COVID-19 has changed the way charities operate. It will continue to do so. We explore what the crisis means for the sector - past, present and future
Things have changed.
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent UK-wide lockdown has been seismic and total. Amidst the worrying forecasts for the immediate future, this ‘new normal’ poses existential questions about the present and future state of charity affairs in the UK.
The current state of affairs has led to a sea change in charity operations - with many organisations branching out into digital methods of fundraising, communication, service delivery and, of course, remote working.
All of these digital processes were already on the rise, both within and without the sector. The sudden shift to remote operations has merely accelerated an inevitable tide. But how will this affect the sector moving forward? What processes will outlast this crisis and become an everyday part of charity operations? And what will be consigned to the past?
We gaze into our crystal ball for the following predictions.
What will the sector be leaving behind?
There are a few things we can safely say the sector has moved on from. First and foremost among them: The remote working genie is out of the bottle.
For some time, many organisations have offered remote working as a perk. Even among those that have introduced a remote working component, it is often viewed as something vestigial - as something of a treat.
In many cases the justification has been a simple one - that en masse remote working is unfeasible. This is no longer a defensible position. Whilst there have been growing pains, many charities have successfully made the switch to remote working. As we approach the next normal (more on that in a moment) charities will not abandon successful digital solutions for service delivery and fundraising. So why should they leave remote working behind?
A phased return to the workplace suggests that many organisations will adopt a hybrid model combining in-person and remote working. As we slowly return to the workplace, organisations may choose to keep remote working systems in place.
They would be wise to do so. The charity sector stands to gain a lot from remote working. The increased flexibility it offers can make charity work more appealing to working parents, skilled volunteers and those of us with disabilities and underlying health conditions. One of the biggest challenges facing charity talent retention is the siren song of the corporate sector, with its higher wages and shorter hours. Increased flexibility is a valuable perquisite that can help the sector retain key talent.
Remote working also makes skills-based volunteering easier and more appealing. This is beneficial to both charities themselves and to service users. Small charities with small budgets can benefit from the expertise of digital volunteers to do complex or time-consuming tasks. Organisations that offer counselling, phone support or similar services can also benefit from volunteers working from home to provide 24/7 support and care.
These ideas also have knock-on effects. One of the key criticisms levelled at the UK charity sector is its sometimes London-centric approach. We examined the future of charity office spaces in detail. A rise in virtual office spaces and increased focus on virtual meetings and conferences can help shift the focus away from the capital and towards a more even distribution of expertise and resources.
The UK charity sector is in phase 2.0 of COVID-19 response. This is the recovery and resilience phase.
The last few months have seen a whirlwind of digital transformation. Much of this has been forced. Charities have had to adapt or die. This led to an increased focus on digital fundraising, and a near-total shift to digital service delivery.
Much of this change happened at breakneck pace. The focus was simply on getting things up and running. Charity digital leaders are now focusing on how to improve and sustain digital services and how to plan for the future.
We’ve published a number of case studies highlighting this period of transition. In each of them, charity digital leaders spoke of what they’ve learned from the last few months and how this has shaped their plans for the future.
Scunthorpe and District Mind is a small-to-medium-sized charity that works to promote positive mental health and to offer support to those living with mental health conditions.
As part of the Mind network, Scunthorpe and District Mind work in their local area to provide a range of support for service users. Their focus is on providing a safe haven for people experiencing issues with their mental health, and to provide a respectful environment for them to share their lived experience with others.
The charity found that digital service delivery allowed them to provide services to hard to reach service users. This included people living in rural areas, those who have caring responsibilities, shift workers and people with transport problems. Charities who work with such beneficiaries may find that a hybrid model combining traditional and digital service delivery works best and may choose to pursue that model in future planning.
Auditory Verbal UK is a large charity that supports deaf children and their families with an early intervention parent centred coaching programme. The charity works with deaf children to give them the opportunity to listen and speak as equals alongside their hearing peers.
Auditory Verbal UK moved 100 per cent of their therapy online. Using a combination of Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams, they were able to not only continue offering this therapy, but they also hosted training events for external healthcare professionals.
Not only were Auditory Verbal UK able to continue service delivery as usual, but they also found that operating remote training sessions allowed far more people to attend than usual. This was particularly useful for those attending from outside of London. Given the sometimes London-centric nature of the charity sector, digital technology could help to spread vital learning and expertise at far lower costs than physical events.
Devon Air Ambulance Trust - an emergency critical care service run by and for the people of Devon - is dedicated to providing clinical care to sick and injured patients in and around the county, with two air ambulances at the heart of its operations. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented operational challenges - but the crisis has also focused minds on much-needed digital transformation.
This charity saw transformation of their organisational digital culture. Before the pandemic, digital was not a key focus area. But by switching to a number of digital processes, staff at the charity were able to take responsibility for digital actions associated with their job functions and to build up a strong digital culture.
Many organisations have now seen the importance of digital culture. As we move forward, organisations prioritising digital culture will be best-placed to navigate transitional periods and implement long-term change
The future is digital.
First and foremost, digital service delivery is here to stay. For many charities, going digital was only ever meant to be a temporary solution to a temporary problem. But months after the onset of the pandemic, as we begin to approach some kind of normality, the time has come for honest reflection.
The pandemic has exposed the many different ways in which we want our selves, our societies and our organisations to change for good. This change should extend to how we deliver our services.
Many charities are learning that by embracing digital they can engage more people in hard to reach groups, meet unexpected demand, stand out from the pack by going the extra mile for the people they support and save money while doing so.
The pandemic has heralded a cultural change. People have seen first-hand the benefits that digital can bring. Perhaps more importantly, they have seen that there is not much to be afraid of. Digital is not as difficult or inaccessible as many people perceive.
As a society, we seem to be slowly coming to terms with the idea that we won’t ever be going back to normal. And perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps we should strive for something better.
In the charity sector, it is clear that we were facing a number of great challenges before the pandemic. While it has been difficult to watch many of our fellow organisations struggle and cease operations, the sector as a whole has embraced digital as a solution to the specific challenges of COVID-19.
Now it is time to embrace it as a solution to the challenges that were facing us before, as well as those that the future holds. Things may never go back to normal. But they can get better.