Business management

Charities challenged by coronavirus

How are fundraising organisations adapting to society in lockdown when income streams have dried up and demand for their help is soaring?

  • The coronavirus pandemic has wiped out fundraising events, from bake sales to the London Marathon, that charities depend on for income
  • In response to calls for help, the government has promised a £750m package to support frontline charities providing key services
  • Despite this, it is estimated the sector may lose out on as much as £4bn in revenue in the space of just 12 weeks during the continuing crisis

Fundraising setbacks

The vast majority of charities have cancelled their usual money-generating initiatives, whether that’s high-powered business lunches or bring-and-buy sales.

“Our volunteers can’t even do bucket collections,” says Meredith Niles, executive director of fundraising and engagement for Marie Curie. “This at a time when we raise millions through our Great Daffodil Appeal.”

The postponement until October of the London Marathon is a major blow to many organisations, which last year raised £66.4m. But it’s not the only sporting casualty.

“The loss of the Tokyo Paralympics is a big deal for us,” explains Mark Hodgkinson, CEO of disability equality organisation Scope. “It really raises our profile.”

Meanwhile, food banks have struggled to attract the usual level of donations. And to protect the health of staff, major charities have closed all shops, which in the case of Sue Ryder alone accounts for 450 outlets.

Plummeting incomes

With fewer ways to generate cash, charity revenues have dramatically declined. Scope’s short-term revenue is down 60%, for instance, while Sue Ryder’s has fallen by two thirds.

Hodgkinson adds: “The lack of street collectors means fewer new donors are being recruited. So our long-term income will suffer, too.”

The government’s pledge of £750m to help struggling charities, particularly those providing health and other frontline services, has calmed fears that the likes of Marie Curie hospices will have to close.

But many charities do not know exactly how much they will get; some may get nothing at all. Estimates suggest the sector will lose £4bn over just 12 weeks of the virus crisis. The industry advice body, the Charity Finance Group, argues government funding is nowhere near enough. More than 100 charities have closed already.

Life on the ground

With the public’s resources stretched, charities are busier than ever. “We’ve seen a 30% increase in calls to our helpline,” says Paul Goulden, director of the Silver Line, a support service for older people.

Callers are worried about issues such as care workers not being able to get to them and empty supermarket shelves. Goulden adds: “We’ve had calls from people saying, ‘I’ve got no food!’”

Social isolation is severely hampering the way other charities operate. Crisis has had to close its Croydon Skylight centre, where homeless people access everything from financial advice to fitness classes. Except in exceptional circumstances, staff at the Children’s Society can’t meet up with the youngsters they help, many of whom are at risk of abuse or violence.

Charities are going to need all the help they can get in the months ahead

Susan Pinkney
Head of research, Charities Aid Foundation

Other charities report being unable to provide practical assistance for the visually impaired, educational support for people with learning difficulties, and oxygen treatment for multiple sclerosis sufferers to relieve their symptoms.

“We’ve had to close our day therapy – where patients with a terminal diagnosis come for respite,” says Sue Ryder’s chief executive, Heidi Travis. “We’ve also got staff self-isolating, without access to testing. A depleted workforce will see patients being transferred to hospitals, putting additional strain on the NHS.”

Niles adds: “The supplies of PPE available to Marie Curie staff are, bluntly, not enough.” The healthcare provider has already had to stop some visits to patients dying at home.

“Coronavirus is catastrophic for the cultural sector,” says Emily Kyriakides, executive director of Brighton arts charity, Lighthouse. “We’ve had to cancel three major events and other projects are on hold. I worry for young creatives who work with us whose [income] has just stopped. The crisis has cost us around a quarter of our annual income. We’ll have to think hard about the size of the organisation in the future.”

In need of coping strategies

Several major charities have moved away from their usual fundraising approaches, launching emergency appeals instead. The Silver Line’s partner charity, Age UK, is hoping to raise £10m, while Marie Curie’s new ads feature a terminally ill woman and remind the public: “Not everything is on hold.”

Crisis is giving homeless people phones for remote assistance and emergency food and hygiene packages, containing items like hand sanitiser. “On Merseyside we’ve helped more than 50 people move from crowded night shelters to self-contained temporary accommodation,” adds Richard Lee, director of fundraising for Crisis.

Hospices are creating special sections for coronavirus sufferers so they can help all patients as easily as possible. Thanks partly to Dixon Carphone’s donation of hundreds of laptops, mobile phones and headsets, the Silver Line’s call-centre staff are now working from home. The Children’s Society, meanwhile, is keeping in touch with youngsters via computer.

And lockdown may yet have some beneficial side effects. Perhaps due to the growing number of workers on furlough, there has been more interest in the Silver Line’s friendship scheme, where people chat to the elderly by phone.

“We’ve [asked] business partners to see if staff at home could try innovative fundraising, such as virtual tea parties or virtual bake-offs,” says Hodgkinson.

Scope is using Skype and online chat services to help disabled people with everything from better sleep techniques to employment advice. “We can learn from this experience,” Hodgkinson continues. “Getting to our events can be challenging for some. Providing more services online may help us engage with a much broader audience.”

Even more help is required

It remains to be seen whether further substantial government funding will appear. For now, at least, the Charity Finance Group wants to see the £750m funding made available as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) has been offering £10,000 emergency grants to help smaller charitable organisations, but requests totalling £20m have led it to pause the scheme to new applications. Meanwhile, experts suggest other government action could include speeding up payments of Gift Aid owed to charities, giving them deferments on the likes of VAT and national insurance, and increasing tax relief to encourage donations.

“Charities are going to need all the help they can get in the months ahead,” says Susan Pinkney, CAF’s head of research. “When this crisis is over, we’ll still need their vital work – perhaps more so than ever.”

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