22 September 2020

Charity: the forgotten casualty of Covid-19

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We are well and truly back in the throes of Covid-related outrage. Last month it was complaints about mandatory mask-wearing, now it’s the prospect of another economically ruinous lockdown.

But in all the furious back-and-forth over the pandemic, one sector has been almost entirely overlooked – our beloved charities.

Be in no doubt, the picture for Britain’s voluntary organisations is extremely bleak. According to the Institute of Fundraising, charities stand to lose almost half their voluntary income and a third of their total incomes. More than half of them have already reduced their services, and one in ten said they faced closing their doors within the next six months.

Last week one of our best-known charities, Help for Heroes, announced they would be closing three of their four recovery centres as part of an effort to keep their core services going. One in three of their staff, some 142 people, risk being made redundant as the charity tries to weather the financial storm. For me this has a personal dimension too, having worked for there for three years.

Help for Heroes has become a national institution in remarkably short order. Set up in 2007 in response to the influx of injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, they have since helped over 26,000 service personnel and their families with their injuries or illnesses. In doing so they have amassed a long list of celebrity supporters, including Princes William and Harry, Jeremy Clarkson, Ross Kemp, James Blunt, Lorraine Kelly, Mark and Peta Cavendish and many more.

As time has gone on, the number of people needing the charity’s support has only increased as the impacts of both mental and physical combat injuries have become more apparent. These have been exacerbated by lockdown, with a 33% rise in appeals for mental health support and 30% more referrals to Help for Heroes’ physical health service. The charity has also been lending it’s expertise to the fight against Covid-19, helping frontline workers to manage working in a challenging environment with an invisible enemy, a situation which will sound familiar to those who served in Helmand Province. But that surge in demand came at the same time as high profile events like the Big Battlefield Bike Ride and the Invictus Games had to be cancelled, and H4H revenue plummeted.

Granted, there are plenty of other causes vying for the public’s attention during the pandemic. Many charities have been facing up to that fact by stoically plodding on, unwilling to make mass appeals to the public for help. There will be calls for the government to step in if they are forced to close their doors. Yet if the unthinkable does happens it will be changes in our own habits and behaviours that are to blame.

Amid endless discussions about how to revitalise high streets, and government subsidies to keep the hospitality industry afloat, very little is said about how to restore public giving. But without individual generosity, there is no third sector. Consumer spending is slowly creeping back up to pre-lockdown levels and retail sales have grown 4% compared to February’s pre-pandemic levels. We need to see a similar return to pre-lockdown charitable giving.

It’s not just military charities that are suffering. The Association of Medical Research Charities predicts a shortfall of about £300m this year and a 40% plunge in funding, as donations collapse, charity shops close and fundraising events are cancelled. Macmillan Cancer Support is facing a 71% drop in income – around £20 million – and Historic Royal Palaces expects its income to be down by almost 90% this year.

We know all too well how painful it is when a company goes bust – but when a charity goes under it’s not just its staff, but all those who rely on its services and research who suffer too. That means many of the most vulnerable will have support ripped away just when they need it the most.

Many of the charities buckling under the strain are the same ones trying to alleviate the burden on the NHS right now. While it’s tempting to suggest we should let some charities fail, as we do with businesses, the demise of a charity does little to solve the issues that charity exists to deal with.

While the Chancellor has already paid out £750 million to charities providing key services during the crisis, including £150,000 for Help for Heroes, that doesn’t come close to making up for the revenue lost by lockdown and limitations on mass events and gatherings. The Government needs to recognise this unintended consequence and offer emergency funding for those frontline charities supporting the country’s response to the coronavirus crisis, especially where they are alleviating pressure on the health service or dealing with the economic and social impact of the virus.

Ultimately, though, the best thing the Government can do is have a track and trace system which actually works, to allow normal life to resume as quickly as possible. Then charities will be able to hold their usual fundraising events safe in the knowledge the system is robust enough to handle any new cases arising as a result.

Meanwhile, we the public need to put our money where our mouths are and get back in the habit of giving. Help for Heroes is luckier than most: it has been able to streamline its services and rely on reserves to keep the lights on, for now. But many more charities doing equally important work may not be in that position. Their collapse could have a huge impact, not only on those being supported, but on the public sector at large as it tries – and likely fails – to pick up the slack.

Wouldn’t it be great if those expressing outrage at lockdown measures and compulsory mask-wearing could show similar strength of feeling over the near-collapse of our charity sector – a phenomenon which threatens to be as catastrophic as it is far-reaching.

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Robyn Staveley is Head of Communications at the Centre for Policy Studies.