We’ve all heard plenty in the last year about how badly the charity sector was being buffeted by the pandemic and lockdowns: events and face-to-face fundraising were thwarted; services had to be halted or transferred online; and the furlough scheme was an imperfect design for organisations that were facing more demand for their output, not less.
Each week seemed to bring more bad news. We heard a lot about contractions and layoffs as charities shrank their workforces to balance their books: the National Trust shed 1,200 jobs; Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation around 300 each. We learned about distressing spikes in the needs of those that use charities’ services: visits to Trussell Trust’s foodbanks skyrocketed by 89% during April 2020; calls to the UK’s national domestic abuse helpline surged by 66% and visits to its website by 950% in the first two weeks of the first lockdown. Some charities succumbed to the pressures: the Animal Health Trust in Suffolk closed down after 78 years, while Bristol-based African Initiatives is winding up this year after 24 years supporting women and girls in Tanzania.
But what we’ve perhaps heard less about are the heartening stories of how charities have responded to the crisis: how they adapted and innovated, what they did on the ground. We know that many “pivoted their services”. But what does that actually mean?
There are so many great stories when you go looking for them. If you needed any more proof that charities are #NeverMoreNeeded, here are just a few examples…
Supplying charities that feed the hungry
When the hospitality industry ground to a halt in the first lockdown, the food redistribution charity FareShare found itself inundated with surplus food that could not be used by closed pubs and restaurants. Yet demand from the frontline charities that needed food to provide to their beneficiaries continued to outstrip even the increased supply: pre-Covid, FareShare was supplying food for 930,000 people a week; by the middle of June 2020 that number had more than trebled to 3.2 million.
Fortunately, FareShare had just completed a £12 million lottery‑funded investment in its management team and operational capacity – bigger warehouses, bigger chillers, more vans and forklifts. It also moved quickly to shore up its volunteer numbers. Chief executive Lindsay Boswell had heard that foodbanks in Asia had lost volunteers at the start of the emergency because many were elderly people who had to shield. To forestall the problem in the UK, he contacted the British Red Cross to spread the word, and in one week in April 2020 FareShare received more applications from people offering to sort, pack and deliver food than it had had in the whole of 2019.
Delivering free films to people stuck in hospital
MediCinema operates state-of-the-art cinemas at healthcare facilities across the UK so that patients can escape the ward for a few hours and relieve the boredom and stress of being in hospital.
With its cinemas closed by the coronavirus, MediCinema struck up new partnerships with hardware and media providers to allow films to be screened for free at patient bedsides on screens they would usually have to pay for. The charity also worked with Disney to make activity packs for children to complement some of the films.
Between May and November 2020, over 7,500 patients tuned in to see a film for free – watching over 21,600 hours of movies. The service has proved so popular that the charity plans to keep it going after lockdown – despite facing a 50% drop in its income this year compared with 2019.
Helping Gypsy and Traveller communities overcome fears about vaccines
The risk of contracting Covid was high among Gypsy and Traveller communities due to historical health and accommodation issues, and requests for help to the Friends, Families and Travellers charity that supports this community doubled during 2020. Its social media engagement surged 1000% in the first two months of lockdown.
In response, the charity prioritised getting clean water and sanitation for families on encampments and supported families who suddenly had extended families crowded onto single plots. It made foodbank referrals, helped families to make benefit claims, advised those who were being evicted and challenged many instances of refusal of service and discrimination.
One outcome of the crisis was that young people in the Gypsy and Traveller communities became more interested in protecting their own and others’ health. The charity supported and promoted online campaigns from young people to educate their families and communities in the midst of the virus outbreak, which helped in breaking and changing cultural norms relating to fear of vaccines.
Rising from the ashes to provide whatever the local community needed
The Stephens & George Centenary Charitable Trust is an educational charity that was set up and funded by the printing firm of the same name in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. Since 2011 it has operated out of the Dowlais Community Centre, facilitating reading support volunteers and various other initiatives to improve the literacy of local children. But when the print group’s income dived in spring 2020 it could no longer fund the Trust. Dowlais Community Centre also had to close due to social distancing rules. The future looked bleak.
But the Trust quickly got to work seeking alternative funding, and bids were successful. It adapted its services to the needs it saw in the community, and reopened the Dowlais centre and community café as a food distribution hub. It was soon delivering more than 2,000 food parcels each fortnight and staying open until 8pm to serve people discharged from hospital. Nearly 50 volunteers were recruited to shop for people in isolation and children were entertained with weekly welfare packs and online games. In lieu of the annual ‘We Love Merthyr Tydfil Summer Reading Festival’, 20,000 books were delivered to children and youngsters across the town. Using additional funding, the Trust was able to employ two inclusion officers to support young people aged 18 to 24 who are not in employment, education or training, and two counsellors to support the emotional wellbeing of those in the community struggling with the impacts of Covid-19.
In November 2020 the centre also became a Covid testing centre as Merthyr Tydfil presented the highest number of cases in the UK.
Providing a vehicle fleet and staff to support the NHS
Since March 2020, many of the reuse and recycling schemes operated by the trading arm of the Salvation Army (SATCoL) have been disrupted or temporarily halted, such as its charity shops and schools collection project. Instead, SATCoL loaned its vans and volunteer drivers to help deliver 50,000 face shields to 20 hospitals and care homes as part of the ShieldNHS initiative, while charity shop managers from across the UK made scrubs and headbands for the NHS.
Expanding bereavement support to help those who lost loved ones to Covid
Brake, the charity that helps people cope with the trauma of sudden road deaths, has also been supporting those bereaved by the coronavirus, who are dealing with similar severe shock and possible post-traumatic stress.
The charity has been assigning case workers to around 200 families bereaved by Covid-19 each month – experts in trauma care who try to stabilise people and let them know that whatever reactions they are having to their grief are normal responses. Its free, confidential Sudden service – delivered mainly over the telephone during the pandemic – also supports professionals and carers who are looking after suddenly-bereaved people.
Finding new ways to help refugees get about and stay healthy
Because of social distancing restrictions, the Bike Project was forced to suspend its donation sessions providing free refurbished bicycles to refugees and asylum seekers. But it quickly adapted its service by delivering bikes directly to individuals and offering one-to-one follow-up support. Within two weeks of the first lockdown, the charity had also launched Cyber Cyclists, an online programme offering training, fitness sessions, and signposting to further support. It also adjusted its Pedal Power lessons for refugee women to deliver these on a one-to-one basis and online rather than in groups.
Screens were installed between workstations in its workshops to keep mechanics safe from the virus. The Bike Project supported over 1,700 refugees and asylum seekers in 2020, while also capitalising on the public’s new-found love affair with the outdoors during the pandemic and significantly increasing its trading income from the sale of bikes.
Lack of recognition?
There are thousands more stories like these out there that demonstrate the value of charities – crisis or no crisis. So it is tragic that a key finding from NPC’s in-depth research with 92 charity leaders in the second half of last year was that “charities believed a big barrier to increasing their impact was the lack of recognition from government, funders and society at large”. It’s clear that many charities, exhausted from months of struggle and firefighting and doing their damnedest to keep providing their vital services, still feel undervalued by both their government and their public.
But it is hardly surprising in light of the mood music coming from government and the chair of the Charity Commission recently. In her three years in post, Baroness Stowell repeatedly told charities that the public didn’t rate them, that they weren’t up to scratch, that they must do better. The Chancellor was not minded to use his Budget to provide any further emergency coronavirus support for the sector. And the sector’s secretary of state, Oliver Dowden, seems much more concerned with clamping down on charities’ “wokeness” than fighting their corner.
But charities should take some comfort from the results of a poll by YouGov and Pro Bono Economics in November, in which eight out of 10 people described the role of charities and community groups in supporting the country through the crisis as important, and 60% thought the sector will play a key role in the country’s recovery. The efforts of charities in getting us through the past year has not gone unnoticed in the public consciousness. And while there is no doubt that the sector will need every ounce of the guile, ingenuity and chutzpah that it relies on even in the best of times to emerge from this crisis, emerge it will – probably a bit battered and a little smaller, but nonetheless continuing to adapt and innovate and play its unique role in making the good society.
Tania is a journalist, copywriter, editor and events producer with more than 25 years’ experience across various industries, most recently charities and civil society. She currently edits Governance & Leadership magazine and is co-author with Stephen Cook of What have charities ever done for us?