The Road Ahead

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Managing services during the cost of living crisis

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This page helps operational leaders of organisations that provide services to:

  • consider how to adapt to rising or changing demand due to the cost of living crisis.
  • access practical tips to grow and change services or, if necessary, reduce or remove services.

If you want more general information about setting the direction of your organisation, read our strategy and business planning guidance.

Pressures on services during the cost of living crisis

The cost of living crisis is changing how many voluntary organisations deliver their services. When we talk about services, we mean something your charity does that helps those you seek to serve to do something. It could be:

  • an ongoing service (like offering advice or guidance)
  • provision or facilities (like offering halls for hire) or
  • singular activities (like coffee mornings or workshops).

Consider how the crisis might impact your voluntary organisation’s services.

  • Demand is rising: Many organisations are seeing demand for their support rise as communities cope with the cost of living crisis. As households struggle, they may turn to voluntary organisations and community groups for help.
  • Needs are getting more complex: Many voluntary organisations are seeing people with more complex needs. They may have needs that require more time or specialist knowledge to support. The voluntary organisation may not be able to assist in the best way.
  • Team recruitment and retention: Many voluntary organisations can find recruiting and retaining staff and volunteers tough. They may not have enough people to deliver what or how they want.
  • Significant financial pressures: Many voluntary organisations are under a lot of financial strain linked to the cost of living crisis. This may mean that they need to look to change, reduce or close services.

Learn more about how the cost of living crisis is impacting voluntary organisations finances.

Understand your organisation’s situation

The cost of living crisis will impact each organisation’s services differently. Because of this, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all response by organisations.

For some organisations, it may be a short-term operational challenge. You may need to change your current services in some way.

For other organisations, it may raise more fundamental questions about the type, scale and nature of your service.

To make the right decisions, make sure you understand your situation and consider what scale of change may be needed.

Capture evidence 

Bring together or start to capture evidence of how rising demand impacts your organisation and those who use your organisation’s services.

Use data to help understand which of your current services are in high demand or if any are not being effectively used and why.

You may want to get evidence such as the:

  • number of referrals you’re receiving from other organisations
  • number of people approaching the organisation for support against the number you can assist
  • length of time between people first contacting your organisation and you being able to provide support
  • types of issues people ask for or need support with
  • feedback from service users on the impact of the crisis on them.

If you’re unsure of how to capture data, read our guide on different monitoring and evaluation methods.

You can use this information to:

  • design new services
  • redesign current services
  • report your impact
  • influence policymakers and decision-makers
  • showcase your work when fundraising.

Consider the wider landscape your organisation works in

You should consider your organisation's current activities, strengths and challenges to help you make the right decisions for yourself and the people and communities you seek to serve.

Use our tools to understand the landscape and conditions for your work.

Make decisions that respond to the situation

Once you've captured your evidence and you're clear on the wider landscape, consider your options for change.

When faced with very high demand, services can become overwhelmed. Depending on the service offered, this could create these kinds of challenges:

  • Risk to team wellbeing: Placing your team under unreasonable levels of stress or feeling overwhelmed.
  • Lead to bad experiences for the people accessing your services: People may have to wait longer for support or feel they’re not getting their needs met.
  • Miss the people most in need: People’s needs may not be met by your current ways of working.
  • Engaging those you do not seek to serve: The lack of other appropriate services may mean that people approach you for support which you are not set to meet.
  • Impact quality: Short-term tactical decision-making to respond to needs may affect the quality of the work, either now or in the longer term.

Identify your organisation’s key services that match most closely with your purpose and strategy. Consider if changing your current services would make sure they’re fit for purpose for the increased demand. Focus on enhancing and expanding services that further your impact the most.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What services can we continue? Identify services that can continue as they are planned and what services you may need to consider reducing or stopping.
  • What services need to work differently? Identify services or activities that need to change from the change in demand. You could choose to:
    • growing your services to meet the increasing or changed demand
    • redesign your services to manage demand better
  • develop new services to meet changing needs.
  • What services can we stop? Are there some services or activities that you could stop?

It may be that you’re facing a more fundamental change to the way your organisation works. You may need to consider a much simpler review of your strategy – the high-level decisions that set priorities and purpose.

If you feel a more significant change is needed, read and follow our strategy and business planning guidance.

Growing or redesigning services

Issues to think about when redesigning services include:

  • Use tools to redesign your services: There are a range of tools to help you consider the design or redesign of your services and work. Learn about other service design tools.
  • Explore whether digital or technological options can improve your work:
    Consider whether any technology solutions would help operations and service delivery work better. This could include online scheduling, a virtual service rather than face-to-face or better database management systems to reduce the risk of missing information or delays. Learn more in our guidance on delivering services or products online.
  • Review costs now and in the future: There may be a range of costs from changing or redesigning services. Develop a clear budget for upfront and additional costs and if these will be higher or lower than the current service. What will this mean for your budget and cashflow? Learn more about budgeting and cashflow in the cost of living crisis.
  • Funding for change: There may be challenges to increasing your income during the cost of living crisis to pay for expansion or change. Use our guidance to get practical fundraising ideas and learn key questions to ask before investing during the cost of living crisis. Instead of fundraising, your charity may choose to invest some reserves for the costs of change. These are funds that are freely available to spend on any of the charity's purposes. Find out more about reserves.
  • Collaboration with other organisations: Will the changes be best delivered with a partner organisation. Are there options to collaborate with other organisations? Read our guidance on collaborating with other organisations.
  • Consider staff team structure: If facing increased demand, consider and discuss with employees whether to assign them to different roles or activities (often called redeploying). Always make sure they have the suitable knowledge, skills and support for the role or activity. If there are significant changes or redesigned services, you may need to consider a restructure of your staff team. Read our guidance on managing change with staff roles.
  • Consider how to make the best use of your volunteer team: Think about how your volunteers will contribute to the change in service. Will the changed services need different volunteer roles? Could volunteers be engaged differently to allow more time for staff to focus on core roles and best make use of their skills? Do you need more volunteers or new types of volunteer roles with different skills or time commitments? If so, how confident are you that they can be recruited and do you have appropriate support for their training and supervision? Read our guidance on recruiting volunteers and making sure that volunteers are valued and supported. If you’re looking for volunteer chartered accountant, look at Charterpath or ICAEW volunteers.

Tools for services design 

There are a range of decision-making tools to help you redesign your services and provision:

  • Double Diamond: A simple way to describe the steps taken in any design and innovation project, without considering the methods and tools used. Read this Design Council guide to learn more about the Double Diamond and get tools to help you apply it.
  • Process map: A technique to identify the way steps and decisions connect with each other and represent these in a diagram. You can use this information to consider whether changes would make the service better for your users. This NHS process mapping, analysis and redesign guide to get ideas for using a process map
  • The Eisenhower Method: A prioritisation and time management tool where you divide tasks into four separate parts based on their urgency and importance. It’s often used to support individuals to prioritise tasks and you can adapt it to consider your tasks across your service. Read this blog on ideascale explains the Eisenhower Method and how it can be used.

Learn more

Reducing or removing services

If you have tried to work through all the available options to meet demand through growth or change, you may need to consider reducing or limiting access to your services. Proactively changing your delivery may be better than having many people waiting long periods for support or harmful impacts on your team’s wellbeing.

If your financial pressures are significant, you may have no choice but to limit access, to reduce or close your services.

The causes may be varied, but the way you limit your services should be carefully considered. These are difficult decisions with a range of options that can all feel unpleasant. You’ll need to balance competing priorities and be led by the longer-term best interests of your charity and how you achieve your charitable purpose.

Before acting, ask yourself these questions below.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Have we considered our public benefit? Charities must make sure their work benefits the public in general, or a sufficient section of the public. There are rules to follow when limiting a charity’s benefit to certain groups. Read and follow the Charity Commission guidance on deciding who benefits from your work.
  • Have we made the decision well? Trustees of charities must act in the best interests of the charity, managing resources and risk when making decisions with care and skill. Read our guidance on how boards can make decisions effectively to check you are making quality decisions.
  • Have we spoken with the right people? It's good practice to consult and engage with staff, trade union representatives, volunteers and service users about the need for change and potential options. Explore opportunities for stakeholder to share their views, worries and ideas.
  • Do we know the potential impacts for the communities we seek to serve? Are there potential benefits of restricting access – such as shorter wait times or more specialist support? If there are risks of negative impacts, how could we deal with these?
  • What impact will there be on other services? If you change your activity, will there be impacts for other service providers? Map if there are other services which you could direct people to with needs you cannot meet. NCVO members can access our Other players tool which helps you look at the priorities and impact of other organisations involved in your area of work.
  • Have we considered the potential impacts on equity? Would this change of approach indirectly discriminate against particular groups? Read our definition of equity. Read our guide to duties for equality and non-discrimination to learn more about your legal obligations and considering equity in your planning.
  • Have we considered the risks, including to our reputation? Charities must make sure they actively manage risks to the organisation This includes protecting its reputation. Make sure you spot potential risks and have a clear approach to how they will be managed. Read and follow the Charity Commission guidance on risk management.
  • How will we track the difference the change has made? What would success look like, and what information would we need to demonstrate the impacts of the changes?

Practical steps to put into action

If your board decides to change access or remove services, here are practical steps include:

  • Reduce and change your marketing: Promotional activity will create further demand for your services. Consider reducing your advertising and marketing activity. Change the way you describe your services to make sure that it accurately describes what you can and can’t help with.
  • Introducing a process for sorting those who seek help (triage): Can you do an assessment when someone first presents to your voluntary organisation to make sure you’re the right organisation to support them and what type of support they may need? This should be early in the process, to find out how the individual can be best supported. Consider having a few different routes depending on how urgent or complex the particular case is.
  • Introduce a waiting list: Depending on your activities, could you introduce this on a ‘first come, first served’ basis or come up with another way to decide in which order someone will be supported?
  • Review service focus: Consider restricting who can access your services or provision considering where people are based or what the need is.
  • Close services: There may be costs associated with a closure or reduction of a service. You may need to consider whether you have ongoing costs (liabilities) – such as existing contracts for costs you need to meet – which would be impacted. Our guidance on issues to consider when carrying out the closure of a charity may include some useful pointers should you change your current delivery.

Practical ideas to put into practice

If you do decide to reduce or remove services or activities, you should make sure you put these ideas into practice:

  • Be open and transparent about the reasons for changes, the process of decision-making and the planned timeline for change.
  • Have options for people to ask questions about the changes.
  • Give a lead in time so people have time to settle into the changes.
  • Let other services know to reduce future signposting or referrals that won’t apply after the changes are made.
  • Update your marketing – such as websites and social media – with accurate information.

You may need to make changes quickly to support your voluntary organisation in the cost of living crisis and these will likely have an ongoing impact. As a result, you may need to consider whether you need to review your current strategy. Read and follow our strategy and business planning guidance.

Last reviewed: 20 December 2023

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 20 December 2023

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