When does ‘nice to have’ become essential?

May 28, 2020


By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive

A couple of weeks ago Sir Stephen Bubb, Director of the Oxford Institute of Charities, wrote an article in The Times outlining how the coronavirus crisis had “exposed the weaknesses of too many charities”.

I have to say, that doesn’t reflect what we are seeing here at Somerset Community Foundation, but perhaps it is an understandable perception, given the nature of the national press coverage charities have received during the past few weeks. All we seem to have heard is either how much money is being lost by charities, as fundraising has largely collapsed or been diverted to the NHS, or how the largest charities have furloughed thousands of staff and withdrawn services.

What has been absent in the press – at least nationally – has been decent coverage of the response by the vast majority of smaller, local charities. These are not organisations that are immune to the loss of fundraising, but, by and large, we’ve seen them step up to meet the rising demand for their services. Their reserves of hope and commitment for their communities are not always matched by their financial reserves and I know many are concerned about the impacts of coronavirus on their long-term futures.

Some may feel that there are too many charities, that there is too much duplication and inefficiency. The sector, like others, can be a bit messy and untidy. I can tell you, as a funder, it can sometimes be frustrating, and to some extent I would agree there is an issue to be addressed, but the issue is far more complex than it first appears. For example, as NPC reported earlier in the year perhaps we should focus on where those charities are and which communities they serve; contrary to what we might expect there are fewer registered charities in the most deprived communities than in the most affluent areas.

However, on the whole – and this is the bit you tend not to hear about – local charities are run by passionate, compassionate, big-hearted, committed, collaborative, generous and thoughtful people. What they do is little short of a miracle, sometimes.

Like a lot of small businesses, small charities see their role as being local – they don’t want to or need to scale up, or merge, and if they did they would risk losing the essence of what they are and how they do it. The current crisis has shown that vulnerability and disadvantage is not solely found in inner city estates. People in every community need a helping hand, and there are people in every community who are happy to lend a hand.

It is worth reflecting on the wide range of services provided by our local charities and community organisations that has prevented thousands of people becoming more vulnerable in the past eight weeks. So here is a list of people that our Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund has supported:

• children and adults with mental health illnesses
• children and young people living in poverty
• children and young people with autism
• ‘detached’ young people
• families with new-born children
• former service personnel affected by trauma
• fostered children and their adoptive families
• people in financial hardship and food poverty
• people in need of end-of-life care
• people who are hungry
• people who are lonely or isolated
• people with long term health issues and disabilities
• women affected by, or at risk of, domestic abuse and violence
• young farmers with mental health needs

By and large these services are always there, quietly going on in the background of our communities. We couldn’t have lived without them – or the many thousands of staff and volunteers – in the past eight weeks, without increasing the level of suffering in our communities and the burden on our public services. But the same is true every day of every year.

The voluntary ethos that runs through these organisations often means it is very tempting to see them as ‘nice to have’ compared to statutory services. I think what we are seeing is how, in the words used by a Government minister recently, they are the lifeblood of our communities.

‘Nice to have’ does not come close. They are essential. If you don’t believe me, just think about how life would have been for all of us in Somerset if the community support provided by our local groups had not been available in the past few weeks.

And that is why we should all be concerned about the impact of coronavirus on our local voluntary sector. We must work together as funders, donors and statutory bodies to support and fund the sector if we want it to survive.

As we all slowly move towards something that resembles a normal, albeit different, way of living, at Somerset Community Foundation we are looking at the task in front of us. Our local charities, community organisations and social enterprises have stood by us when our communities needed them; now we must stand by them.

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