Skip to main content

A time of reckoning for charities: why we must make it clear we are needed more than ever

22 May 2020

With the International Monetary Fund warning that the recession following the Coronavirus could be worse than The Great Depression, worries about job security has driven consumer confidence to its lowest level in more than a decade. The impact of this upon charities is already being seen, with research showing a 54% decrease in people signing up for monthly donations last month compared to April 2019. If that were not bad enough, charities have also lost income from closing their shops and cancelling events.

It’s hard to imagine, but the reality is we may soon find ourselves in a position where charities are less present than ever as reports claim that many are facing imminent collapse as a result of the coronavirus.

Needed more than ever yet still at risk

Charities have always helped to support the most vulnerable in society, and with many reporting a rise of over 40% in demand for their services, they’re needed now more than ever. To further emphasise the point, the UK’s biggest food bank network report that it experienced its busiest ever period following the announcement of the lock down and the domestic abuse charity Refuge has also reported that calls to its abuse helpline have risen by 120%. Sadly, in order to save funds, more than 20,000 staff at the largest 20 charities have been furloughed ,which means that they’re are being forced to stop helping people if they want to survive.

Given the important role that charities play in our society, it is hard to comprehend that many may no longer exist by the end of the year. Volunteers from St John Ambulance have been saving lives and keeping communities safe for 143 years. To support the NHS, they have increased volunteering numbers to levels not seen since World War II, their volunteers provided over 89k hours of support during April yet their Chief Executive, Martin Houghton-Brown has openly said that without extra funding they will run out of money in August.

So why is it so hard to quantify charities’ value?

The German comedian Henning Wehn said that “We don’t do charity in Germany. We pay taxes. Charity is a failure of governments’ responsibilities.” Putting the accuracy of this statement aside, it is widely recognised that in the UK, charities support the most vulnerable who would have otherwise fallen through the gaps.

Yet despite there being a clear need for us, it’s hard to quantify how important charities are. The Charity Commission for England and Wales‘ 2019 report to better understand the value charities add to the UK’s economy found that the sector accounts for almost 900,000 jobs and over £15bn in GDP. But at the same time, it also found that assessing charities wider social impacts is far more challenging:

“People have a general understanding of the impact of sectors like manufacturing on society: they create jobs, income and goods and services to buy. However, trying to gauge the impact on society, both collectively and individually, of the charitable sector is much more complex.”
– Charity Commission report on the value of a Charity.

Interestingly, in early May, research from Pro Bono Economics confirmed that charities value to society is severely underestimated, their figures suggest that they actually contribute £200bn a year to the UK economy.

Having worked in the charity sector for a number of years I am aware of the challenge charities face when using simple metrics like ‘outcomes’ as a means of measuring their value. Measures which quite simply don’t enable them to tell the whole story of the valuable work they do.

A clear example of how the measures charities are judged against fail to demonstrate the immeasurable value we provide comes from an experience I had following the UK’s last recession – the financial crisis. At the time I was working as a marketing and event coordinator for a charity in North Wales called CAIS, who were refurbishing benches along Llandudno’s promenade as part of a series of volunteering events that enabled people recovering from addiction to engage with their community. One of the volunteers told me that he loved the hard graft of sanding and painting as it meant he was able to sleep at night without having a drink to help him on his way, something that he had been struggling to do. The effect that the scheme had on this volunteer clearly showed the value we were providing, yet to evidence the impact of the scheme, CAIS had to report on a series of measurable ‘outcomes,’ like when a service user obtained a qualification, volunteered or got a job, not the personal impact it had on people. So, the question those in power need to be asked is: Because these details can’t be measured does it make them any less important?

The need for change as we face a parallel epidemic

We’re all aware of the immediate impact the crisis is having to our lives, but health experts and charities have begun to talk about the longer-term implications of the pandemic which they are calling the ‘parallel epidemic.’ Whereby the effects of the current crisis will impact people’s health in future too.

Macmillan has already warned that the crisis could lead to 18,000 more cancer deaths and Cancer Research UK has announced that they’ve had to cut their research funding by £44 million, which they say will set back the cancer research effort within the UK for many years. When you consider that 1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime, this is something that affects us all.

Knowing all this we must ask ourselves why more is not being done to protect us as charities and as a sector we need to start thinking about how we can keep working together to demonstrate our immeasurable value to society both now and in the future. This month over 70 charities contributed to a report warning MPs that not offering them enough support will do untold damage because we underpin the fabric of society.

If we’re heading into a period of austerity, we need to ensure that charities are there for us to tackle the much wider impact of the pandemic. Hopefully together we can encourage everyone to support charities today so that they can be there for us tomorrow.

Kimberley recently spoke on the panel at our online Brand 360 seminar and recently launched the Brand Blog.

Photo: Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Kimberley Ferguson

brand manager , British Heart Foundation

Kimberley is a brand manager at the British Heart Foundation. She has recently launched the Brand Blog as a space to share her expertise, and that of a network of inspirational people to provide a range of resources and advice for the sector during these unprecedented times.