'The response of the charity sector to the coronavirus crisis has been heroic'

28 April 2020
Digital MediaCommunity FundraisingInnovationResilience
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Ian Bruce, Chief Executive of the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector, says that the impact of the coranavirus crisis on those who were already disadvantaged is huge, but that the charity sector is responding heroically.

It's life Jim but not how we know it, the Trekkie in me has certainly never known this to be so true. COVID-19 has changed everything.

First of all, we all now have a little more insight into the lives of people who are normally excluded. Food shortages and being stuck at home are new to many of us, but poverty, disability and social isolation mean that these issues are nothing new for some people.

I have heard some people say this has been an equaliser. Sadly, that is not even true. Many of the people who were already disadvantaged have had those inequalities “supercharged” as one of our members commented in a recent Zoom call. People who relied on social care have had that reduced or even withdrawn. People who were already isolated are now even more alone. People on low incomes have been forced further into poverty. While all of us have been affected, a significant minority are now in crisis. 

Our sector has responded to this heroically. In Glasgow charities and other community led organisations are now providing over 10,000 households a week with food. Organisations have started using digital in a way they had not even considered a few months ago to combat isolation. I do not want to think about the personal and social breakdowns we would have seen had it not been for the sector’s contribution.

But that has come with unique challenges for the sector, mainly financial. While public bodies and grant funders have supported the sector by quickly unrestricting grants, organisations who have been told for decades to diversity their income towards fundraising and trading to make them “sustainable” have discovered the fragility of those income sources. Our members tell us that trading income and community fundraising have fallen off a cliff. At the same time organisations (and funders) reliant on investments or with final salary pension schemes are bracing themselves for poorer returns.

And many of our members have not been able to match that by reducing their outgoings. The UK Government furlough scheme is very welcome for some, but too often our members find themselves having to make impossible decisions about having income for staff to do nothing, or having no income and their staff being able to help their beneficiaries at the most difficult time. In Scotland, new Scottish Government funding is coming out – but there is a real risk that some organisations will fall through the gaps. The scale and focus of resource from both governments is unlikely to be enough to avoid a significant re-shaping of our sector.

More positively, three key areas of learning have stood out for me: the value of communities and the third sector, how we motivate the public to contribute, and the use of digital.

Value of Communities  I cannot speak for other areas of the country, but in Glasgow our sector has proven its worth. Before the public sector had its socks on local voluntary organisations were already putting food on people’s plates, picking up their prescriptions and checking in on neighbours. I am sure it has been the same across the country. We need to make sure that we recognise that post-COVID and develop resilience plans and a society that recognises and develops that unique capacity.

Motivating the Public  In Glasgow we have seen thousands of people step up to volunteer – probably more than we can find opportunities for. Nationally we have all seen the fundraising endeavour by Captain Tom Moore. This proves what we already knew – when the public understands an issue and feels connected to it, they want to help by volunteering and donating. Because COVID has affected everyone, we all understand it. The lesson for organisations is clear  how do we make sure that when we are making an ask of the public that they really understand and connect to the issue.

Using Digital – Alongside this the use of digital in the sector has been transformed by the outbreak. Every organisation we speak to is using digital more now than they did before. How organisations engage with their stakeholders, provide services and manage their organisation has been transformed. Digital strategies that may previously have taken a year to implement have been delivered in weeks.

Organisations that were already using digital have been able to move quickly. In delivery those digital ready organisations have been able to rapidly upscale their work, while other organisations are having to do a bit more catch-up. Equally we are seeing a significant disparity in lost fundraising income between those that had robust online fundraising systems (mainly bigger organisations) and those who do not.

I would like to finish by saying a huge thank you to volunteers and staff in voluntary organisations across the United Kingdom. Everyone has done amazing things in a short period of time. I keep telling my staff and reminding local organisations that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Look after yourself. Save some energy. Don’t beat yourself up because you’ve not done everything you want to do yet.

Thank you. And wash your hands!

Ian Bruce
Ian Bruce
Chief Executive of the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector
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