine. Liminality has, as it must, now turned to practicality as the focus becomes how to make these shifts take root. This will be the focus of the next phase of our Rethink, Rebuild initiative.

In the coming months we will be publishing what we’ve learnt from our consultative work on some of these big issues and big ideas for our sector, and we’ll be setting out our roadmap for their practical application on-the-ground.

We are deeply grateful for the time and goodwill, ideas and insights, challenges and contributions, of all those that have participated in this work so far. As we move from inquiry to implementation, our intention is for this participation to move to co-creation.


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