Government must create a coronavirus package for charities

1 Apr 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Apr 2020

The COVID-19 crisis means the third sector’s work is more valuable than perhaps ever before. It is also much more difficult. This is a problem that must be fixed. Government help is essential.


There is no perfect response to coronavirus.

All of us – as individuals, families, organisations, nations and as a world – are adapting to the pandemic over time rather than through some threshold.

Everyone is taking stock. The response to coronavirus exists in the past, is happening in the present, and will continue in the future. No-one has answers that are comprehensive. It will be a long time before we even know all the questions we face.

The third sector is right in the middle of this. Organisations are facing massive and unforeseen pressures at every level of their operation.

Funding worries mean institutional stability is at risk. Looking after staff and volunteers has become much more difficult. And, of course, providing services to the people who rely on them now requires the circumnavigation of all manner of obstacles because of the pandemic.

The third of those three problems is even more worrying when you consider one simple observation: the charitable sector’s service users are much more likely to be in high-risk groups for coronavirus. The last thing vulnerable people need in this time of crisis is for other pillars on which they rely to crack or crumble. The work of community and voluntary organisations is more important than ever.

Dealing with all this involve measures that cover the immediate-, medium- and long-terms. To that end, NICVA carried out a Covid-19 Impact Survey over the past week or so and has released preliminary results.

These initial findings make sobering reading but, as we all acclimatise to our new realities, this should be no surprise.

Like everything else within the pandemic, solutions will need to be constructed. This will need to take place over time. Ideas from all quarters will need to be considered.

Scope will take part in this process. Coronavirus will play a huge part in our editorial direction over the coming weeks, months and perhaps even years. We will discuss ideas, interrogate them, and give them a platform. The efforts and thinking of Northern Ireland’s community and voluntary organisations will no doubt feature heavily. We live in interesting times.


Almost every organisation that responded to NICVA’s survey – 98.3% - said the pandemic is impacting their work.

Most said they had to cancel events (81.9%) or stop services or activities (80.2%) – with a further 13% saying they were likely to have to do the latter in future. This means less than 7% of organisations do not foresee any impact on their services either now or in future because of Covid-19.

Almost half (45%) reported that a huge decrease in frontline work has already taking place, saying they have stopped services or activities affecting over 100 service users per week

Over 43% reported that managing staff, volunteers and activities presents a major challenge, over half (53.6%) say funding is likely to be lost – with over a third (33.7%) saying loss of funding has already occurred.

Nearly one in four said the very survival of their organisation was threatened.

Over one in six respondents reported they had at most 5 weeks’ worth of reserves to sustain them through the Covid-19 crisis, while over two-thirds (68.4%) reported they had no more than 20 weeks’ worth.

Per the initial findings:

When asked what support their organization needed in the current crisis the top five most sought after support needs were (based on 536 responses) –

  1. ‘Financial/funding support to sustain the organisation’s staff and work’ (66.2%)
  2. ‘Flexibility with/Changes to normal rules and restrictions (e.g. to enable support for local communities)’ (47.8%)
  3. ‘Representation of our concerns to government/statutory bodies’ (46.3%)
  4. ‘Advice and guidance on how to support local communities safely’ (45.1%)
  5. ‘Co-ordination by and collaboration with government/statutory bodies (39.9%)

Other key areas of support sought after were ‘Advice and guidance on managing staff and volunteers (29.7%)’ and Equipment/clothing to enable our staff/volunteers to support communities safely (28.2%).

Services are already being reduced. Staffing issues abound. Finances – and, therefore, institutional security – is an enormous concern for many organisations.

Funding picture

This article is not a definitive look at the impact of coronavirus on the third sector. Far from it. To see the breadth and depth of the challenges faced by civil society, it is worth looking at what appears to be just one issue – funding – and seeing how, under examination, it unravels into many different concerns.

Although social distancing has only been in place for a few weeks it will continue for months, at least. This heralds a funding crisis for charities.

Perhaps the most obvious case involves organisations who rely heavily on cash donations. This will vanish – or, rather, has already vanished and will not appear again, to any degree, until these measures are gone.

This is especially pertinent in Northern Ireland, where organisations tend to be behind the curve on embracing online/digital fundraising and tend to rely heavily on cash.

However, this is far from the only financial pressure. Individuals and organisations that might still be in a position to provide income to community and voluntary groups will be thinking twice about doing so. Families and firms alike are tightening belts.

People who give digitally might cancel direct debits. Charities that put on events or training will see the former cancelled and, while the latter may shift online, take up will decrease. In general, the social enterprise model is in big trouble.

Communities Minister Deidre Hargey has assured organisations that her department will continue to fund them, as planned, while targets will essentially be ripped up because coronavirus makes them unrealistic.

That is great support for groups taking the bulk of their income from the state. Right now, others are not so lucky.

Diversifying income streams has long been considered good practice. Many organisations that have succeeded in doing this will find most of these streams slowing down or drying up entirely. This could be devastating.

The Communities Minister has also announced a Communities Contingency Fund of £200k to support organisations working with older people or providing support relevant to tackling coronavirus, which will comprise small grants of up to £1,000 and emergency funding capped at £2,500.

This will help where it helps but it is likely more is needed. An estimated £4.3bn will be lost from the third sector across the UK in the next three months. The question, therefore, is what can be done.

Other concerns

Measures that help the third sector are already in place. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has introduced sweeping interventions to try and shore up the UK economy.

These were, by necessity, broad and put together quickly. For instance, one of the biggest policy changes is one that will help charities.

Any employer can place members of staff on furlough. The government will then pay them the bulk of their wages (under a reasonable cap).

For charities, this helps in two ways. While it does not help with the funding or income crisis, it does allow costs to be reduced and, so, is a temporary fix, albeit for a problem that could run and run.

It also provides specific protections and peace of mind for those employees, and for bosses anxious about the wellbeing of their workers.

It does nothing, however, for service users. That is a massive problem. The work of charities is more important now than ever. Creating structures that give organisations a chance to survive in a diminished or dormant state is better than seeing them all go down in flames, but it still leaves service users in the lurch.

The social mission of the community and voluntary sector is just that – its mission.

The rules around workers on furlough are (understandably) strict. They are forbidden from doing any work for their employer whatsoever. That makes a certain sense for the private sector. Charities are different.

Third sector package

How about a package specifically for the third sector, with the government guaranteeing wages in the same way as with the existing packages, but allowing employees to continue to work, allowing the social mission to be fulfilled as best as possible in these trying times?

This would account for the different issues faced by charities when compared with, say, the hospitality sector. Social distancing means bars and restaurants have no customers, so paying staff wages and allowing businesses to bunker down makes sense. Third sector organisations will not necessarily see any reduction in demand – so let their work continue.

Any such measures would have to come from Westminster. Stormont has neither the financial flexibility or financial might to put together such a package. More can and likely will be done from the Assembly as this crisis progresses and specific needs emerge, but this will be along similar lines to those measures already put in place or under construction from the Department for Communities.

A movement to such an end is already growing in the UK. Stephen Doughty MP tweeted yesterday that over 300 MPs and Lords from ten different parties have already signed a petition calling for immediate support for the third sector and their frontline work.

Karl Wilding, CEO of NCVO (NICVA’s sister organisation in England), said yesterday: “As charities, we don’t have a right to exist. But people do have a right to the services that we now provide, from cancer care to feeding vast swathes of the country.”

So the onus is on the Commons. Can they come up with some way to protect the people who rely on the third sector. Any such plan would almost certainly involve facilitating organisations to do the good work they already do. Policies that allow them to navigate the obstacles of social distancing, or significant financial support. Or almost certainly both.

This is something for both politicians and all of civic society to think about, and urgently.

There is no perfect response to coronavirus. Nor is there a single response. We are in a period of great turbulence that will last a long time. Flexibility, cooperation, and the development of parallel approaches that help in the short- and long-terms will all be key. We’re all in this together.

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.