Antonia Swinson: Property issues for charities are about to get even more complex

What happened? What are we going to do next? How the hell are we going to last till September? These are the questions which, these days, dart about the fevered heads of voluntary sector CEOs like unwanted wasps.

In my case, as the CEO of a property advice charity, soon after Boris Johnson ordered a nationwide lockdown, our phone lines lit up with charities needing help and my mots de jour included 'rats!', 'my rubbish landlord!' and 'water hygiene!'

As buildings were closed up, charity managers – worrying about how their empty premises would fare – faced weeks of nightmares about rats chewing computer cables, water pouring through ceilings, insurance, paying the rent or not, and worrying if they had remembered to put all the loo covers down.

Weeks passed and we helped with negotiations with landlords bringing on varying degrees of high blood pressure and talking about money. Trust me, there is nothing like property for eating the stuff, even when, with lost fundraising running into millions, it is not coming in.

The irony now, as we inch our way back into our workplaces, is that this pandemic has finally brought home the vital importance of bricks and mortar as a delivery agent of social mission – something I have been talking about for years – just as three quarters of charities have furloughed staff and face slashed services or closure.

Advice charities like mine have seen a soaring caseload which, thankfully, we have been able to meet working from home. But, post-Covid charity property issues – and remember, property is all about people, whether its staff, volunteers or service users – are getting ever more complex. For example, one client has a café, which is now under wraps because the vulnerable people it supported will not be able to cope with, nor understand, social distancing. The charity is not just losing a resource, but also a key source of income.

A colleague and I recently went back into our shared workspace for the first time since 12 March. It was spotlessly clean with bottles of sanitiser everywhere, plus boxes of office gear waiting to be collected as tenants quit. Only one person is allowed in the kitchen and toilets at a time. Probably just as well, when there are only three people working on our floor, which once housed100+. What on earth does the future hold?

Many premises face accessibility issues with vulnerable service users with a whole range of physical and emotional needs, so this is a really complex ask, which the average property business would not be interested in given the fee level most charities can afford.

Thankfully, my ever-practical property team has spent the lockdown designing a new affordable service at the request of a major funder to help voluntary organisations make a safe and orderly return to work. Our catchily-titled Post Covid back2work Risk Assessment covers all the areas the government has asked businesses to consider: pathways around the buildings, entrance lobby planning, signage, furniture coverings, hot spot areas e.g. kitchens and loos etc – but geared to charities’ needs, budgets and circumstances.

We continue to run free property advice services for charities, and one of these days I’ll write a vision piece for this blog. But right now, life at the Ethical Property Foundation centres on plotting pathways for survival for our poor embattled sector, for whom I suspect, a fiery future is only just beginning.

Antonia Swinson is CEO of the Ethical Property Foundation @epf4charities

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