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What should charity trustees be thinking about?

Adjusting to a new reality

By Charlotte Lamb 7 April 2020 5 minute read

Charities are at the sharp end of Covid-19, with many forced into unprecedented changes. As the crisis hit, FoodCycle stopped services for a few weeks; Breast Cancer Now suspended face-to-face services; and Oxfam closed all of its 600 charity shops, furloughing two thirds of  its staff.

Charities have acted quickly to move services online, work from home, and refocus efforts and activities, in line with guidance from NCVO and The Charity Commission.

Money was already tight before most of us had even heard of Covid-19. As the economy falls and the need for charities grows, the funding burden only gets heavier. The Institute of Fundraising offers helpful advice in a blog on approaching fundraising in the current context. The situation is urgent; a recent CAF survey asked 250 charities how long they could keep going under current conditions without help. 54% said less than twelve months. 37% said less than six.

Thankfully, many funders are stepping up, promising empathy and flexibility for the charities they support. This has no doubt given grant-holders more confidence in the short term, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. No matter how quickly we curb the pandemic, it is likely to have long lasting effects on the world we live in, our way of life, and the activities that many charities will undertake to meet their missions.

A charity’s trustees are responsible for identifying, prioritising and managing its risks, as well as opportunities. Many are rightly focusing on their immediate response. But as this crisis drags on, and a major recession becomes ever more likely, many will need to switch focus to how they deliver their mission over the medium term.

What do charity trustees need to be thinking about now, so that they are prepared for the new challenges ahead?

Future work and delivery

Many charities are working hard to adapt their programmes to work alongside social distancing measures and a reduced workforce.

But after adapting to the immediate change, trustees need to look ahead and across all activities; what does the post-Covid-19 world mean for your charity in the medium to long term? NPC’s strategy triangle is a great tool for trustees to work through:

  1. Core mission: Is the purpose of your activity still relevant in the new context? Should you be starting a new activity to address an emerging need? For example, UK Youth and the National Youth Agency have created a resource for those working with young people, with advice about coronavirus to support young people.
  2. External environment: Have the needs of those we serve changed? Are the means of delivery still possible? For example, a charity may think that demand for services like debt advice will increase during a recession and so build capacity for delivering this service.
  3. Internal resources and capabilities: Has a better way to spend resources emerged? How can you use what you are learning from running a remote delivery model to adapt your strategy? What unique resources do you have that could be helpful in the current context? For example, Citizens Advice has been thinking about how its data puts it in a unique position to understand the different impacts of coronavirus on people’s lives.

That said, charities should be aware of adding to their activities, lest they become overwhelmed. In NPC’s State of the Sector research, charities consistently reported doing more of everything. At NPC, we worry they are spreading themselves too thin. Trustees should consider what activities to stop as well as what activities to start or change.

The opportunities: Can we maximise the good?

This is a crisis with unprecedented impact, which right now, feels overwhelmingly negative. But there is a lot that charities are rapidly learning every day that can help inform what they do in the medium-term. The three Horizons model for transitions can help you consider the opportunities which have emerged from new ways of working:

  • What is being born and how can we help it arrive well? Which aspects of our new way of working do we want to keep? Can more virtual working be a good thing in some circumstances?
  • What is ending and how can we help it to leave well? What forms of delivery are less relevant now and how can we phase them out with minimum negative impact?
  • What is being disruptive and how can we harness its potential? Some environmental charities are looking at how Covid-19 is disrupting our way of life and arguing that we should take this moment to invest in cleaner energy and better public transport for the longer term.

By considering these now, charities can make a successful transition more likely.

Involving the people who use your services

Everyday good practice like user involvement is now more important than ever, as is equality and inclusion, yet both are too often overlooked in times of crisis. At a webinar led by ACEVO, The Equality Trust’s Executive Director, Wanda Wyporska, suggested that those who are disadvantaged will suffer more than others. There is already emerging evidence that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting women, BAME communities and disabled people.

In times of significant change, users can help raise problems and help charities address them. Without involving those you seek to help; you won’t know if they are getting the help they need. Trustees need to consider how to ensure users shape future operations and activities, so they can be most impactful.

Taking action now

Trustees need to make difficult decisions about stopping and starting activities, and even about the structure of the charity. NPC’s State of the Sector research suggests that just over half of charities had discussed changing governance structures, and a quarter talked about merging with another organisation before the crisis. Charity trustees may need to have these conversations, and soon. They should be proactively thinking about whether they need to merge or acquire, and not leave it too late.

By thinking through these challenges and making plans to address them now, charity trustees give their organisations a better chance of surviving this crisis and continuing to deliver impact for their beneficiaries after it.

NPC are beginning a collaborative effort to help philanthropists keep charities serving through coronavirus and in the months and years ahead. Find out more at


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