The Road Ahead: Hopes and fears for the voluntary sector and volunteering

Many of us working or volunteering in the voluntary sector must have asked ourselves how it is possible to have any hope for the future this year. So many lives lost. So many lives damaged. Communities shattered. Whole organisations, vital to community life, have been lost or gutted and many may never fully recover.

Yet the voluntary sector is born from the ability to hold both hope and fear simultaneously, and shy away from neither. We believe that our society can be better, we believe in the power of charities and volunteering to change lives, and we have no illusions about the reality of challenges we face.

History will undoubtedly be a more accurate judge of our collective response to the coronavirus crisis, but there can be little doubt the past year has exposed both the fractures in our society as well as the things that bond us together. Laying bare the systemic inequalities that continue to be our collective shame alongside quiet acts of heroism and kindness on a scale unseen by many generations.

This annual Road Ahead report from NCVO looks at the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors impacting charities. If in the past it has been useful reading for leaders in the sector, today it is essential. In response to sustained uncertainty, organisations will need to ensure they can be as responsive and adaptable as possible. This means moving away from long or even medium-term strategy, both as we grapple with the emergency response and rebuild society anew in the future. An up-to-date detailed analysis of the external environment is the first step towards developing an agile approach with a strong, clear purpose, good insight and an ability to make and execute decisions quickly.

Influencing in covid’s shadow

As we start the new year, the political context is very different from a year ago. The Brexit transition period is over, and a deal is now in place to define our future relationship with the EU. The prospect of a breakup of the UK is also perhaps more likely than before. The Scottish National Party is highly likely to win the Scottish parliament elections in May on a ticket of Scottish independence, reflecting a broader appetite for devolution that we have seen in the response to the pandemic from nations and regions across the UK.

Yet both Scottish independence and Brexit are perhaps overshadowed as the main political issues by the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether current divisions within the Conservative party over the government’s response to the pandemic will remain in the longer term. Or what the pandemic means for the fortunes of the government and the opposition at the general election in three years’ time.

Covid, like Brexit, has clearly taken up significant MP bandwidth, making influencing more challenging. In contrast, the move to online meetings present opportunities for charities to access parliamentarians more easily. For those organisations seeking to influence policy, we should also not assume the EU will no longer have influence.

The role charities and volunteers have played during the pandemic has clearly been recognised among parliamentarians. We must celebrate and build upon this renewed engagement in the years ahead.


Demand for charities’ services has dramatically increased because of the economic and social impact of covid-19. Food and other essentials, as well as support for people facing mental health issues, debt, and homelessness are all areas where need is increasing. As the economy continues to contract, unemployment rises, and welfare support returns to pre-crisis levels, this trend is set to continue.

The March 2021 budget should further clarify on what support may be available for poorer households. In the longer term, the government will face the choice of a combination of spending cuts and tax rises to pay for covid-19 borrowing. As we have seen in recent years, public sector cuts (and failure to increase spending) would have a significant impact on charities.

For charities themselves, a year of social distancing has impacted on funding streams, particularly trading and community fundraising, meaning many start the year with dwindling reserves. Job losses and closures, already a feature of the sector, are set to continue. Many charities are facing a cliff-edge as emergency covid-19 funding finishes at the end of March. NCVO, along with our partners in the sector, continue to campaign for further support for charities, highlighting that the support they provide to people and communities is never more needed.

‘We are all in the same storm, but not the same boat’

The inequalities starkly highlighted and accelerated by covid, along with the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the world sparked by the death of George Floyd, have added further weight to the Charity So White campaign driving the voluntary sector to become more equitable, diverse and inclusive. The public commitments by voluntary organisations to address systemic inequalities faced by people from marginalised groups and communities must now move to action.

The context of the pandemic has played to the strengths of the voluntary sector in terms of our ability to innovate and flex. Collaboration has become more of a prominent feature in how organisations work, a trend that looks set to continue.

It is a complex picture in terms of the impact of the pandemic on volunteer numbers. Many people came forward to help for the first time, spurred on by local mutual aid groups or national schemes such as NHS responders. People’s desire to help – even when doing so might expose themselves to risk – has been inspiring. Others were no longer able to continue volunteering due to shielding or social distancing which has likely changed the profile of those who volunteer at least for the short term. There are certainly lessons to be learned from the crisis about barriers to volunteering, especially for disadvantaged groups, and how we can overcome them.

Embedding digital ways of working

Many technological trends accelerated by covid are unlikely to reverse. The digital trend has many benefits, particularly increasing reach, being more accessible, and reducing inefficiency.

Yet the pandemic has also highlighted the existing charity digital skills and infrastructure gaps, making this transition particularly challenging, especially for smaller charities. Addressing the digital divide has become more pressing than ever, in terms of ensuring access for disadvantaged groups. Data protection and cybersecurity remain areas of particular concern.

While some services do not work well online, data analytics give huge potential for supporting the design of future services that meet the needs of people and communities.

Similarly, the need to be together physically with co-workers and fellow volunteers has not gone away, despite the success of remote working for many organisations.

Flattening the carbon curve

It seems a safe bet that we will see an ever-increasing focus on the environment over the coming years. Calls for a green recovery are mounting, building on the drop in carbon emissions experienced during the pandemic. The impacts of climate change are already being felt, such as flooding and adverse weather. Charities and volunteers will continue to play an important role in campaigning for tougher action and supporting communities to adapt.

There is increasing recognition of the need to take an intersectional approach to climate change. This means acknowledging and responding to the disproportionate impact of and potential actions on climate change for working class, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities and disabled people.

Charities have various roles to play in the climate change movement. We’re seeing big organisations come together – as they have in past – to lead campaigns, particularly ahead of a global climate conference to be hosted by the UK in November. Charity shops have an important place in the ethical consumerism movement, as do anti-waste organisations such as Fareshare. But the environment is not an issue only for ‘environmental charities’ – all charities will want to consider action they can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

Rights and regulations

It remains to be seen what lessons will be learned from the benefits and challenges of a greater relaxation of the regulatory environment during the pandemic. In some areas changes to the rules continue into 2021, for example in relation to new guidance issued by the Charity Commission during 2020 on serious incident reporting, mergers and collaboration. Many charities will continue to struggle financially as we go through the year ahead making a focus on effective governance more important than ever.

Changes to legislation heralded by the pandemic will also have an impact on people and communities. Most obviously, we have seen a huge expansion of the state and parallel curtailment of personal freedom. A backlog of legal cases and an increase of people needing recourse on issues such as housing, unemployment and debt are likely to increase demand for charity services.

Away from covid, leaving the EU will herald some of the biggest changes in our regulatory system for decades. Having a deal in place doubtless gives more certainty for charities in relation to areas such as data, workforce and rights, yet there will still be challenges adapting to the new rules for some charities.

Building back better

There has been much talk during the pandemic about recovery, renewal and the sort of society we want to build post-Covid. The critical role of civil society in this endeavour cannot be underestimated. Beyond the pandemic charities and volunteers have an important part to play on issues ranging from devolution to climate change. Yet, at a time when the sector has never been more needed in terms of supporting people and communities, it has never experienced greater challenges in terms of reduced income. This Road Ahead report aims to support charities and volunteers to navigate this challenging and uncertain external context. While the gravity and complexity of doing so should not be understated, our sector is founded on the belief that the world can be better tomorrow than it is today. Even through the most difficult of times, we must hold on to this.

Sarah Vibert

Director of Membership and Engagement

January 2021