old woman

Q&A with Rotherfield St Martin: A charity for older people

Interview with Vicky Cheeseman

This is a question and answer piece with the charity Rotherfield St Martin. It is the first in a series of case study interviews which further explore the impact of the coronavirus crisis on individual charities. Rotherfield St Martin are a charity which work to prevent isolation and loneliness in their community by providing companionship, advice, support and services to older people in East Sussex.

We asked Rotherfield St Martin some questions about funding, their users, and their experience of continuing to serve the community throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Their responses were as follows.

How are your service users affected by Covid-19?

‘Most of our members are over 65 so they’ve been in lockdown for over ten weeks now. In the beginning, this was okay, even a bit of a novelty. But as time has gone on people are getting more anxious, their mental health is suffering, and the older generation are worried that there is no end in sight. Although many are financially secure, not knowing what will happen next is stressful, and some people don’t even feel safe going out into their gardens. Others, such as people living with dementia, don’t understand the lockdown or social distancing and find the new environment very confusing. We are finding that our friendship calls are taking much longer than normal as people seek company and reassurance.

Some of our service users have loved ones in care homes and haven’t been able to visit them for a long time.  We used to have a volunteer driver scheme to help connect people or support people with hospital visits, but we can’t do that now. Instead, we are trying to keep people connected—mostly by letter or by phone (many of our service users aren’t online) and through doorstep visits.’

How is Covid-19 changing service delivery? What innovations have you developed? What works and what doesn’t?

‘Before Covid-19, we would hold a drop in centre Monday to Friday with lots of clubs, activities and services to prevent isolation and loneliness, as well as day trips. We would normally be serving around 250 people through that work. Since lockdown came into place, all of that has had to stop.

Now, we are finding that we are not just supporting the older community, but the whole community. We have started a ‘Parish Pals’ programme reaching 1,300 vulnerable households. This involves helping people to stay in touch and not feel isolated, as well as carrying out practical tasks. This means making lots of calls, picking up prescriptions, walking dogs, sending birthday cards, and making small gestures so people know we are thinking about them. We’re also providing information on things like opening hours, helpline numbers etc.

Alongside this, we’re working to help distribute food for people that struggle to go shopping. We’re working with Morrisons, Lidl and Marks and Spencer—we now make up around 80 food parcels a week. We used to run a lunch club so people could have a hot meal but as we now can’t do this, we are working with Cook, a frozen meals company, who are supplying free meals that we distribute out to our lunch club members.

To help resource this, we put a call out for volunteers. Many of our existing volunteers are aged over 70 and were going into lockdown themselves, so we needed more help. We have 45 volunteers working with us now, many of whom are on furlough. We also have a counsellor that is doing free counselling sessions over the telephone—as the weeks go on, we are finding that we need to work with her more and more.’

What impact is coronavirus having internally for your organisation?

‘We’ve had to put our strategic objectives to one side for now, and we’re ‘planning in the moment’. Really, we’re just responding to what’s in front of us.

We are a small team so it’s challenging as we’re all in lockdown whereas we would normally be working closely together in the office. We’re keeping in touch via weekly Zoom meetings but we’re having to learn new ways of staying in touch—both with staff and trustees. We have a new staff member and it’s been a challenge to recruit and induct them. With our volunteers, it’s been hard to do our normal background and reference checks but we are doing as much as we can to ensure safeguarding.

Emotionally, it can be hard. One of our members passed away in a care home recently—it’s really hard to break the news when people are feeling vulnerable, and the normal channels for sharing news aren’t working in the same way. We would usually hold a two minute silence as a team to mark their passing, and we weren’t able to do that.’

How can philanthropists help? Both now and in the long term?

‘As a charity, we are concerned about finances. We have lost income that we would normally generate through our clubs and services, and all our fundraising events have been cancelled. But, at the same time, we are needed by our community and we have to make sure the charity is still standing at the end of this—so we are reliant on grants and donations.

We see people being generous toward national campaigns, but it’s a challenge for us as a small charity. We do have some reserves but we are worried that if we use them now we will be vulnerable in future—it’s taken us years to get into a good financial position and we now see that disappearing. We’re anxious that despite government promises, there is still little information on how we can access pots of money.

We can’t furlough any staff as we’re all needed, so we’re paying wages and applying for grants as and when we see them. We would like to shorten the amount of time we have to spend on grant applications. We wish the process was much easier. One £500 grant application recently took us five hours to complete, for example. We would also like to raise awareness of why charities have reserves, as this can be a barrier to grant applications.

No one can really fulfil a project at the moment, so unrestricted funds are really important. Small charities like us especially need funds for staff salaries, as so much of our work is tied to our team—everyone is part of the work being done.’

What has coronavirus revealed about the state of the sector?

‘How vulnerable it is and how much we rely on fundraising and grants. Charities are the first place people come to, and statutory services really rely on charities for work in the community. We were the fastest to respond, and we were up and operating within five days. We were able to mobilise volunteers quickly, we had the necessary contacts, and a database of people to call on. But it’s hard to maintain this with limited income.

We’re a team of four part time staff, and I think our work shows that a charity can do great work with a dedicated team. People don’t always know what charities are capable of and charities can get a bad press. But we do important work. On top of our paid hours we volunteer many, many more—charity workers really step up when they’re asked to.’

Interview with Vicky Cheeseman, Rotherfield St Martin


Click the link to return to our How are charities adapting to Covid-19? page.

For more from NPC on how philanthropists should respond to the coronavirus crisis, read our guidance here. Or if you work for a charity and you are looking for advice and resources on what to do now and in the coming months, take a look at our Covid-19 charity toolkit. For all of our coronavirus resources, visit thinkNPC.org/coronavirus  


NPC has published the first in a series of Q&As which explore the impact of the coronavirus crisis on individual charities. Read this interview with a charity for older people Click To Tweet