Paul Streets: A tale of two post-pandemic worlds

As demand increases and public sector funding remains tight, charities will be dealing with the impact of Covid-19 for years to come

Paul Streets

This article was first published in Third Sector.

In preparing ourselves for what comes next, at the Lloyds Bank Foundation over recent weeks we have been speaking with large numbers of those we fund – most of whom reach into communities that have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic.

It’s a mixed picture. Some charities and causes have coped, or fared, better than others.

For example, homelessness and domestic abuse, and more recently people with learning difficulties, have been recognised, perhaps more than ever – receiving public recognition and government commitment.

In contrast, the plight of refugees, those in the criminal justice system, vulnerable young people, children in care, or sex workers have received little – or, in some cases, negative – commentary.

But the overall impression from conversations with leaders of small charities is one of enthusiasm, commitment and a long yearned-for, but now finally acknowledged, sense of recognition beyond the communities they reach directly.

Local authorities, in particular, have witnessed, acclaimed and supported charities doing what they do at their entrepreneurial best: seeing a need and responding to it fast.

Many charities have turned what they do, and how they do it, on its head to address the needs of communities they already knew well enough to understand the impact of COVID-19 immediately.

They organised an impressive rapid transition to online support – but also a switch to meet basic needs and provide what, in the overseas aid world, would be called disaster relief.

As a result of this recognition, many charities feel and sound buoyed up and energised.

It is as if statutory bodies – and, to some extent, the wider public – have finally seen that these organisations reach people and places that others don’t, can’t or won’t.

But I am concerned that many charities have been running on adrenaline for more than 12 months. This cannot be sustained at a time when the worst is yet to come for those they serve.

Alongside the ground-up analysis we gain from those we fund sits our top-down macro analysis of what is happening and what lies ahead.

We are seeing rising and increasingly acute demand – not just from the people that small charities served in March 2020, but also the growing ranks who have joined them as an economic consequence of the pandemic. The prospect of the end of furlough is swelling their numbers.

Public services are playing catch-up, keen to pass whatever they can back to charities to offset their own demand.

The prospect of increasingly tight public sector funding, for local authorities especially, will ripple out to small charities reliant on a mixed economy of state and public largesse.

The commentary introducing the excellent British Academy report, commissioned by the Government Office for Science to look at the long-term societal impact of Covid-19, sums it up bleakly in a report headlined The Covid Decade.

“Addressing the social and economic devastation from the Covid-19 pandemic is the most serious challenge that UK policymakers have faced for generations,” it says.

As many of us get back to our pubs and restaurants, and even anticipate overseas holidays, there is a risk that we forget and move on. But it is crucial that we recognise the report’s call to action: “Covid has laid bare the vulnerabilities in our society and made bold and innovative policymaking essential and undeferrable.”

The report summarises nine areas that will be especially important to our response – the first is recognising and building on the importance of local communities.

Tens of thousands of small charities on the front line of the pandemic’s economic backwash know this only too well, and will continue to respond.

But it will need all of us – politicians and public alike – to heed the Academy’s warning, if we are to prevent these laid-bare vulnerabilities becoming long-term scars on society and our consciences.

As the Academy concludes: “The time to act is now”.

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