Paul Streets: Charities must lead the way in recovering and rebuilding from Covid-19

Lloyds Bank Foundation Chief Executive Paul Streets

This will be a return from the summer like no other. Coronavirus has not gone away. It will continue to dominate our lives as we come to terms with the fact that there is no sight or hint of returning to a pre-Covid-19 world. 

The pandemic has turned everything upside-down. How we raise funds. How we work to serve those we seek to reach. How we work with each other.

Small, local charities have proved themselves remarkably resilient. We haven’t seen wholesale closures because the roller coaster of volatile income and precarious funding has always been their “normal”. 

Staff are often contracted only for as long as the contract or grant lasted, and then hired, fired and rehired as income waxed and waned. 

They will have watched the sector headlines of large charities facing this with the haunted look of those who have seen it all before. Often.

This doesn’t mean they are not facing wholesale change – the huge challenges of trying to do more, differently, with less and now for the long term, within a constantly changing environment, are immense. 

And yet, the sector has never been more important. If the charitable sector isn’t there for those who will feel the worst health and financial impacts of the virus, what is it there for? 

That’s as true for the small charities we support, addressing issues like mental health, homelessness, domestic abuse and refugees, as it is for large charities like Cancer Research UK, the NSPCC or RNIB.  

The political imperatives for the Tory majority that swept over the 'red wall' are even more acute. 

But now it’s not just about regional levelling-up – it’s intergenerational, with the economic cold winds blowing hardest amongst the oldest and youngest parts of the labour force in the most precarious employment.

This applies across social class and more so across race – with the disease, the diversion away from routine services and the financial impact being felt most by those who were already facing health and economic inequalities further exasperated by institutional racism, even before Covid-19.

The sector’s role has been recognised, as exemplified through campaigns like #NeverMoreNeeded, in the acute phase of the response as we turned from providing routine services to what was effectively local disaster relief. 

We need to make sure it is also evident for the long, chronic phase as we now enter into some kind of recovery.

That means refraining from looking in at ourselves as a sector, and starting to look more outwards, to the wider nation, as we get beyond the summer. 

It is perhaps easy for me to say this as a funder with assured income, but there is a danger our response can be seen as continuing to ask for more for ourselves, rather than focusing on the plight faced by those we have always served and the emerging Covid-19-driven cohorts, who need us even more now.

This requires leadership. Leadership to focus on the macro-economics of levelling-up first by making the fiscal arguments. 

We need Chancellor Rishi Sunak to see himself, just as Keynes did in the 1930s and 40s, as a new economic Messiah, recognising that the state has to continue to keep the taps turned on, or those most impacted by this disaster will never escape it. 

To make him understand this, we need leadership to set out the role we have in addressing needs that will be central to levelling-up for a government that is struggling to comprehend the why and how, even if it can provide the financial wherewithal.

It may be hard to summon the energy to do this because many of us are still reeling from the shocks of having to change most of what we do and make difficult calls about people and resources, but the opportunity won’t be there for long. And a void will be filled by powerful others with different narratives that may be hard to turn around.

This requires us all to come together, whether large or small, to point the way. 

All of us must play a crucial role in helping to set out together what we believe the country, our society, economy and communities need to recover and rebuild.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

This article was first published in the Third Sector.

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