Guest post: Third sector needs our support

Charities, community groups and social enterprises are playing a vital role during lockdown. But with many struggling through a lack of funds, we risk losing a pillar of society that is vital both now and for recovery, argues charity consultant and LEP board member Poppy Naylor


As we navigate the worst impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, people across the country are relying on charities, the essential support they provide and how they shape our society for the better, more than ever.

Not-for-profit organisations make our communities stronger and in the toughest times provide support few others can. Their unique role and services are invaluable now and will be essential to the country’s recovery.

Coronavirus is not, as some have argued, a great leveller. It is the most disadvantaged who are being disproportionately impacted by the lockdown measures. People who were already isolated because of physical or mental health, addiction, homelessness or domestic abuse will feel even more isolated now. Others on low incomes will be facing real poverty. Witness the soaring demand for food banks, up sevenfold in some cases.

But the massive increase in demand for their services coincides with a potentially catastrophic loss of income. Nationally, charities are projecting a loss of almost half their voluntary income and a third being wiped off their total income because of coronavirus.

Many have diversified over the years into retail and holding fundraising events, all of which came to a halt with lockdown. Many of their volunteers are elderly which means even with a phased relaxation, they may not have the staff they need if, as expected, there is a continued need to shield older groups.

Charities take many forms. They may offer health and social care, run museums and heritage attractions, animal charities, wildlife trusts and provide disaster relief. Others offer advocacy and legal advice, help with affordable homes, outdoor education for vulnerable children. In many cases they are the glue that makes communities strong.

In Cornwall, where I live, the most recent available data suggests there are well over 4,000 voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations employing around 21,000 people and contributing around £450 million to the economy.

And Cornwall has one of the highest volunteering rates in the country, around one in every three people. Perhaps little wonder that Volunteer Cornwall saw 3,500 people step forward to support 1,500 vulnerable elderly and self-isolating people in the first three weeks of lockdown.

Government support has been welcomed, targetting smaller and local organisations delivering essential frontline Covid-19 related services, and money for mental health, children, domestic abuse and hospices.

But – and this is becoming a familiar refrain in this crisis – it isn’t nearly enough. The government simply can’t afford to overlook or undervalue the so-called ‘third sector’ at the moment. In the same way that care homes have been engaged in an (until recently) unseen struggle in the battle against Covid-19, so too has the voluntary sector stepped in to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

And as we anticipate recovery it’s vital we support the charitable organisations that maintain so much of the natural, heritage and cultural capital that many of us are yearning for during lockdown. According to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, around one third of heritage charities surveyed said they will not last beyond July if current circumstances persist.

Figures recently published by the Institute of Fundraising show that 84% of charities think their organisation could play a role in responding to the coronavirus outbreak. But a similar number say the most important thing to their sustainability over the next three to six months is access to emergency grant funding.

That’s a message we and others have been relaying to Government with increasing urgency and the feedback is that we can expect some more announcements soon.

The charity and voluntary sector simply doesn’t qualify for many of the grants and loans that are benefitting private sector businesses, so that will hopefully change. And the furlough scheme, while welcome, means furloughed staff are not even allowed to volunteer for their own organisations, or help them fundraise. More flexibility is needed, and it’s needed now.

There are ways of supporting the sector through these difficult times. The British public are capable of huge generosity, as we’ve seen with Colonel Tom Moore’s £32 million fundraising campaign for the NHS. So if you can give to good causes, please do. Or you may have a business and want to support a charity or social cause. One option is to encourage furloughed staff to volunteer, which they are allowed to do (just not for their own organisation).

Longer term the sector will need to adapt. Coronavirus is economically pervasive and is accelerating change whether we like it or not. Charities will need to embrace new ways of working and innovate to recapture lost income. It’s also an opportunity to create a fairer, more just society. But the challenge right now is one of survival.

Any registered charity, social enterprise or community interest company in Cornwall or Scilly can contact the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Growth Hub for help about the support available, or call 01209-708660. The service is free.

Poppy Naylor is a charity fundraising and marketing consultant and a non-executive director of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.