As the COVID-19 crisis has spread, Governments across the world have responded with a variety of virus-suppressing restrictions. Our everyday lives and livelihoods have been upended. We have become locked into an all-encompassing ‘Coronaverse’.
The impact on the economy, on public services and in communities has been immediate and dramatic. Vast resources are being mobilised by states and central banks in order to throw lifelines to various services and industries, under what would otherwise have been regarded as a reckless commitment to ‘whatever it takes’.
The crisis has led to a new appreciation of the vital but up till now unsung work of carers and key workers, but also perhaps to the essential frontline work of the many voluntary organisations and community groups that form a central part of our civil society. Alongside established work in, for example, family support, mental health, food banks and domestic abuse, the crisis has seen a remarkable upsurge in everyday community mutual aid, in volunteering for work alongside the NHS, and in one-off fundraising efforts, all seeking to repair the damage being done to the fabric of our societies.
But the crisis has also highlighted in sharp relief the voluntary and community sector’s vulnerability. Of course it is not alone in this, but voluntary organisations have arguably never before faced this kind of sudden, large-scale, combined impact: losing both the income to fund their work and the people to do it, at a time when the need for their work intensifies.
Fundraising events and activities have been cancelled, trading income from ventures such as charity shops and venue hire has collapsed, and some grants and contracts are called into question. At the same time, many organisations are prevented from doing the basic work they have been set up to do. Advised to stay at home, many staff and volunteers may be unwell and/or self-isolating, caring for relatives, or otherwise unable to carry out their day to day work without social distancing.
To underpin the sector’s #EveryDayCounts campaign calling for a government support package, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) estimated that the voluntary sector was facing an anticipated 12-week shortfall amounting to at least £4.3bn. Eventually on 8th April, at the government’s daily press conference, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a package of £750m to support charities in response to Coronavirus. Of this, £370m would be directed towards smaller local charities, £200m was earmarked for hospices, and the rest allocated in grants towards the essential work being provided by organisations like Citizens Advice and St John’s Ambulance.
The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden’s claim that it is the largest ever support package for the sector and that the government cannot save all charities, largely misses the point. The package is patently insufficient and has been met with considerable dismay and frustration in the sector, alongside attempts to frame the package as ‘an important start’. It remains to be seen whether the resources will reach organisations before they are forced to close down, even though the need for their services will not disappear.
Despite the immediate crisis, key questions about the way we think about voluntary and community action, what it means and symbolises, and its relationships with the state and the market, must not be ignored. The Chancellor’s rescue package was accompanied by warm words about kindness, decency and compassion, values embodied by the ‘gentleness of charities.’ Such a traditional Conservative understanding rather undersold the work of the sector (although it is perhaps a very modest advance on an earlier injunction that charities should ‘stick to their knitting’).
Yet all this misses the vital role the sector plays in providing direct support at the frontline for the most vulnerable people facing the compound injustices of a highly unequal society. The voluntary sector within a wider civil society can be a vital discovery mechanism for emerging needs, problems and fixes, and it helps call others to account.
But perhaps most importantly it exists in a state of imagination. It can offer new ideas, visions and ways forward. Out of this crisis we might find a pathway to a new and comprehensive social contract, and the voluntary and community sector can provide a lead in this process. We might be in lockdown, but don’t let this restrict our imaginations as to what might be possible in the reconstruction.
Rob Macmillan | Principal Research Fellow | Sheffield Hallam University
CRESR – Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research