If the unofficial motto of the charity sector is ‘we do what needs to be done’—then right now with coronavirus we face an unprecedented challenge of working out what does need to be done. The context and guidelines are changing daily and it is hard to work through the ramifications of what all the changes might now mean.
It currently looks like coronavirus will affect every charity—be that with staff absences, changes to working practices, fundraising shortfalls, or having to stop running services. Those of us who are working with people vulnerable to the coronavirus—be it as service users or as volunteers—are having to make the toughest decisions, trading off which consequences are least bad. These charities will be considering whether it is possible for them to run their services if they are putting people in danger. Social distancing may be the approach that saves people’s lives, but it will mean real hardship to people who are already socially isolated. Some organisations have already made the decision that they don’t expect vulnerable people to come in—despite what that will mean for their service users, their income and their mission. We need to be thinking about how we adapt as a sector and how those who support and fund us can also help.
Changing our approach
We will have to find different ways of working. That might mean more micro-volunteering, which younger people are more likely to do than older people. Or it might mean moving to video calls rather than visits. And we will need to share these different solutions. NCVO has been leading the charge in terms of things that charities will need to be thinking about with coronavirus—from sick pay through to events. Charities that are already ahead of the curve on remote working have been sharing their learnings and resources about how to do it well. We will need more of that as this goes on—collaboration will make all of this easier.
The one thing we do know is that plans will change. Setting things in stone, developing detailed plans is not what we need here. We need a more fluid and emergent strategy. We will all be testing new ways of working and then abandoning them when they no longer work.
But the charity sector doesn’t have a lot of spare capacity or resilience. We haven’t been investing in technology—in terms of hardware, software or skills—so even relatively simple things like moving people to remote working will require some pain. We don’t have HR teams with a lot of spare time to rewrite management guidance or flexible working policies. We don’t have spare money to take the hit from cancelling events or fundraising dinners. Charities have tight cash flows and will find timing delays difficult.
Where charities need help
The policies that the government have announced for the charity sector therefore need to go further. The Business Loan Interruption Scheme should be extended to those charities who earn less than half of their income from trading. The Charity Commission should be helping charities by reducing paperwork rather than increasing it.
And our funders need to help us too. As we make clear in our upcoming power dynamics report, funders and charities are in a partnership. If charities go under, funders can’t achieve their mission. Trusts and foundations have had a hit to their endowment as investments have fallen—but they are still in a better position than most charities. Flexibility from funders here will be key to making sure that charities don’t feel there is an expectation on them to carry on doing work that might now be harmful—some funders have already written to charities to let them know that they expect delays to projects. London Funders has coordinated a response from funders in London saying they will be flexible, and it would be good to have more of this. In Italy, funders are talking about converting restricted grants into unrestricted grants (although, NPC would argue these should have been unrestricted grants in the first place).
Learning from others
We can also learn from funders that give in times of uncertainty more generally. A completely different context, but the unexpected election in December caused the UK Democracy Fund to give quick small grants, to allow work to get up and running within the six week election period. Or the Grenfell Tower disaster, where funders grouped together to give a quick and coordinated response. Similar funder collaboration—helping out with short term cashflow, giving people technology grants to buy more equipment, and giving core grants to those who will be most affected—would be really helpful.
The funder collaboration could go further, providing a one-stop-shop for notifications so that charities don’t have to give an update to all their funders about how they are affected and what they will be changing. It could take some of the management burden off of charities in this challenging time.
The best way to get through this crisis is to think through what is the best thing I can do for the most vulnerable. Funders and the government need to be thinking about the most vulnerable charities, as well as the most vulnerable users.