2021: A year in the news

It goes without saying that the 365 days in a year throw out a lot of news, but 2021 has potentially been one of the busiest yet. From Covid-19 to the controversy surrounding the so-called ‘woke agenda’ of charities, there’s been plenty for us to sink our teeth into.

As disheartening as it is that Covid-19 is still dominating the news, a summary of the year wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging its impact. According to research by the Charity Commission, a staggering 90% of charities were negatively affected by the pandemic. It found that 85% of charities said Covid-19 has impacted their services and delivery, with 72% finding it also affected their financial position and 66% found staffing and governance affected. In fact, staffing has become one of the biggest issues to come out of the pandemic.

As the UK began to open up, charities began to report a wave of employees moving on to new roles with a lack of candidates applying for the vacancies. A report in September revealed that charity job applications had slumped by three quarters. While the average number applying for each job was 100 in May 2020, by July 2021 this had plummeted to just 24, below the pre-pandemic average of nearly 40 applications per job.

One charity only had one applicant for three advertised roles. Martin Rogers, CharityJob research manager said: “The factors behind the changes are numerous and varied. As things return to normal, the pent-up demand is being released and more jobs are attracting fewer applications.”

Working on digital

Despite the recruitment crisis, the sector still did its best to raise money and keep their services going over 2021. In a repeat of 2020, events were cancelled across the board and fundraising had to become more innovative than ever. But as ever, they took it in their stride. However, it wasn't long before the return of some mass fundraising events, notably the London Marathon. It attracted £19.9m in donations via Virgin Money Giving, up 24% (£3.8m) on 2020’s event, which was held virtually. Digital was again essential for charities in 2021, with many forced into adopting new tech in order to survive.

Despite this, in October, a report warned that just one in eight charities are ‘digitally mature’ enough to thrive over the next 12 to 18 months. Blackbaud’s Status of Fundraising 2021 report surveyed more than 1,000 charity workers in the summer and found that just 12% would describe their charity as ‘digitally mature’. The report found widespread support for the benefits of digital transformation, though, with more than 60% believing that digital transformation is critical to their success and could improve their organisation and performance.

Industry issues

The pandemic hasn't totally dominated the news this year. Some of the biggest headlines in the sector have been regarding the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIoF) and the scandal surrounding its handling of sexual harassment allegations.

Earlier in the year, the institute faced a wave of accusations and criticism across social media from the sector and was hit by a number of resignations including from its chair and chief executive. Public statements garnered further criticism, with some saying that it was gaslighting victims. In August, the institute released a report where it upheld four allegations of sexual harassment and apologised for the handling of the situation.

CIoF took full responsibility and apologised for the “clear organisational and governance failings in our culture and processes that let down survivors”, however its reputation within the sector will take a while to claw back.

The NCVO also apologised in August after harassment, discrimination and victimisation complaints were upheld. A total of 10 complaints were looked at by the charity sector body. The complaints were investigated following an independent report published in July 2020 into equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues at the NCVO and found the organisation was blighted by a lack of diversity and “deep-rooted cultural traits”. An EDI sub-committee was set up to hold NCVO’s governance to account. “We will not accept incidents of bullying, harassment, and discrimination at NCVO,” said chair, Priya Singh. “We have begun the process of deep cultural change in our organisation to ensure we can prevent and, when needed, identify and effectively deal with similar incidents should they arise.”

Time to talk about racism

But it’s not just individual scandals that have forced change. The whole sector has been required to look at itself after questions about diversity and racism were repeatedly raised.
According to research released in June, more than two thirds of people of colour working in the international aid sector have witnessed or experienced racism in the last year. A survey by international NGO network Bond found that 68% of those working in the sector had seen or experienced racism. Those surveyed were pessimistic their organisation was able tackle racism, with just under 89% believing that their organisation is not committed to diversity and inclusion. As a result, Bond called on charity leaders to ensure half their boards and senior positions are made up of people of colour by 2025, with annual reports needing to report progress in diversity.

Another report found that charities were lagging behind businesses in promoting antiracism. While 76% of corporates say they have made a strong and strategic response to antiracism in the last year, this proportion falls to 61% among NGOs. It speculates that lack of resources to invest in addressing racism may be a factor but added: “Whatever the reason, it does seem ironic that the non-profit sector, which is much admired for its mission and values orientation, is faced with such a clear comparative deficit in terms of sectoral responses to the antiracism challenge.”

After the death of George Floyd in the US, the #BlackLivesMatter movement spurred on the anti-racism agenda in charities. In May, Girlguiding apologised after a report said it was “blighted” by racism and discrimination. An investigation found that there was “equality, diversity and inclusion problems across the charity.” Most of those that took part said the charity was not an inclusive organisation.

The charity’s rangers, who are aged 14-18, “stated reoccurring instances of racism, Islamophobia, homo/bi/ transphobia and ableism against girls by leaders and other girls”. It added: “Volunteers and rangers said that there is a lack of understanding when it comes to accessibility needs and how to best support disabled rangers.” The charity has since pledged to take action through a strategic plan for diversity and inclusion.

Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen also brought forward the date of her planned retirement after the charity dealt with reports of racism among staff in April. This included accounts from ex-staffers in the media as well as the findings from a report into racism globally within Amnesty International.

The report included accounts of “overt racism” and examples where senior staff used the “N word”. It has since appointed former UNICEF UK executive director Sacha Deshmukh as interim CEO. When appointed, he said: “I want to create an inclusive and rights-respecting culture which allows the brilliant people who work and volunteer for Amnesty to thrive.”

Acknowledging the past

In the wake of racism claims, individual charities also began working to acknowledge historical slavery and colonial links. Joseph Rowntree endowed charitable organisations have pledged to take action to address their benefactor’s “shameful” colonial past and links to slavery. The organisations were endowed with large shareholdings more than a hundred years ago by the Rowntree family’s confectionary company, which benefitted from slavery.

The move followed research by the Joseph Rowntree Society looking at the company’s links to slavery, how it benefitted from colonial indenture as well as from racial discrimination and anti-union tactics in South Africa.

In a similar move, The Barrow Cadbury Trust apologised for “this historic injustice” after discovering the origins of its wealth were derived from the profits of slavery 100 years ago. Similarly, the Sir John Cass’s Foundation rebranded as the Portal Trust to remove Cass’s name from the organisation. Cass was a politician and merchant involved in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

But not all charities are ready to acknowledge historical links. A report in May warned that NGOs and their supporters in the northern hemisphere are reluctant to accept the modern aid sector’s links to colonialism, said Peace Direct, authors of the report. It added: “Some of the language used in the aid system reinforces discriminatory and racist perceptions of non-White populations.”

The rise in charities looking to publicly acknowledge past failings, however, has created concerns within the government. Earlier in the year, the Charity Commission dismissed complaints made by a group of Conservative MPs against equality charity Runnymede Trust over the charity's criticism of a controversial race relations report earlier this year.

The Trust’s robust stance against a report which claimed “there was no institutional racism in the UK” was echoed by many charities including Mind and The Equality Trust. It led to complaints about the charity to the regulator from a group of 20 Conservative MPs.
But the regulator said that “following careful assessment of the concerns raised the Commission says that it was within the charity’s purposes to engage with and take a position on the CRED report and has found no breach of its guidance”.

In August, a legal challenge was launched over concerns the government is looking to force the Charity Commission to push an ‘anti-woke’ agenda following comments made by former culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

Dowden, who was replaced by Nadine Dorries, said that he was concerned by a “vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials” among charities. He added that he had instructed recruiters, to appoint a chair that would “refocus” them. As a result, The Good Law Project is taking the action over concerns that the government is seeking to push the Charity Commission beyond its remit.

But that’s not the last of it. As the year began to close out, charities were yet again surprised as the government announced the axing of a dedicated charities minister. During the September reshuffle, charities minister Baroness Barran was moved to the Department for Education.

The government has since confirmed that there will no longer be a dedicated charities minister role. Instead, the civil society brief will become the responsibility of sports minister Nigel Huddleston, whose brief already includes heritage and tourism.

So what’s next for charities? As I’m writing this and looking ahead to the new year, it appears Huddleston has a lot on his plate, and with a new chair of the Charity Commission yet to be announced 2022 is already shaping up to be an interesting year.

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