For nearly a year now, most of the national charity infrastructure and ‘umbrella’ bodies have been working closely together to try and respond to the COVID19 pandemic and its devastating effects on charity beneficiaries and wider society.
Hundreds of people are involved in a number of different weekly coordination meetings between CEOs, policy people and comms teams.
The collaboration is best known as the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign – but the campaign is more of an output of this group. It’s the primary but not exclusive focus which also includes work on regulation, equality and human rights, and procurement for example.
Others will judge whether this collaborative approach has been effective or achieved enough – but it has been totally unprecedented. Here’s an insider’s description of some of the achievements and challenges we’ve experienced, working together to a degree I’ve never seen during my 18 years in the charity sector.
Achievements seen and unseen
Much work behind the scenes has gone into creating or improving guidance on a whole range of topics, including for volunteering, charity shops, reporting of serious incidents, fundraising and more recently vaccination. When engaging with government on these matters, their starting point was often badly informed or seriously flawed. But the first draft is never seen – only the 7th or 15th or 53rd version makes the cut.
In addition to these let’s not forget several possibly more better-known achievements:
- In April we had little clarity about whether and how charities would be eligible for government’s Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), the Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), or the Retail Grants Scheme. Coalition members had to work extremely hard (and persistently) to push the Treasury and DCMS for clarification and even changes to the criteria for each of these. The lack of bandwidth and stability in government has meant every time policies were extended or re-announced, the influencing process had to happen all over again to an extent. The CJRS, though not well-designed for charities, is arguably the single policy initiative that has had the most impact in staving off the immediate collapse of thousands of charities with paid staff.
- Government provided an unprecedented £750m in funding for the charity sector. This was far from enough, and was distributed far too slowly. Much work during the summer and autumn involved using every conceivable lever to press government to speed things up, improve processes and transparency. This level of funding would have been unimaginable pre-pandemic and without the collaborative efforts of infrastructure organisations. Consider this for context: during the supposed halcyon years under Labour, the total value of the Blair government’s two major initiatives for the sector, Futurebuilders and Capacitybuilders, was £446m according to the NAO – but spent over most of a decade, and including the operating costs of public bodies set up to administer the schemes.
This work isn’t happening in a calm, benign environment. It’s taking place in a social, economic and political maelstrom. To name just two headwinds:
- Infrastructure organisations are not inoculated against the effects of the pandemic. They’ve been in crisis themselves for a year (at least), furloughing staff (even multiple times), doing emergency restructuring and redundancies, scrabbling to take advantage of new funding streams or loan finance, trying to save key services and staff as normal income sources dried up overnight. As elsewhere, permanent crisis management is taking a toll, which hasn’t helped more effective coordination.
- This government is not really swayed by traditional public affairs methods of influencing. The familiar tools aren’t working as well but we haven’t discovered the exact right tools to use instead, if there are any. This seems to be a campaigning government tasked with some massively complex delivery challenges. It isn’t that bothered what MPs or the opposition thinks, let alone civil society groups that may be critical of its decisions or policies – which it has shown outright hostility towards. It seems to be driven by public opinion and press coverage, and has no problem saying one thing and doing the opposite. Despite this, the infrastructure coalition is earnestly trying to engage with the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
There’s a saying that you can have two out of three of the following: quick, cheap or good. You have to pick two. Despite significant in-kind resources provided by the members of the collaboration, and a very minor amount of funding, nobody has money to throw at the problem, and funders are mostly not interested because their own beneficiaries are in crisis too. That leaves a choice between quick or good.
- Trying to reach consensus between the respective memberships of many different umbrella bodies isn’t easy, even if we weren’t in a crisis. They rightly have different interests, values, memberships, influencing styles, and appetite for risk. They have different influencing approaches – inside the tent or outside? By joining forces, both ‘quick’ and ‘good’ can sometimes be compromised. This is to a degree inevitable – and a single, monopolistic body wouldn’t be the answer either; it would exclude too many voices, important interests and specialist knowledge.
- It’s impossible to get real-time data on the effects of a crisis that changes daily. Both the conditions of the pandemic and the policy environment change constantly. How then, do we know even what to ask for, or where needs are greatest – right now? Or next week? Or a month from now? The collaboration has contributed to and invested in many surveys over the past year, often generating good media coverage that has helped to drive political support. All the surveys tell us something, but all are in different ways imperfect. Waiting for more robust data on the distributed effects of the crisis (for example in 2022 accounts) will take so long that the crisis itself will be passed and the damage done.
- Ministers may say they want data, evidence and well thought-through policy – they don’t. Officials might – but this is not a government motivated by facts; it’s motivated by appearances. Demanding more or better data is often an excuse to fob off decisions, delay or avoid action, or really about inter-departmental Westminster wrangling.
It’s not over, it’s just getting started
Over the past year, there have been times when all of us have questioned whether the collective effort has been worth it. During those times we remember the people we are fighting for – the fantastic charities up and down the country and the millions of people that depend on their services every day. I’d also admit we haven’t yet cracked the code for influencing this government – but I don’t think anyone has – even the private sector is tearing its hair out.
This work will continue and evolve beyond the pandemic and into ‘the recovery’. We hope to get even more traction with a major new push for emergency support planned for this month, so stay tuned to DSC’s enews and @DSC_Charity for updates. And we need your help! Find out more at www.nmn.org.uk.