Challenges facing the third sector

Jemma Smith, Editor
November, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about some real challenges for the charity and voluntary work sector. Leading organisations talk us through current issues facing the sector…

Increasing demand  

 Many charitable organisations have had to change the way they operate as a result of the pandemic. The sector has innovatively and creatively tried to fill the gap created by social distancing through a variety of digital approaches including online befriending schemes, helplines, and remote support groups.

And as the social and economic consequences of the pandemic continue to rise, more people are relying on the support of charities. 

'The results from our latest COVID-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer show that before the second national lockdown was announced, 57% of charities were expecting an increase in need,' says Sarah Vibert, director of public policy and volunteering at NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations), the umbrella body for the voluntary sector in the UK.

Identifying people in need

COVID-19 has increased societal inequalities and this has expanded the range of people that the voluntary sector needs to help, and identifying those who are most in need has become a challenge. 

According to the British Red Cross data has been key when dealing with the COVID-19 response, but understanding it and making it useful is what makes the difference. Therefore graduates with skills in data science are in demand with charity and public sector employers. 

One example of how charities are making use of data is the British Red Cross COVID-19 Vulnerability Index. The Index brings together public data alongside the charity's own operational insights to map communities. Displayed as a map of the UK, it combines a range of information - from age, ethnicity, housing conditions and distance to the nearest supermarket, to health inequalities. 

Matt Thomas, head of strategic insight and foresight at the British Red Cross explains more about the use of the Index. 'The data is open source, available to everyone and is already being used by local councils and charities. Through our mapping, we can see the overlapping issues facing communities, right down to neighborhood level. This helps organisations like the Red Cross and others see exactly where the need for assistance might be highest.'


Due to restrictions put in place to help stop the spread of the virus such as national lockdowns and social distancing, many businesses have had to close their doors and this has lead to more people struggling financially - a huge number of people have spent the majority of 2020 on furlough, some have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and those who are self-employed have struggled to access financial support. This means that at a time when charities have needed help more than ever the public have had less cash to spare on donations.

What's more, COVID-19 and it's restrictions have meant that charity shops have had to close and traditional ways of fundraising have had to stop or change. 

The British Red Cross believe that innovation, both in how charities fundraise and reach people, has been and will be crucial to solving this problem. Graduates with insight into technology and social platforms will be vital to help drive this change forward. 

For example, British Red Cross was one of the first charities to partner with TikTok, they've created virtual events, expanded their online shop and have worked with gamers to explore new fundraising options. 

'This year has been a challenging, but heartening time. We have been overwhelmed by the response to our coronavirus appeal, and the recent Beirut appeal,' says Paul Amadi, chief supporter officer at British Red Cross.

'Looking to the future, we know more people will be in need of help, and charities are also dealing with the costs of making their operations COVID-safe. This winter, the voluntary sector will be needed more than ever - we are the mortar between the bricks, plugging the gaps between statutory services and communities in need. We are facing a challenging period, and we have to look beyond into what may come next. We need to ensure we are there for people once this crisis has passed.'

Financial challenges

According to the NCVO before the second national lockdown two in five charities reported deteriorating finances. Furthermore, one in seven believe it is likely that they will be forced to close.

'The voluntary sector has received some financial support from the government through the furlough scheme and the £750million support package,' says Sarah. 'However, as we move forward, the sector needs the government to think creatively about where we can find funds to support communities in need. For example, temporary changes to Gift Aid that would help people's donations to go further, repurposing £500million from the National Fund charity as emergency funds to support the voluntary sector, or creating a longer-term £2billion endowment to support disadvantaged communities from unclaimed stocks and shares. We await further details on measures such as the Levelling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund recently announced by the Chancellor.'

Volunteer retention

The initial outbreak of the pandemic saw people trying to support members of their community wherever they could. By early April, more than 750,000 signed up to become NHS Volunteer Responders and started undertaking tasks such as picking up prescriptions, driving patients to appointments, or making regular phones calls to isolated members of the community. Alongside this, thousands of mutual aid groups were created across the country, as friends, families and neighbours came together to support each other. 

'As this crisis continues maintaining volunteer engagement could prove to be a challenge for the sector,' adds Sarah. 'In October 2020, 25% of voluntary organisations recorded a decrease in the number of volunteers. It is possible that this decline is related to the gradual tapering-off of the furlough scheme over the autumn and as people return to work and education, they are less available to volunteer.'

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