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The charity sector in a post-coronavirus world

By Rob Abercrombie 5 May 2020 4 minute read

NPC are thinking about what the future will look like for the charity sector. Our Chief Executive recently wrote this blog about three post-covid scenarios the sector could face. This blog discusses some of the opportunities for change that the sector may encounter. Rob Abercrombie, the author of this blog, is Director of Transformation at The Royal Foundation and was previously Director of Research and Consulting at NPC. He is writing in a personal capacity. Twitter: @AbercrombieRob

The constant flow of WhatsApp lockdown comedy is a daily reminder of our collective ability to keep laughing, even once the novelty is well and truly over. The ability of human beings to respond to crisis with resourcefulness and good humour is inspiring, but it doesn’t change the fact that coronavirus means widespread loss and hardship. These are tough times for many.

The charity sector is good in a crisis (in my corner of the sector London Funders have been particularly impressive). And, whilst we are occupied dealing with immediate needs, it doesn’t feel right to get too distracted with arguments about what should come after. Nonetheless, as a sector we do now need to start thinking about how we want the future to look. The key questions are;

  • How might our society and economy change?
  • What is the charity sector’s role in ensuring changes are positive?

As has been widely documented, we have seen things happening that no one could have predicted only a few short weeks ago. Welfare has become more generous, increasingly resembling the safety net it was originally intended to be. Those working in the gig economy are being given increased security. There is enormous investment in public services. All under-pinned by the willingness of the state to intervene and to borrow. And alongside this remarkable shift in the behaviour of government we have seen a mass outbreak of communitarianism.

What is socially and politically possible has changed rapidly. Old norms and assumptions no longer seem to apply. As a society we have rediscovered our compassion. Not everyone on benefits can anymore be written off as undeserving, low-paid professions are suddenly essential, and we are all reminded that the market does not have all the answers when the chips are down. Expecting it to solve the slower-burning crisis of climate change looks reckless in this light.

On the other side of the crisis

Once the immediate coronavirus crisis is over will our world be changed for the better? The shift in what is politically possible is grounds for optimism. Yes, we could emerge with a more humane welfare system, with improved conditions for workers, and with more resilient public services. We could even see our economy re-built along green lines. But these outcomes are not inevitable, or even likely.

The 2008 financial crisis resulted in a broad-based withdrawal of the state. And whatever the rights and wrongs of the decade of austerity that followed, it meant we all paid for the sins of the few. The cost of coronavirus could eclipse that of the financial crash, unleashing a new round of collective belt-tightening, and in the context of Brexit helping make the argument for de-regulation. The same economic interests that wrote the history of 2008 will see an opportunity in this fresh crisis. But this outcome is not inevitable either, and I am hopeful that this time around the voting public will be more inclined to support investment rather than austerity.

There is then an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future. The Overton Window has been blown violently open. I’ve heard no-one put it better than Nick Cave, ‘We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard’. What I fear is that the charity sector is going to be absent from the debate about what we keep and what we discard. As a sector we have much to contribute to this discussion. We can be a force for ensuring that the social and economic changes resulting from coronavirus are just, and represent progress. It is too early to be banging the drum publicly demanding changes, but we need to start thinking and planning, and doing that in collaboration with each other.

The opportunities for change

Charities are well-placed to build on the sense of collective endeavour that exists in the country, and to give the debate about the future moral weight. By doing so the sector also has the chance to reinforce its own relevance. The obvious areas of opportunity are central to the interests of many charities:

  • Welfare policy
  • The approach to in-work poverty and insecure employment
  • The treatment of migrant labour
  • Investment in public services
  • A fairer economic model
  • Using our society’s evident ability to adapt rapidly to make a step change in our response to the climate crisis

In 2008 the argument was lost, let’s see if this time balance can be restored.