Like other parts of the health and care system, the VCSE sector is under immense pressure, with rising demand and falling funding. At the end of March, the Institute of Fundraising estimated that due to Covid-19, 43 per cent of charities expected to see an increase in demand for services against a decline of 48 per cent in voluntary income, and 52 per cent of charities expected to reduce services. A lack of cash reserves and its reliance on fundraising events, shops and public donations to balance the books makes its situation particularly precarious. NCVO has estimated that the sector will lose around £4 billion in income in the three months up to the end of June.
These are sobering facts and affect not only the charities themselves, but also the people the sector works with, many of whom are marginalised and vulnerable and rely on the support the sector provides. The Marmot review 10 years on shows that the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas and in deprived areas people can now expect to spend more of their lives in poor health. The VCSE sector, with its strong links into communities, has an important role in keeping people connected and healthy and never more so than during this crisis.
Leading an organisation during Covid-19 is hard in any sector, but lack of funds and high demand for any available leadership offers has meant many VCSE leaders have few places to go when they need support or are close to breaking point. Our work with networks of VCSE leaders (such as the GSK IMPACT Awards Network and Cascading Leadership programme) has demonstrated a huge demand for support during this crisis. Leaders are facing significant challenges, at a time of deep and prolonged uncertainty, while at the same time often feeling isolated and managing pressures on services. While everyone recognises the pressure of the unknown, leaders are also grappling with ‘what next’ and questions of sustainability, when funding and commissioning partners may not yet be in the position to have those conversations. Supporting resilience and providing support to help leaders find creative ways out of the crisis are becoming key issues.
But the news is not all bad and there are some encouraging signs. Opportunities are emerging for sector leaders to help shape the recovery landscape, to start different conversations and to build new and stronger cross-sector relationships.
In the past few weeks, the VCSE sector has demonstrated it can be strong, flexible and agile; in many places VCSE leaders stepped up quickly to respond to need, working collaboratively and effectively with the NHS and others to do so while forging new and important relationships. At the same time, many organisations have been forced to adapt and become tech savvy almost overnight and have responded to changing demand by, for example, moving support services online, and keeping connected to vulnerable people by making thousands of calls.
Supporting local areas to develop effective and sustainable partnerships between the voluntary and community sector, the NHS and local authorities can help to enable this work to continue and be embedded. The Healthy communities together programme, a new partnership between The National Lottery Community Fund and The King’s Fund provides one opportunity to do this, and comes with pro bono support from The King’s Fund (to support leaders and systems) plus access to policy expertise, plus up to £450,000 of The National Lottery Community Fund grant funding for each selected area.
The VCSE sector, with its expertise, huge volunteering workforce and extensive reach into communities has to be part of the recovery response and solution in the coming months. As new opportunities emerge, and people start to look forward to creating a ‘new normal’, how the VCSE’s potential can be maximised to support health and care in local communities is a significant question. How VCSE and health and care system leaders respond, how partnerships and collaborations are formed and sustained, and which voices get heard, will largely determine their success and ability to create lasting change.