Deepak Nambisan: ‘Pandemic goodwill’ must be harnessed to save small charities

When the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020, over a million people stepped forward to volunteer for the NHS or local Covid-response and mutual aid groups – the best possible evidence of a widespread national desire to help our neighbours and fellow citizens. But the crisis stubbornly persists – and the many small, local charities that persevere in delivering support for our communities face ongoing and unprecedented difficulties. There are real questions about the ability of many small charities to harness ‘pandemic goodwill’ in order to survive.

Our sector faces the most challenging of times. New Philanthropy Capital’s (NPC) State of the Sector research revealed that many charities narrowed their range of services in 2020 and reduced activities as a result of successive lockdowns and the impact of ever-changing Covid restrictions.

Charities across the board are feeling the squeeze. A report by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) found that, although overall giving in the UK had increased by £800m in 2020 compared to the previous year, that increase has not been felt by many of the 110,000 smaller charities in the UK.

Many of our smaller, local charities – which have been delivering such vital support during the pandemic – now need our support themselves; for some, their very survival depends on it. Part of that support requires more committed and talented trustees to step forward.

The million+ Covid-response volunteers represent a ready-made pool of potential, but how many of them have considered volunteering as a trustee? How many know this is even an option, or understand the value to a small charity of their own experience, skills and knowledge?

Those involved in this sector will be well aware of just how much new trustees can help charities to refocus, to deliver even better results to their communities and to make every pound donated work still harder and more efficiently – challenges brought to centre stage by the global pandemic and (hopefully) the soon forthcoming post-pandemic era.

But nearly half of the UK's 170,000 charities have vacancies on their boards of trustees. Those charities are crying out for even more talented and brilliant people from all backgrounds to come forward and volunteer so that they can attain the optimal balance of skills, experience and diversity.

The reasons for this shortfall with over a million additional people volunteering since March 2020? The role of the charity trustee has sat somewhat in the (friendliest of) shadows for too long. Examples of grassroots volunteering – shopping for elderly neighbours, sorting donations at a food bank, etc. – are what get showcased in our society and for reasons both understandable and laudable: in modern life the importance of something 'tangible' with which we can all engage is often an increasingly scarce commodity.

In contrast, the role of a charity trustee is sometimes perceived to be less about ‘doing’ and more about ‘thinking’ – all the more challenging to illustrate on any charity's website or in local news coverage. Charities will always need volunteers to deliver on the more practical side of things, but all of us can hopefully work together both to make trusteeship more visible as a 'volunteering' option and to share openly and widely our ideas on how best to achieve this.

The Clothworkers’ Company, in partnership with NPC, Prospectus and Reach Volunteering, are all involved in initiatives to champion trusteeship across the UK. One such initiative is the Charity Governance Awards, which is one way to raise awareness of the importance of great governance. By shining a light on exemplary boards, inspirational stories have the power to encourage people to step forward and offer their services as trustees. This year, the awards have adapted two categories to recognise the impact made by the UK’s smallest charities, those operating with 30 or fewer staff. We hope this will go some way to celebrating those unsung heroes.

Charities still need volunteers to get involved in practical tasks, but the sector must do more to make trusteeship visible – let’s share ideas on how we can do this! Whether that’s through the Charity Governance Awards or other collaborative partnerships that help us celebrate good governance in the UK.

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