Even if the future looks bleak, it’s unlikely to deter most charity leaders

At the moment, charity leaders are feeling pretty nervous about the future – and with good reason. There are so many unknowns about income levels, availability of volunteers, the conditions under which their organisations, societies and groups will be allowed to work and change in demand for services.  But to what degree have expectations changed about future prospects in response to the Coronavirus pandemic?  

Published 12th August 2020

The Third Sector Trends study has been running for twelve years now across the North of England – so we can look at the current situation from a big picture perspective rather than focusing just on the here and now.  And in 2019 we extended the study right across England and Wales.

It’s a big study, funded by Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, Garfield Weston Foundation and Power to Change. In 2019 evidence was collected from over 4,000 organisations. And in June and July, we did another rapid short survey with 10% of our previous participants to compare attitudes about future prospects before and after the pandemic. The results paint a stark picture of current opinion.

  • In June 2020, 56% of charity leaders believed that their income would fall over the next two years compared with just 16% in 2019.
  • Only 11% expected that income from private sector sources would fall when asked in 2019, now 62% expect that this will be the case.
  • Half of charity leaders believed in June 2020 that grant income would decrease over the next two years, compared with just 19% in 2019.
  • In June 2020, 61% thought that statutory funding would decrease, compared with 38% in 2019.
  • Expectations about support from volunteers has changed: in 2019 only 8% of organisations and groups thought that support would fall. By June 2020, 18% of charity leaders thought this would be the case.

These statistics are alarming, undoubtedly. When you look back over the last ten years, though, it is clear that charities, social enterprises and community groups don’t give up easily. Even the global financial crash of 2008 and ten years of government austerity policies didn’t dent the voluntary sector’s resolve to get things done. And perhaps contrary to expectations, it actually grew to some extent during this period.

Resilience is an over-used word and one that can be misunderstood. For the most part, it is a good thing to keep going against all odds – it shows that the people who run charities have the mental toughness to see themselves through crises. It’s also important to know, though, when to call it a day – limping on until a charity simply withers away isn’t an attractive option. As one former charity leader told us – they knew the time was right to close, heart-breaking though that may have been for them.

“Sadly we have closed our group permanently after 11.5 years. Money was not a problem, volunteers not a problem, but someone / a small group of volunteers to take over the organising proved not possible to find.”

Others were able to pull back from the brink. “Things are very precarious at the moment and we have faced closure due to overwhelming demands made on just a couple of committed volunteers. However, we have a new board with more volunteers.”

Our research over the years shows that charities rarely enjoy long periods of financial security.  On the contrary, turbulence in their fortunes is the order of the day for nearly all organisations. So they learn to juggle a range of resources including grants, contracts, income they generate from trading, gifts, investments, subscriptions. In-kind support also needs to be put into the mix, such as non-financial support from businesses such as the loan of equipment, facilities or pro-bono professional services.

The principal source of non-financial support charities rely upon is their volunteers who act as trustees or get stuck into the front-line work of the charity. In the North of England, there are about 955,000 regular volunteers upon whom charities can rely to provide 11m hours of work. It’s a crude estimate, but if their work had to be paid for – even at the National Minimum Wage – it would mount up to £940m annually in the North.

In 2019, Just 9% of charity leaders thought that volunteer numbers would fall in the next two years – it’s 18% now. Many expressed concerns about getting their regular supporters to come back.

“Most volunteers are older people and this could well become a problem in the future as younger people do not seem to want to join or are not able to spare the time. Even now we need more volunteers to share the workload. It seems that most to it falls on a very few people as some are not able to give much time or are not capable of performing some of the tasks we need.”

The voluntary and community sector faces serious challenges. But there’s no reason to predict its demise. As ever, it’ll be a mixed picture with some organisations doing very well, while others may struggle or even close.

Some charity leaders felt deeply pessimistic about the future: The future is bleak”.  Others were more stoical: “We will have to work twice as hard to secure more income to cope with the impact of Covid-19 and the Government’s pursuit of Brexit: whether we survive both is questionable.”

Most charity leaders recognise that there are choppy waters ahead. But they do not necessarily feel deterred. Indeed, many are keen to rise to the challenge and do things in new ways to meet the needs of their beneficiaries.

“On the one hand we’re exhausted by all that we’ve had to do at pace in the last four months. But at the same time we have to find the energy to grasp some really important new opportunities (and effectively manage them) before they slip away again. Wish we could just hit the pause button and have a bit of time to take stock, but we have to reset our strategy, plan for a different future, build some new relationships and partnerships, all whilst continuing (for a long time to come) to deliver our crisis response work (which is itself exponentially different to our usual day job.). Oh, and dealing with our own personal experiences of the crisis to boot, and support our staff in their own personal experiences too. Just drained!”

It seems to me that this statement captures the mood of the sector. It recognises the complexity of the situation that must be tackled. And while daunted, they have the determination to keep going, and the agility to do things differently in the face of rapid change.  Crucially, there’s more than a hint of vigour. The voluntary and community sector cannot run on imperatives only – their work needs to be exciting and rewarding too.

Third Sector Trends Covid-19 Impact Survey, published 12th August, 2020, can be accessed here.


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