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Reflections on ‘Coming up for air’ report, Keith Johnson

Keith Johnson Senior Development Worker at Hunts Forum

When Covid silenced our streets and threatened to overwhelm our health services, charities and community groups were amongst the first to step forward and offer support to our communities. Many funding bodies worked with organisations to allow funds to be used to help with the pandemic response rather than simply for the intended purpose and new funds came into being to support and extend those offers.

The local State of the Sector survey highlights how Cambridgeshire charities, community groups and social enterprises have weathered the pandemic better than was expected in the early days. Many, particularly larger organisations have even seen their reserves grow.

However, it has not been good for all, with many being negatively affected by the pandemic and some charities closing their doors or facing a financially uncertain future.

In much the same way as business, the third sector has been busy adapting, changing and responding, not simply to the needs presented by the pandemic, but also through the other ways of working we all confronted and the opportunities and challenges these presented. Were we entering a period of calm after the storm, the sector would have a great chance of coming out of Covid stronger, more digitally aware and more effective. But we aren’t.

Instead of calm, we are moving headlong into a cost-of-living crisis. The quake of the pandemic may have sent a tidal wave our way, but the quakes of Brexit, untamed energy price rises, food price rises, rampant inflation, rising rents and mortgage interest rates, the value of wages being ripped apart and more have turned this into a tsunami facing society and threatening the lives and livelihoods of vast swathes of society.

It has long been the role of charity to mitigate the worst impact and excesses of political and economic choices, but can a sector that is still trying to recover from the impact of the pandemic do much more than offer solace to a few, rather than protect many?

The survey highlights the concern of many in the sector locally about the levels of funding before the current cost of living crisis slapped us all in the face like a wet mackerel. These rising costs not only affect us as individuals but also impact on the ability of charities, community groups and social enterprises to operate. As much as it is a frustration within the sector that most funding bodies operate this way, typically, funding is received to deliver a project, this could be for a few months or a few years, but within this there is little room for rising costs as these agreements came about after years of low inflationary pressures. Already, in this developing economic crisis, many organisations are beginning to see budget forecasts falling apart and no recourse to improve on the income for the agreed project from the funder.

‘Get additional funding from another funder, may be thought from those outside the sector, but just try finding a funding body willing to provide funding to continue a previous project, let alone add funding to an existing project funded by someone else.

Many charities and community groups, as the survey shows, have also seen volunteers leave and not return. Staff are stretched with many burnt out. Recruiting for vacant posts- paid and unpaid- is becoming increasingly difficult.

The inevitable increase in calls upon the services of the Voluntary and Community that the latest crisis brings with it risks colliding with the dearth of staff- paid and unpaid- to meet that demand. Funding always helps, but when the people are not there to do what needs to be done, the money means little. It is unlikely that funding will be available to improve the salaries, terms and conditions of paid staff to encourage people into the sector and a contracting economy will further reduce the potential pool of volunteers. With more people having to work longer hours they personally will have less time to give, the retired, once the bedrock of charity volunteering, will be called upon to give their time to their struggling families and to their own needs.

Yet, without funding for the sector that not only provides services to those in need but also reverses the decade-long cut in salaries and terms and conditions for the majority of charity workers, it is likely that in an attempt to step up and help people where government and enterprise have failed, many charities, community groups and social enterprises will become dangerously overstretched. This is likely to lead to potentially dangerous levels of service delivery, greater staffing collapse and an increased reliance on an ever dwindling pool of potential volunteers (who may themselves suffer burnout) and pushed to breaking point charity finances.

Political and economic choices will be made as to who is and isn’t protected from the worst of this crisis and how that protection is provided. Much of this will be based upon how the decision makers view what is important to the economy and society.

As always, charity will do what it can and amaze us all with its innovation and passion, but what emerges from the current crisis may herald a bleak future for charity, many individuals and society at large depending upon those choices made.

Reflections on ‘Coming up for air’ report, Mark Freeman

 

What the 2022 State of the Sector Survey tells us about the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) in Cambridgeshire

A great deal has been written about the impact of the pandemic on the VCS over the last years. We carried out research in both 2020 and 2021 that showed that groups were adapting and growing but they had concerns about funding and burnout. Many of our findings have been backed up by national surveys[1].

This survey was carried out over February and March 2022 and shows that locally groups have weathered the storm relatively well. The impact of the pandemic has been more negative than positive, with groups on average scoring the impact as 4 out of 10.

Green survey with the title overall how has the pandemic impacted your organisations.

It is however debatable as to whether the storm has come to an end. Even as we learn to live with Covid and we return to a more ‘normal’ life, the sector and those that they support are caught up in the next wave of circumstances that impact on them. There will be a fallout from the last two years that we will need to understand and navigate, this will be complicated by the environment we all work in. We are all now grappling with the impact of the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine. At the same time many experts are predicting significant health impacts over next winter due to flu and possible new Covid variants.

What we have learnt is that although there are issues of concern that need to be addressed, overall the sector remains resilient and forward-thinking.

Trust in charities is rising according to government figures[2] and the last two years have demonstrated the ability of small charities and community groups to deliver essential services and support at a local level. Couple this with the optimism that the survey showed, 59% of respondents believed 2022 was going to be better for their organisation than 2021, and we believe that we are at a point where the role of small organisations and the communities they work in is recognised as the best way of reducing inequalities and providing opportunities.

More people are seeing this, and the Commission on Civil Society[3] write:

“With their unique combination of trust, agility, community, purpose and prevention, the charity sector is a powerful part of the public services ecosystem, with the potential to do even more than it does today. From mental health to social care, children’s and youth services to housing, a large proportion of the UK’s 160,000 charities and the 910,000 people who work for them play a fundamental role in providing or supplementing public services”

Locally we are seeing statutory services looking at how they work with the sector and communities. Local councils are looking at full system thinking and co-producing services with the sector. The new Integrated Care Systems in health have working with communities and the sector embedded in their core principles. We know that these changes will not happen overnight and that they will be hard to implement, we also know that the sector has its issues and is not fully ready to help, but it is there and there is a willingness to learn, engage and adapt. The whole system from a national to a local level has to work hard to find ways to support charities and especially those local small charities that are embedded in and engaged with communities.

The two big issues from the survey

Two big issues arose from the survey, these were funding and volunteering.

 

Volunteering

Volunteers are essential to the work of the sector and by our calculations could be worth over £117million to Cambridgeshire in a year. Over the pandemic many people signed up to volunteer but these were often short term opportunities and numbers were increased by the emergency nature of what was needed and by the number of people on furlough or working from home. The survey showed that over 70% of those responding were experiencing some issue with recruiting volunteers, and 56% were having issues retaining existing volunteers.

“All our members are elderly, frail. Since covid we have lost some, some are reluctant to come out. Present volunteers are not getting any younger either and commitment and time are difficult. We are considering bringing our group to a close.”

As a sector and a society we need to address these issues. Locally Cambridgeshire needs a county portal that allows groups to reach potential new volunteers, and that allows interested people to find volunteering opportunities that excite and interest them. We need to ensure that groups are offering people the support and flexibility they need to give volunteering a go. Volunteering opportunities need to be flexible and safe; they need to fit with the way people live and work.

We don’t need a national system, we need local investment into a system and the structures that make local volunteering easier and more accessible. We need to work with the business sector to look at how they can support their staff to volunteer. We must create the opportunity to volunteer in schools so that people get the bug early. We need to create volunteering opportunities that appeal to people at all stages of their lives.

Fundraising

The survey shows there has been a mixed impact on local groups due to the pandemic but 80% of groups see a lack of funds as an issue. The survey has also shown that there have been different impacts on finances for organisations, whilst most reported a neutral impact a higher number reported a negative impact than reported a positive one.

We know that many foundations ‘opened their coffers’ over the pandemic to fund additional support to enable groups to adapt, grow and deliver more. We know that government both locally and nationally also found money to support the sector and the work it did. The upshot of this will be the tightening of funders’ belts in the next few years. This will have a dramatic impact on organisations who will (along with everyone else) be faced with rising costs to deliver their work.

The nature of a national emergency meant that many funders relaxed their funding criteria and their need for monitoring. This was welcomed as it gave groups the space to adapt delivery to suit a changing environment. It also meant groups concentrated more on delivery and less on applying or monitoring. We also know that a lot of funding was short-term and needed to be spent quickly. This is difficult for smaller organisations to manage who need time to ramp up delivery, it has also resulted in a lot of organisations growing quickly with little hope of maintaining that growth.

We need a new type of funding. It has to be flexible and it has to fund outcomes and not projects. Funders must be less prescriptive about monitoring. Most charities monitor their work as they want to know what is and isn’t working and trustees need to be able to govern. We need to work together to ensure that one monitoring report can meet all stakeholder’s needs.

We need to look at core cost funding that will allow charity to deliver on its mission. Projects can’t run without the core of an organisation, so we need to move away from funding projects. Lloyds Foundation[4] state they

“Trust charities to spend the funding we give them as they judge best to achieve the greatest impact.”

We need to see more of this. Charities are best placed to know what is going to work and have an impact. A move to more collaborative funding will increase the impact and enable charities to spend more time and money delivering their services.

Charities need to plan, real impact takes time to happen, and sustainability is not about constantly replacing short-term funding. We need funding to be longer-term. Three years as a minimum but 5 or 10 years if funders are looking at addressing complex issues that rely on building trust and relationships.

The importance of infrastructure

The work of infrastructure (those organisations who work to support the sector) at local and national levels has to be recognised and supported. If there is a need for charities, and those that work with and fund them, to do things differently, they will need support to accomplish that.

“A lot of what we have done locally won’t make the papers, but we have laughed and cried with staff and volunteers over the pandemic. We have informed, advised and supported them. We have helped them gain new skills, build new relationships, and find new resources. We have worked with partners to ensure that the sector was recognised and supported.”

Infrastructure has shown its value over the pandemic and investment has flowed into it. However, locally and nationally, this has not been uniform which has led to different levels of support to groups across different areas. This has inevitably resulted in people being offered very different service levels as the number of local charities and their ability to deliver services, t, is better where the charities have had more support. One respondent wrote:

“They offer the best possible support to the sector – they are pro-active, professional, experienced, thoughtful, kind and considerate.”

To conclude

We have a vibrant and diverse voluntary and community sector in Cambridgeshire. On the whole there is optimism for the future. 59% of respondents think that 2022 will be a better year than 2021 for their organisation.

We have seen the sector working with other partners to make the pandemic as bearable as possible.

We have seen incredible efforts put in by staff, volunteers and trustees.

We have seen groups adapting and learning to ensure services were continued and improved.

We know that there are challenges ahead but we have seen positive changes starting to happen. We need to build on what we have, learn from our mistakes and celebrate our successes.

 

References

[1] https://www.lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk/we-influence/the-value-of-small-in-a-big-crisis

http://cpwop.org.uk/what-we-do/projects-and-publications/covid-19-vcse-organisation-responses/

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-trust-in-charities-and-trustees-experience-of-their-role/public-trust-in-charities-2021-web-version

[3] https://civilsocietycommission.org/conversation/understanding-the-ecosystem-charities-and-public-services/

[4] https://www.lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk/we-fund