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The Chief's Blog - May 2020

Fri 15 May 2020

Good day all and I hope it now goes without saying – thank you. I don’t need to say any more than this really, but it does need saying and it needs to be heard. As a Staffordshire Resident with most of my family in this county, I am so grateful for everything that is being done by every volunteer, community group, charity and social enterprise. And I am proud that Support Staffordshire and partners have played our part so a tiny self-indulgent thank you to the team here too, you’ve been ace.

Now, I want to talk impact and recovery. Thank you everyone who responded to our Covid-19 Sector Survey, we had a great response and this has enabled us to paint a strong picture of the situation in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, and to input this to national datasets (anonymised). So here is what we know from your responses combined with local intelligence.

1.    The majority of the voluntary sector has kept going

Around 2/3 of the sector is still operating, either with reduced services, adapted services or enhanced services – you are playing a critical role in supporting people and stemming demand into critical statutory services. About a third have mothballed – generally these are the smaller groups, whose activities are based around face to face meetings and to an extent engage with more vulnerable and therefore isolating people. It will be interesting to see the national stats as I half wonder if the active voluntary sector became a far more significant part of the economy and perceived makeup of society during the crisis. We will no doubt be pushed back into the shadows from a central government perspective but be in no doubt that the voluntary sector stayed calm and carried on.

2.    There is a slow but steady re-emergence for those who have been closed

Most of those who have closed down are planning to reopen using digital or good old phone/mail – this is taking some time to plan and implement but at present only a tiny handful have or see themselves as giving up entirely. And I hope it goes without saying that we are here to help you, yes you, not just other people. For assistance with digital or wider adaptation please get in touch.

3.    Funding really matters in this regard

Of those who are closed, funding is almost as strong a factor as isolating for health reasons. Almost half of these felt there was nothing out there to help them in recovery, though a third had applied for financial help and were awaiting the outcome (more below).

4.    You are supporting huge numbers of people in diverse ways and on the whole this has increased significantly

Half of you were supporting more than 5,000 people. This is a staggering figure for largely volunteer run groups, and may in part be explained by the increased throughput of people needing one-off help with food or medicines. But just consider that for a moment! Over 70% of those still operating had seen an increase in users of at least 50%; again a staggering figure that is testament to the diversification of your support offers in this time. A third had helped their service users with food and a similar number with befriending/checking-in calls. For me this is a wonderful story of how the sector, almost universally, plays a hidden social role in people’s lives – when your ‘headline’ services were disrupted, you automatically wanted to check your usual visitors/customers/friends were ok and where they needed help, you gave it.

5.    There are gaps or spaces where demand is outstripping support

But it’s not all positive, as more than half reported your experience that in key areas, you or wider services couldn’t keep up with demand. Specifically you are concerned about people at risk of abuse or otherwise being very vulnerable, including homelessness and extreme poverty. A smaller but significant number were seeing demand for mental health support go unmet. Importantly you felt this was affecting a much larger than usual number of your service users. This is really important as it indicates that vulnerable people will be present in a dispersed manner, not in what we might think of as traditional places – that means support to alleviate poverty, enable people to get away from abuse and access to mental health support will need to be equally accessible, or even dispersed – the response cannot be as if it were like before with underfunded bottlenecks such as traditional referral routes. Remember 2008 and how food banks emerged to combat failings in poverty alleviation of the benefits and local authority systems? The same could happen here if existing support structures are not resourced and given the freedoms and flexibilities they need to act now. We will need flexible and cross-sectoral resources that encourage partnership and collaboration (more below).

6.    The furlough scheme is crucial to some, irrelevant to many

Half of you have no staff, a third only have part time staff. For many the furlough scheme is irrelevant. Even where you have employees, you cannot furlough them because you need them to keep on delivery support. As such, just 23% had furloughed any staff at all, and most hadn’t furloughed a majority. This week’s news that the scheme will change from 1 August into a more flexible scheme which allows part time arrangements will be welcome as a result, but we still don’t know the detail. The crucial issue here is the trade-off between expenditure and income – you may get a furlough payment, but other income may be lost if it is dependent on that worker to earn it and unlike most of the private sector, your work (demand) isn’t tightly coupled to your income – that is to say, your income may dry up whilst your work increases. This just isn’t true in the main for the private sector, where either products or services are made/delivered in proportion to the income earned from them. This critical difference for the voluntary sector still has not been understood by central government and for me is a key learning point that must be accepted in the analysis and planning for any reoccurrence.

7.    Income is expected to crash

It is very, very hard to forecast, but your current estimates show respondees expect to lose over £5million in the next three months. Scaled up across our local sector, we reckon this equates to £19.5 million in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. The biggest losses locally are expected to be from community fundraising events, sponsorship and similar activities (26%) – please get in touch if you want to chat through ideas to take these online or remotely – there are some great ideas out there you can adapt. A further 18% attributed losses to memberships/subscriptions that you expect to lose, or (another 18%) conversely that you didn’t feel it was right or appropriate to carry on charging for services in these times. 17% reported loss of income from buildings (this is Support Staffordshire’s biggest concern incidentally) and in this regard government grant schemes have been poorly communicated, confusing and variously interpreted by local authorities. Our message here is don’t take your first response as read – question, provide more information, appeal and ask us for help if you need to. The schemes do apply to many charities. 11% noted changes to grants or service level agreements – we sincerely hope this was due to delayed starts for projects or pausing of grant applications that you had planned for positive outcomes to. If anyone has had an existing grant or agreement cut during the crisis please get in touch, so we can help you to fight this.

8.    Volunteering has been massively disrupted – positive and negative

Disruption is the only word I can think of to summarise here. Whilst almost 80% were continuing to use volunteers and many reported increased levels of volunteering, some two thirds cited older volunteers self-isolating and hence unavailable to volunteer. 20% said this was part of the reason they had closed/mothballed. Whilst we know the usual high demand, low supply in volunteering has flipped on its head in the past two months, we can also start to see nuances around the available experience and skill sets of volunteers and the willingness of different organisations to take on new volunteers in times of crisis. You should all be aware by now that Support Staffordshire can broker volunteers aplenty at present, but we can also help you rethink your recruitment, roles, and management of volunteers to take on more, different and remote tasks, so as usual, drop us a line.

9.    Recovery is now

My final point is about recovery. A large portion of central government directed funding and we are told all of the additional government money to the National Lottery Community Fund MUST be spent on the emergency and is taking weeks to flow to the front line. I fear that Whitehall jobsworths are busy designing processes to support a crisis that has moved into recovery and needs flexible finance now. Let me be clear, I’m not asking for money to just be dished out, transparency in crisis is more necessary not less, but I am asking funders to relax over what funding is ‘for’ – let the sector tell you, ask for supporting evidence, openly publish what you have invested where, make clear you will in due course be checking it turned out to be so (or of equivalence) but stop trying to categorise a system that is under ongoing disruption like you would usually do. And if you can’t manage this, then just give it all to the National Emergencies Trust who will devolve it to Community Foundations. Ours have been brilliant in getting money out quick with the right balance of trust and accountability, and dare I say, they have stretched the rules they have been given to breaking point, but not broken them.

Recovery started yesterday and it evolves each day, so whether it is funding, volunteers or wider support please do not hesitate for a moment to be in touch for a sounding board as often as you need.

Take Care (Be Alert)

Garry

 


To read the full survey summary click here