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Beyond numbers: the long-term impact of coronavirus on charities and why collaboration is so important

20 March 2020

It’s heartening to see that third sector leaders have come together over the past week to bring the Government’s attention to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic will impact on charities’ income.

There’s little doubt that charities will have to deal with the fallout from the pandemic, but let’s not forget the people who rely on charities. They ultimately will stand to lose the most if we continue to exclude the third sector from any part of any governmental financial support package. What coronavirus has highlighted is exactly why charities are needed at the moment, but also why they need to continue to work together.

Sarcoma UK’s support service is currently experiencing its busiest ever week, having been inundated with phone and email enquiries around coronavirus and what this means to sarcoma cancer patients who need to know what the ever-shifting circumstances means for them and their treatment. We’ve effectively more than doubled the staff to run the service, and have been working closely with the other 19 national cancer charities who collectively form the ‘One Cancer Voice’ initiative to offer consistent advice on what cancer patients should do in light of the current situation. Working together with other charities to cut through the noise and deliver clear messaging has rarely been more important or timely.

Charities who offer any form of service, whether that’s in the community, through emotional and practical support or financial aid, have quite rightly focused on how they can continue to do that with as little disruption as possible to their beneficiaries. This could also mean even more collaboration in future.

But what about the next 12 to 18 months? We know that our charity is not alone in having conversations around what coronavirus means in the longer term. The drop in income from mass participation and challenge events being postponed or cancelled like the Virgin London Marathon, one of our biggest sources of fundraised income, is only the beginning.

How do we move forward?

The next step is thinking realistically about what this means when it comes to delivery. We know that it is likely that coronavirus will also negatively impact consumer confidence, the economic outlook and income from major donors and corporate partners.

Yet this is where creativity as well as collaboration, can really shine. On an organisational scale, we’re putting together various packages that supporters might choose to do in isolation, from running a marathon distance of their own as part of the Virtual Runner challenge, to digital fundraising. The truth is that it’s unlikely any of these will be able to fully recover any lost income from cancelled major events, but it’s a start, and we have to keep our beneficiaries at the heart of what decisions we make.

At a time of year where charities are knee deep in planning the next financial year, 18 months and beyond, the coronavirus is forcing charities like ours into financially re-forecasting and earmarking activities across the charity that might simply have to be dropped. Do we scale back that awareness campaign, or not run it at all knowing that coronavirus could still be dominating headlines in the coming months? If we push that event back until September 2020, surely we’re just adding to hundreds of other events that are now penciled in for autumn?

As an absolute last resort, charities need to be prepared to bite the bullet and make hard decisions that mean a hit on the short term but allow the organisation to continue in the longer run. For those charities who have healthy financial reserves, they can afford to take a short collective sigh of relief, knowing that they can continue to run as long as the funds allow. But what about those charitable organisations who work in their community, have a huge impact, but are financially vulnerable as they are more likely to run on much slimmer margins between operating normally and not operating at all?

Coronavirus has inadvertently forced the hand of charities like ours to think hard about what it means to deliver a service to patients. Sarcoma UK and our colleagues in the sector are, with sacrifice and some ingenuity, up to the challenge, working together to think about how we can help each other deliver what our users need. But we also need to know the Government has our backs if it comes to that. For the sake of those who rely on us, they have to be.

Richard Davidson

chief executive, Sarcoma UK

Richard joined Sarcoma UK as their Chief Executive in July 2018 after eight successful years as the Director of Engagement at the national blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan. Prior to that he was a Director at health communications agency, MHP and spent 11 years as the Director of Policy and Public Affairs at Cancer Research UK. He is a proud northerner but doesn’t go back to the north east anywhere near enough.