Covid-19 poses huge challenges for charities – and shows their importance

1 May 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 1 May 2020

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash
Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Coronavirus has forced huge, reactive changes across our lives. The third sector is no different. Organisations are working hard, individually and collectively, to adapt. They are also proving their worth.


Two months ago, life was normal – a normality that may never return.

Coronavirus is the cause of changes at two speeds. Immediate needs must be addressed with any solutions available, patchwork if necessary, whatever works. In the longer term, the world will never be the same again.

Organisations trying to adapt to the pandemic are therefore drawing up two sets of plans, all while our understanding of how the world itself is changing grows over time.

Crafting solutions to problems before you have a full understanding of those problems is less than ideal, but this is the hand we have all been dealt.

The challenges faced by the third sector are enormous. There are many immediate threats.

But, as the world is changing, the community and voluntary sector has shown both its mettle and its importance.

So, whatever the new normal looks like, the third sector should find itself in a place of greater prominence than ever before.

Moving forward

NICVA has been taking part in the Emergencies Leadership Group, established by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, which holds regular meetings to both share information and co-ordinate work between the department and the third sector.

In particular, it is focused on five themes: providing food to vulnerable people; overseeing volunteering through Volunteer Now; helping pharmacies get medicine to people who are particularly at risk; establishing and operating a community helpline; and developing a mental health and wellbeing strategy for the coronavirus pandemic and what comes after.

The group meets regularly and the latest update is here.

Organisations from across the third sector and beyond are also co-operating and co-ordinating their work via the CommunityNI website, which is well suited to acting as a signpost and hub for provision during lockdown.

Measures like these are relevant to the Department for Communities broad Covid-19 Community Response Plan.

Living in the digital age makes tackling lockdown easier in many ways. Perhaps, however, each of these ways is really the same. It’s all about information.


One of NICVA’s first actions when the scale of the pandemic was becoming clear, was to start surveying organisations.

This involved a significant amount of initial questioning - Scope wrote previously about the first results that emerged from this, while details on further findings are below – while NICVA has now moved on to weekly surveys of the heads of third sector organisations, the latest results from which include:

  • 95% of those who responded reported they were healthy and only 0.3% reported they had confirmed Covid-19.
  • The top three most pressing issues facing organisations were ‘Sustaining the organisation and its activities’, ‘Finance/Cash flow’ and the ‘Well-being of staff/volunteers’
  • Over half of respondents (52.8%) reported a reduction in the numbers of staff and volunteers available to work/volunteer, with a quarter (25%) reporting a reduction of 80% or more
  • Over half of respondents (54.7%) felt they were being supported flexibly by their current government funder, while one in six (16.2%) did not
  • 42.9% felt they were not receiving adequate funding from new government sources to sustain their organisations and activities

All this work is vital. Individuals, organisations, sectors and society itself – all of us are making plans in real time. That requires flexibility and constant re-appraisals. Fresh information is key.

Scale of the challenge

Some of the findings from NICVA’s larger initial survey are unsurprising, but no less powerful for that.

Some staff have been furloughed, put on redundancy notices or gone off sick due to the virus, while many volunteers have been unable to continue their efforts. Organisations have had to modify, limit or stop various services while demand is soaring.

Per NICVA’s findings: “Services which normally involve direct contact are being delivered remotely. Increased use of food banks was reported, whilst community based mental health services were reported to be under threat with potential threat to life.

“The survival of some organisations is under threat (reported by nearly one in four organisations responding to the survey).”

The challenges faced by the sector can (crudely) be summed up by one dynamic: demand for services is rising while the ability to deliver those services has shrunk, both in simple physical terms and also under the spectre of a funding crisis (that is either looming or already here).

The outcomes for organisations, their staff and volunteers and, most importantly, the people who rely on their services could be grave.

It is vital to note that individual organisations have not stood still during the past couple of months.

Services have continued, where they can. Organisational stability has also been maintained, as best as possible.

However, there are clear tensions here. Social distancing itself makes many frontline services tougher to deliver. Furloughing staff only makes this tougher. Quite obviously, in general and in the long-term, services cannot continue without financial stability – i.e. funding.

Taking shape

The third sector is working hard to adapt to the pandemic. Given the troubling dynamic - services are harder to deliver and demand for those services is rising - the challenge is enormous.

For instance, Scope wrote recently about the huge effort Age NI put into reshaping its services for lockdown. Many other organisations are also moving heaven and earth to keep provision going.

At the same time, while volunteering has become more difficult, the intent to volunteer is extremely strong. Volunteer Now had to temporarily close its website due to the numbers of people in NI putting their hand up to help.

However, in the longer-term – and, in some cases, not-so-longer term – the sector can only do so much and without outside help massive (and mostly bad) changes are inevitable. And funding is in crisis. Many organisations face existential worries.

However, work is taking place. Efforts are being co-ordinated. Collectively, we must lean into the wind.

Communicating the need for support

Westminster, amongst others, has announced some funding packages that, frankly, look insufficient to support the needs of the sector and, by extension, service users.

However, the governments in London and at Stormont are planning in real time, just like everyone else. Nothing is set in stone. Clear, informative arguments about why support should be different (whether better or simply bigger) will be crucial in plugging holes caused by Covid-19.

NICVA, DfC’s Emergencies Leadership Group, individual organisations – and service users, and people whose loved ones are service users – everyone has a role to play. For the third sector in NI, communication has perhaps never been so important.

Hence the importance of NICVA’s surveys, and also their efforts to gather more detailed accounts of the efforts individual organisations are making to continuing working in the pandemic.

In the coming weeks Scope will look more closely both at DfC’s Community Response Plan – of which funding is one key theme – and at funding in particular.

This is a deeply concerning time for the charity sector and, therefore, for the people the sector supports. Hopefully sharing information will help.

Hope for the future

Ultimately, however, while this represents a time of great danger for community and voluntary organisations, the importance of the third sector has never been so clear.

This is a time of global crisis and demand for charity services is soaring – and organisations are doing all they can to answer the call. This both makes the case for improved, immediate support for charities as well as demonstrating the value of the work.

The economy is comprised of the private, public and third sectors. Traditionally the first two have monopolised attention. This must not continue.

There is a growing awareness in government, and perhaps in the business community and with the general public as well, that the social economy is every bit as important as the other two economic pillars.

This might be the most difficult time for the charitable sector in living memory. It has also proved its worth beyond doubt.

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