Tough decisions ahead for both the Communities Minister and the third sector

11 Jun 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 11 Jun 2020

The WPCA food store
The WPCA food store

Many NI charities are struggling financially The Covid-19 Charities Fund will help some but not all. Scope speaks with the Willowfield Parish Community Association, whose experience is emblematic of wider worries.


Charities across Northern Ireland are holding their breath ahead of next Monday.

Minister Deirdre Hargey just announced that the Department for Communities (DfC) Covid-19 Charities Fund will open for applications at the start of next week.

The fund will come as welcome and necessary relief for community and voluntary organisations. The pandemic and resultant lockdown has had an extraordinary effect on the third sector, creating both a surge in demand and a financial crisis. Many normal funding streams have dried up and this money will be a significant help.

However, it is no silver bullet. The £15.5m fund will not come close to addressing the total shortfall for charities. Many hard decisions lie ahead – both for DfC, in administering the fund, and for the third sector.

A new report out this week predicted that, across the UK, the charitable sector will see a £10bn funding shortfall this year, with one in 10 organisations facing bankruptcy.

The reality is that many groups that get funding will still have to make cutbacks, and many more who do great work and require support will see no help at all.

This is not a slight on the Minister, civil servants, or anyone else involved in administering this money. The demand for support is great but there is only so much cash.

NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey said this week: “Northern Ireland charities have seen their fundraising income devastated by the emergency surrounding the COVID 19 virus.  Ironically, demand for their services always increases in times of emergency.

“So much has been done by so many to respond and help our people and this funding will help plug some of the funding gap that has opened up in many charities’ income.  It will help keep many going in this crisis.

“The Minister appreciates the funding she has secured is not enough, but I recognise she is doing the best she can with her limited resources.”


The Willowfield Parish Community Association (WPCA) is a local group that tries to help struggling people and families in Inner East Belfast.

Established in 2002, it currently has 16 staff (both full- and part-time) and only two of those are supported by statutory funding. Most of WPCA’s funding comes via grants (mostly small) from charitable trusts, individual donations, activities and events, and some support from Willowfield Church.

So far, during the pandemic, they have been unable to access any of the support schemes brought forward by the NI Executive. Instead, their only help has come through furlough – which the organisation has been reluctant to pursue because, while their own income has plummeted, demand for services has shot up.

WPCA Development Manager Hilary McClay told Scope that, in the first eight weeks of lockdown, their food store handed out more parcels than it did in the entirety of 2019, while the need for other services has also increased.

“Our family support workers help families living under unimaginable pressure during lockdown – including trying to help with safety planning for those at risk of domestic violence.

“Our outreach team provides support for all the challenges lockdown brings in, be that with shopping, delivering emergency food parcels, collecting medication for those isolating, and socially-distanced support for people dealing with mental health issues, grief and more.

“We also run a debt centre in association with Christians Against Poverty, and the clients are all needing significant additional support these days.”


Ms McClay also spoke about the anxiety of waiting for financial support during the pandemic, and how WPCA realises that DfC simply does not have a big enough pot of money to help everyone.

Nevertheless, the organisation projects a deficit of almost £80,000 to December 31 – an enormous amount for a small organisation – and it is extremely unlikely that any support from “a very small pot of grant funding” will come close to covering that shortfall.

“It’s already quite clear that larger charities – which are doing crucial jobs – have lost millions in income. But, on the other hand, small charities like ourselves are told by the people that we help that we make a big difference, and the fact that we may have to say we cannot continue to provide that support really is desperate.”

WPCA has already stretched itself in every direction in a bid to keep offering services. It has sought, and received, some small Covid-19 grants (which have largely concerned the provision of food and other essentials, like cleaning products) but the amounts received are far short of the regular funding missed because of the pandemic.

It has also relied on more direct help. For instance, the organisation works very closely with Willowfield Parish Church and the majority of the food parcels WPCA hands out are stocked directly from donations of food, rather than emergency funding.

“One of the biggest frustrations has been the uncertainty, and the delay between the Charities Fund being announced and being implemented. This week is the last one for applying for this round of furlough. We have been hanging on for the funding announcement, to see if we are eligible, wondering whether or not we should have furloughed more staff.”


DfC has said the eligibility criteria for the Covid-19 Charities Fund will be laid out when it opens for applications on Monday.

However, the department has offered guidance on what these criteria will look like. Organisations wishing to access the funding must meet several eligibility points. These include:

  • Charities that can demonstrate that their fundraising or trading income has reduced due to the impact of COVID -19 and they have unavoidable costs to cover up to 30/9/2020.
  • Charities whose unavoidable costs cannot be covered by existing grants or public funding and are therefore at risk of imminent collapse
  • Charities that have not received other COVID -19  financial support from NI Executive departments such as the Department for the Economy Small Business Support; Retail, Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure Grant; Microbusiness Hardship Fund or the £6.5m funding provided by the Department of Finance for hospices and charities.

Ms Hargey said: “The COVID- 19 Charities Fund is proposed as a fund of last resort.   There is a limited amount of money in the fund and it therefore is available for those charitable organisations who can demonstrate that they have lost income due to the impact of COVID 19 and will be unable to cover unavoidable costs until the end of September 2020.

“Charities will be required to show that they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure their survival including the utilisation of other funding sources and reducing activities to essential services over the immediate term.”


Ultimately, the Minister, her civil servants, and also the National Lottery Community Fund NI (which is helping DfC administer the new fund) are tasked with a series of unenviable choices.

On the other side of this process, charities face several worries about both the amount of money available and how the eligibility criteria will work out.

Ms McClay says she is concerned about how DfC’s fund is described as a measure of last resort.

“We have a small amount of reserves that we are committed to spending to keep the organisation and services going for as long as possible. It is enough to the notice period and redundancies for staff, and no more than that.

“In theory we could have furloughed more staff. For instance, we have two youth workers and two child support workers, and we furloughed one of each so we could continue to provide services.

“The young people we work with are, in many cases, ex-offenders or people who are very vulnerable and in difficult circumstances, perhaps living along during lockdown. The staff member who is working with them says that every week he has someone admitting to him that they are having suicidal thoughts.

“It would be completely unethical to use furlough simply to save money when people are desperate for support. I couldn’t live with myself if I put him on furlough and if something happened to one of the people he is providing a lifeline for. If, at the end of the day, that means we don’t get to use this grant, so be it.

“We also have some applications for funding that are still under review. Does any of this mean that we are not in a position of last resort? I hope not.

“We have been holding on by our fingertips for weeks. I’ve no idea whether we will get anything at all. I think we are in a very similar position to a lot of organisations, particularly those that, like us, are small and address local need.

“I certainly don’t want to say we are any better or more special than anyone else. We just want a fair crack of the whip.”

The Covid-19 Charities Fund opens for applications on Monday – more details here.

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