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Respond, recover, reset: 18 months of real-time research reveals how the charity sector changed through the pandemic

Two years ago the UK went into its first national lockdown, the final report of the Charity Covid-19 Impact Barometer survey project, led by Nottingham Trent University, with Sheffield Hallam University and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), reveals how the charity sector has adapted and changed over the course of the past two years.

Based on 18 months of real-time research beginning in September 2020, the report draws on 14 waves of the survey, four waves of a panel survey, and over 300 in-depth interviews with those working in and with charities. The final ‘Respond, recover, reset: the voluntary sector and Covid-19' report looks back on two years of the pandemic and how it has challenged and shaped the UK’s charity sector.

The final report highlights that adaptability, innovation, and collaboration in the face of crisis were central to the resilience of the UK’s charities and volunteers the sectors since March 2020, despite unclear guidance and support. The survey shows how across the period surveyed UK charities reported concern about their finances, saw rising demand for their services, navigated falls in income, staffing and volunteer numbers and adapted to a world moving online.

Financial insecurity and rising demand

The report shows that for the first six months of the survey (September 2020-April 2021) a majority of charities were reporting strongly negative outlooks on their financial positions. This was starkly illustrated in September 2020, when one in seven (14%) organisations thought they would not see the year through. Key reasons for this were cited as rising demand coupled with massive hits to income due to lockdowns which impacted the ability to deliver services and funded activities. However, financial confidence among charities recovered across the 14 surveys, and by September 2021 95% of respondents consistently reported they expected their organisation to continue operating.

The report highlights that there has been increasing demand for charity services throughout the pandemic. Between September 2020 and December 2021, on average over half (54%) of organisations reported an increase in demand. This peaked in September 2021 when two in three (66%) of organisations said demand had increased in the past month in Wave 11.

Changing services and moving online

The report shows charities responded to the pandemic by changing the range of services they provide. The first six months of the survey show a predominantly negative balance in the range of services offered - meaning fewer services - by charities due to the pandemic, caused primarily by a lack of face-to-face service delivery and charities working to move their services online. However, as organisations adapted to a hybrid model of service delivery, and the easing of the third national lockdown, the range of services offered by charities increased rapidly between April-December 2021.

The report also shows how the pandemic accelerated a shift in the use of technology by charities to deliver services online. The overall trend across the 14 surveys shows a significant and consistent increase in the proportion of services being delivered online by charities. 66% of organisations reported through the survey that they had started online service provision since March 2020. This has had a positive effect on the reach of many organisations, however some organisations voiced concerns about digital exclusion during the pandemic and the lack of infrastructure to support digital services in many areas.

Volunteering stretched and successful

Volunteers play a huge part in supporting the delivery of charity services and is one of the success stories of the pandemic. Despite this, the pandemic had a significant impact on volunteering due to social distancing measures and other restrictions. There was a changing pattern for volunteering over time. Between October 2020 and July 2021, respondents were likely to report that their volunteer numbers had declined rather than increased, compared to the previous month. This trend, however, starts to change in July 2021 with a higher proportion of organisations reporting an increase in volunteer numbers, in line with the easing of restrictions.

More flexible funding

In an ever-changing environment, charities needed to be flexible but so did their funders. As a response to the pandemic, the report shows that charities saw many funders pivot to provide emergency support and adopt a more flexible approach. By allowing grants to be re-purposed or requirements relaxed, organisations were able to respond to crises that they faced. However, this tended to benefit organisations with already strong networks.

Nine lessons from the pandemic for charities

The report highlights the insights and lessons charities, and others, can take from the pandemic. Nine key learnings include:

  1. Embedding flexible funding practices beyond the pandemic. Those who had flexible approaches from funders came through relatively unscathed. Moves towards more unrestricted funding is likely to be a key part of a more open and flexible approach going forwards.
  2. Creating more longer-term funding opportunities. Multi-year, unrestricted funding from funders should be the norm to help support the resilience of sector organisations.
  3. Increasing charity collaboration and support for the charity ecosystem. Collaborative approaches to funding and service delivery could play an important role to make the funding environment and practices more equitable and inclusive. More support needed to create spaces and enable charities to collaborate better.
  4. Rethinking the roles of communities and volunteering. Our research points to how the pandemic has accelerated a move towards more ‘community led’ models. Going forward, organisations will need to consider how the pandemic has affected the diversity of volunteers and the barriers individuals now face in getting and staying involved.
  5. Improving the diversity of charity leaders and trustees. The lack of data around the demographic make-up of trustees and senior leaders needs to be addressed to identify how quickly the sector is transforming and where it is failing.
  6. Increasing inclusion and wellbeing within charities. We need to recognise that wellbeing is an organisational journey that is in a frequent state of change depending on a wide range of factors, both within and outside of organisational control.
  7. Encouraging flexible working and volunteering. Looking ahead organisations must ensure that new ways of working are flexible enough to accommodate the needs and circumstances of different individuals within their paid and voluntary workforce. This will also help to create more inclusive charities.
  8. Addressing digital exclusion and upskilling charity workforce. Addressing digital exclusion will need to be a key focus for the sector. Organisations should focus on partnerships with digital experts to help develop the skills and confidence of service users, staff and volunteers.
  9. Funding and support to build digital resilience in charities. Financial constraints and pressures on organisations are likely to act as a barrier to digital investment and development. Sector organisations will need additional funding and support to consolidate digital practices and services, invest in infrastructure and to build on the momentum from the pandemic.

Anya Martin, research and insight manager at NCVO, said:

“This report shows that by working nimbly, collaboratively and flexibly the sector was able to deliver services during one of the most challenging periods in its history. Despite unclear guidance, inadequate recourses and infrastructural gaps, many organisations quickly found new ways of working. It is clear from our interviews that adaptability and innovation in response to the crisis was one of the central factors to sector resilience. Looking ahead we need to look at how the sector can work flexibly and collaboratively to provide services during future crises.”

Daniel King, professor of organisational behaviour at Nottingham Trent University and project lead, said:

“The pandemic has of course been incredibly challenging to many organisations. As our barometer data has consistently highlighted, throughout the pandemic we have seen demand for services rise at the same time as income has been hit. Many organisations have struggled, with challenges to shifting services online, working within hard-hit communities, and supporting staff and volunteers' wellbeing through the pandemic. Yet simultaneously the pandemic has also seen significant innovation, creativity, and adaptability. Some organisations have a clearer sense of their mission and purpose, have stronger internal and external relationships, have developed new services and ways of working and have renewed confidence as a result of the pandemic. Yet many of these organisations also report considerable challenges for the future, particularly around staff and volunteer wellbeing, uncertainty around funding, and some more positive pandemic responses disappearing as we return to normal. So, two years on from the first lockdown we reflect on what has been learned and how the sector can take these lessons into the future.”

-ENDS-

Notes to editors

Media enquiries: Please contact press@ncvo.org.uk.

About the survey and report: You can download full PDF report here. The Covid-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer survey has been the UK’s largest temperature check on the state of the voluntary sector during the pandemic. It is part of the Respond, Recover and Reset: The Voluntary Sector and Covid-19 project led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), Nottingham Trent University and Sheffield Hallam University. In the final wave of the report organisations from across the UK responded to questions about the impact of the pandemic on volunteering within their organisations. All previous waves of the survey and report can be found here.

About NCVO: NCVO is the largest membership organisation for the voluntary sector in England. With 16,500+members, NCVO represents all types of organisations, from large ‘household name’ charities to small voluntary and community groups involved at the local level. We are also the lead body for volunteering in England. To find out more visit www.ncvo.org.uk.

About Nottingham Trent University: Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students. It is one of the largest UK universities. With nearly 32,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University contributes £900m to the UK economy every year. With an international student population of more than 3,000 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook. To find out more visit https://www.ntu.ac.uk/.

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