Community response to Covid-19 is vital

19 May 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 19 May 2020

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA (centre) with NICVA Chief Executive Seamus McAleavey and Deputy Chief Executive Una McKernan
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA (centre) with NICVA Chief Executive Seamus McAleavey and Deputy Chief Executive Una McKernan

The pressures Covid-19 has placed on the third sector are, amongst other things, ironic. They also get to the heart of what the sector is, and why it is special. DfC’s Community Response Plan illustrates this well.


The need for charity has rarely been higher. Community and voluntary organisations face a financial crisis.

Both these things are true, they are true because of coronavirus and the resulting lockdown, and these truths get to the heart of what charity is, why it is valuable - and its inherent reliance on people’s goodwill.

That reliance could be framed as a weakness. In some ways that is correct, but this is equally a strength.

On one level, the core difference between the third sector, when compared with the private sector, is the disconnection between work done and income received (this is a simplification – for example, many private enterprises, even whole industries, are heavily subsidised).

That is why, in a time of unprecedented demand, community and voluntary organisations are under historic levels of pressure. That might be a little ironic, but it is not surprising.

Being busy is not a sign of security for charities the way it usually is for private businesses. In one sense, clearly this is a weakness. It is also the sector’s strength. It allows work to be based on need – and this is a time of great need.

All this is shown in the Department for Communities’ (DfC) Community Response Plan. This plan, published on April 22, sets out co-operation between the department and various third sector organisations (and councils). This co-operation is designed to support the work of the sector in general when it comes to responding to coronavirus.

The plan

The plan itself has 15 actions which come under four key themes:

  1. Coordination of Efforts on the Ground
  2. Encouraging and Supporting Volunteers
  3. Sustaining the Effort (supporting community organisations)
  4. Funding

Each action has a de facto lead organisation attached to it, most of which are third sector organisations.

The first section highlights just how essential the work of the third sector is during this time. It also has the most actions (seven), including vital frontline services like coordinating the supply and delivery of food and medicine to homes. This is, of course, crucial for the health of vulnerable and isolated people.

Advice NI is the lead partner in terms of food, while the Community Development and Health Network is the point of contact for medicine. Meanwhile, Inspire is leading the charge to develop new resources to support psychological wellbeing in isolation.

Several of the other actions relate to effective communication and coordination of provision during the pandemic.

The other sections tell different parts of the same story. Encouraging volunteers to come forward during this crisis has, in one way, been very easy. Goodwill has been abundant. Volunteer Now had to temporarily close its recruitment due to the huge number of people putting their hand up. Coordinating, supporting and facilitating those volunteers will always be a challenge. However, between DfC and the sector itself, there is plenty of experience with this.

Sections three and four could easily be one section, seeing as they both relate to supporting community and voluntary organisations (and the sector as a whole). Three covers the introduction flexibilities in (existing) grant funding from DfC, and also the maintenance of consistent information and advice for the sector during the crisis response.

The fourth section concerns funding and has two actions. Firstly, DfC committed to funding emergency food supplies and their distribution to council hubs.

Secondly, the department has said it will boost existing streams, has already established (along with the Community Foundation NI) a Community Fund and that there “is also work in development to understand and respond to wider funding pressures being experienced by the third sector in its widest sense, including those who have not traditionally been supported through government funding.”

This is part of a bigger picture. The story of the strength and vulnerability of the third sector.

Now and the future

While the sector’s work continues apace, the balance-sheet realities for many organisations will be greatly concerning. This is exacerbated by the absolute lack of certainty of how the next 18 months or two years will play out (for individuals, families, businesses and organisations, and society itself).

Findings from NICVA’s third weekly Covid-19 sectoral survey, published May 7, include that:

  • The top three most pressing issues facing organisations remained, as for the previous two weeks, ‘Sustaining the organisation and its activities’, ‘Finance/Cash flow’ and the ‘Well-being of staff/volunteers.’ A close fourth was, ‘Adapting my services to deliver online’
  • 43.8% [of respondents] felt they were not receiving adequate funding from new government sources to sustain their organisations and activities. This compared with 54.3% in the previous week’s survey. Just under a third (32.6%) however, said these funds were not applicable to them

Scope has written several times about the funding crisis created almost instantly by Covid-19. In the coming weeks we will cover the future of funding – including short- and long-term concerns. Finding ways to make organisations sustainable is a priority.

The Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, has announced plans for a £15m Covid-19 Charities Fund, saying: “I am acutely aware that our local charity sector, who do so much good work for such a diverse range of causes, are facing difficulties during these challenging times.

“Many in this sector have been at the front line in responding to the emergency and to supporting our most vulnerable citizens now and as we plan for recovery…

“I recognise the impact this emergency has had on traditional fundraising activities, and that this is a worrying time for many in the sector.”

Yet, the third sector’s disconnection between income and the work it does allows organisations to fulfil all sorts of social missions. This is a great strength (another is the ability of organisations to reshape themselves quickly – there are many local examples, such as Age NI or Red Cross).

DfC’s response plan to Covid-19 involves the third sector delivering food and delivering medicine to the most vulnerable and isolated people in Northern Ireland. This work could hardly be more important.

An announcement on the Covid-19 Fund will be made when the Executive agrees some finer details. One fund is not going to secure the future of the third sector. This will need to be one measure of many – measures coming from governments, philanthropy and from the sector itself.

Charity has never been more essential.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.