This blog builds on discussion at a recent event, hosted by Voluntary Norfolk, which sought to explore the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on Norfolk in comparison to the rest of the UK. NPC Senior Consultant Naomi Chapman presented a national overview of the cost-of-living crisis and discussed the issues facing charity leaders across Norfolk.
In early 2022, after two years battling Covid, the UK was hit with its next challenge. Rapidly rising inflation and interest rates brought with them an impending cost-of-living crisis. Norfolk’s charity leaders shared the national mood of tiredness and burnout, as they prepared for the significant challenges that the cost-of-living crisis would present; rising operating costs, falling donations and volunteering, and an increased demand for services.
However, the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis have varied across the UK. Different charities, working in different sectors, across different parts of the country, have been impacted in varying ways and to varying degrees.
The value of local data
Previous work by NPC has highlighted the disproportionate impact rising energy and fuel costs, low wage economies, and a lack of access to services have on rural areas. A key recommendation of NPC’s guidance on responding to these challenges, is for charities to be agile and collaborative with data. During the event, Norfolk charity leaders echoed the need for easy to access research and data, allowing charities to understand changing needs in local areas and to prioritise services in challenging times. To address this gap, charity leaders can make use of publicly available datasets, such as NPC’s Local needs databank, and share their own data and insights with local charities. Leaders noted the value in this, as they try to get behind a more collaborative approach across the sector in Norfolk.
Charities must continue to collect and make use of available internal data, as this can empower them to make better informed organisational decisions. For example, problematic trends were noted in staff retention across Norfolk’s charities, with data helping to inform a cost-benefit analysis of recruiting remote staff.
The changing face of volunteers?
There is justifiable concern that the cost-of-living crisis will cause difficulties in recruiting and retaining volunteers. Historically, volunteer numbers have fallen in times of economic uncertainty. The number of people volunteering at least once a year dropped by eight percentage points to 65% in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. By 2013/14 this figure had rallied back to 74%. Now, following a decade of decline, the latest figure from 2021/22 stands at 55%. Perhaps more importantly, the number volunteering regularly, at least once a month, has fallen to 34%. The result is charities navigating greater demand for their services with fewer volunteers to provide them.
How has this been reflected in the experiences of charities across Norfolk? A recent Volunteer Norfolk survey found that 75% of charities are finding volunteer retention a challenge, with smaller organisations struggling the most. The survey was conducted to inform the forthcoming Volunteering Vision for Norfolk, which will be launched in Autumn 2023. Many charities have good numbers of volunteers on their books, however, these volunteers have less time to offer.
Leaders at the discussion noted an interesting shift in volunteer demographics, which might explain this drop off in volunteer availability. They highlighted that more 25–30-year-olds are volunteering, as a way of gaining experience and furthering their career opportunities. Unfortunately, this group tend to over commit themselves, forcing them to pull back from volunteering. Similarly, Norfolk charities have seen an increasing proportion of their volunteers in the 70+ age group. However, they are seeing less semi-retired/ retired volunteers, possibly as more individuals are forced to continue in paid work due to spiralling costs. Traditionally this cohort have been the bedrock of the volunteering community.
The cost of operating
Difficulty retaining staff was reported across the board by charity leaders. One organisation noted that it has been running at 80% of required staff due to issues recruiting. They cited real terms pay cuts on top of the already lower salaries across the charity sector as the main driver. Leaders see staff as their most valuable resource and are cutting costs across their organisations in an attempt to retain them, with some focusing on keeping their lowest paid staff on a liveable wage.
It was highlighted that volunteers are a cheaper resource for charities but are not free. Leaders discussed the huge amount of funding needed for their induction and training. On top of this, due to their own rising costs, charities reported more volunteers needing to claim expenses, where previously they had not.
In keeping with charities across the country, local charity leaders called for funders to deliver unrestricted funding to cover core operating costs. Unrestricted funding would support charities with staff and volunteer retention, allowing more collaboration between charities across Norfolk, as they continue to support their beneficiaries in increasingly difficult circumstances.