The impact of COVID-19 put a spotlight on the critical work of the UK voluntary sector, demonstrating its incredible resilience, and ability to adapt and respond. As the country suffered from the wider impact of the pandemic on people’s health, wellbeing and livelihoods, the need for vital third sector services grew, while organisations faced crippling fundraising cuts. In response, staff and volunteers worked tirelessly, undergoing huge periods of stress and fatigue. The UK’s voluntary sector rose to the challenge, responding quickly and innovatively to adapt their approaches and strategies.
Whilst the sector has been under immense pressure since March 2020, individual charities’ experiences vary widely. As Alex Farrow, Head of Networks and Influencing at NCVO, has pointed out, “the voluntary sector is huge, complex and diverse…COVID-19’s impact has been, and will continue to be, uneven and unpredictable across a sector already facing higher demands on its services.”
Responding and recovering has been linked to flexibility and resilience. Organisations have developed new ways of reaching communities, listening to local demands, and utilising strong relationships. The sector has been able to ensure that people were reached with critical services and support. Furthermore, other activities such as research and campaigning continued, albeit with a different focus in many cases. Some organisations had to review and reshape delivery models away from being place-based whilst others had to develop new services to meet emerging community needs.
During this challenging time, robust, purposeful, inclusive and inspiring leadership in the sector has never been more important. With clear vision from the top, measures such as emergency funds and embracing the capabilities of online, have allowed the sector to demonstrate incredible resilience and strength.
The ability to adapt and innovate has been central to success. In particular, the pandemic has accelerated the process of digital transformation that had already begun within the voluntary sector. Organisations across the country have embraced every virtual offering available to ensure they continue to operate – from shifting fundraising events online, to managing their teams virtually. This year’s Charity Digital Skills Report showed that 83% of voluntary organisations had changed their services in response to demand, whilst 78% were now using digital to reach new audiences. Encouragingly, 60% of organisations surveyed now have a digital transformation strategy in place. These are promising statistics, but it remains evident that decisive and effective leadership, agility and a culture of collaboration will be vital to the sector fully embracing the opportunities presented by technology.
Whilst dealing with the impact of the pandemic, some UK voluntary organisations were also rocked by the UK government’s announcement last December that it would cut aid spending from 0.7% of national income to 0.5% - a reduction of more than £4 billion. This significant reduction in spending will hurt some of the poorest people in the world and means that some UK voluntary organisations working tirelessly to help those in need overseas are faced with even greater strains and difficult considerations. It also means that the entire UK sector faces greater competition for other funding streams. Sector leaders must show the same commitment and tenacity they demonstrated throughout the pandemic to overcome this hurdle.
Leaders must also show courage and commitment in developing truly anti-racist, inclusive, and representative cultures and organisations. The conversation has well and truly started, and many organisations have taken significant steps to address structural barriers in terms of their organisation, their work and their impact. The challenge will be to maintain and sustain a focus on equity across all levels of organisations as other strategic, operational, and financial priorities.
This is also connected to the fragility of public trust in charities over some governance failures and media scrutiny. Non-profit organisations can now capitalise on a pandemic-related uptick in confidence in the sector and respond to public expectations, in order to return to levels of trust last seen a decade ago.
The last 18 months has shown us how incredibly resilient and talented the UK voluntary sector is. Facing a truly unprecedented challenge, we’ve seen how much the sector can achieve, and what difficulties it can surmount. Integrity, innovation, and resilience have shown themselves to be values shared by organisations across the sector.
From our deep experience of working with non-profit organisations at leadership and governance level, Perrett Laver has great confidence that the UK’s voluntary sector will take the learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic and come back stronger than ever Undoubtably, the sector’s diverse range of organisations will seek to have their voices heard even louder and to become even more inclusive and representative of those they serve. The will is there, and now resources, strategies and plans can be refocussed from the emergency mode of late.
Shivani Smith – Senior Consultant & Co-Lead of UK Non-Profits, Global Non-Profit and Social Impact Practice at Perrett Laver and Lucy Simpson – Senior Consultant & Head of Board Practice at Perrett Laver