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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.