9 April 2020

The voluntary sector: Holding together our social fabric


By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive

As I sat down to write this, I was listening to Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announce the Government package of measures to support charities. I recognised many of my feelings in the way he spoke about our sector.

So, to quote the Chancellor, I wish to throw a spotlight on “…those small charities in our villages, our market towns, in pockets of our cities…the unsung heroes looking after the vulnerable and holding together our social fabric.” 

Before I get to that, though, I want to go back to 2014 and the Somerset floods. You will remember the dramatic scenes on the Somerset Levels. Then, like now, there was an astounding and immediate response from the wider community. It drew on the very best of humanity, helping those who felt lost and bereft while their homes and businesses sat under water. Inevitably, at times, it was fragmented, chaotic and disruptive, but it was also life-affirming.

As we are seeing now, these community responses happen first because they move at the speed of emotion. It is an instinctive human response which creates so much positive energy; the joy of giving back on one side and the relief of feeling supported on the other has an immeasurable benefit. It goes beyond the tangible benefits of fetching shopping and prescriptions for people who can’t leave their homes to give us a more intangible sense of togetherness that will sustain us through some difficult times. A thousand acts of kindness add up to more than the sum of their parts.

So, if this is the case, we might be left wondering: why do we need registered charities and formal community organisations which are weighed down by their legal obligations, governance and accountability, when tens of thousands of volunteers can be recruited overnight?

Here in Somerset, our rural setting means we are particularly dependent on smaller organisations – the type Rishi Sunak was referring to in his speech in the quote above. These are the organisations that reach out and support the most vulnerable people in our communities every single day throughout the year. They touch all of our lives, often in ways we do not see. They have the knowledge, skills, and expertise to make sure the most vulnerable in our communities receive the right support at the right time and in the right way. 

They also have an unbreakable commitment to their communities because their communities run through their DNA, and that means they are amongst the ‘first responders’ when crisis hits. They can be unbelievably creative, flexible and entrepreneurial when they need to be. 

At Somerset Community Foundation, ourselves a small organisation, we have been able to draw on our experience of running the major Somerset Flood appeal in 2014, to respond to the impact of coronavirus today. Within two days of closing our office and moving to home-working we had launched an appeal and set up a new grants programme underpinned by new governance processes that enable us to turn funding around swiftly, often within 24 hours. Within ten days we have supported over 70 organisations with over £165,000.

The organisations we are funding have had their own disruption to contend with and yet have shown tremendous resilience to adapt and extend their reach in many different ways, including: 

•coordinating relief efforts in their communities and supporting volunteers 

•organising the distribution of food parcels and providing hot meals for the most vulnerable 

•setting up new mental health support services 

•making sure that people with disabilities have the resources they need 

•providing advice and support to families with young children and virtual support sessions to disadvantaged young people

•providing support to people experiencing domestic abuse 

These organisations are in an unenviable position. At the same time as the usual fundraising events like dinners, sky dives and fun runs have been cancelled and a huge source of income has been lost, the demand for their services has grown substantially. I spoke to one Somerset charity that had received 4,500 calls for assistance two weeks ago, rising to 6,000 last week, and a local foodbank we funded had three times more demand for food parcels than usual. 

This is not a sustainable situation for the sector and it is quite likely we will lose many valuable organisations in the coming months. While Karl Wilding, the CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, was correct when he told MPs last week that no charity has the right to exist, he was also right that people have a right to the services charities provide.

At a time when we are naturally focusing on the crisis in front of us, we must not lose sight of the thousands of people in our communities facing profound hardship, disadvantage and crisis every day. Like the welfare state, charities sustain us from cradle to grave; without them the society we belong to would feel very different and the burden on the state would be far greater. 

Our Somerset Coronavirus Appeal stands at just under £390,000 today, thanks to the generosity of individuals, companies, local authorities and funders who are coming together to stand shoulder to shoulder with our voluntary sector, just as the voluntary sector stands shoulder to shoulder with all of us throughout the year. 

The long-term future of many of the organisations we are supporting now cannot be taken for granted. It is unlikely that the voluntary sector will spring back to where it was just a month ago, and maybe it should not try to. We need to capture and keep hold of the growth of the community spirit that has emerged, but we also need to recognise that our established charities and community organisations are an essential fabric of everybody’s everyday existence. 

For that reason, Somerset Community Foundation will continue to advocate for them and raise as much as we can to help them continue changing lives every day, now and once the outbreak has subsided. We will need them then, more than ever, as they continue to be an essential part of our social fabric.