Where next for charities and social enterprises in the COVID era?

In the past few months of crisis, volunteering has rocketed while fundraising has plummeted. Communities have come together in an outpouring of mass grassroots activism that, previously, countless government and charity programmes have failed to achieve.

So charities are trying to reposition themselves and their work within a world that suddenly has different social, economic and technological norms. Many are doing that against a backdrop of furloughs, lay-offs and even potential bankruptcy.Charities which are in financial crisis will be focused on income-raising and cost-cutting. But for those charities which survive this crisis, what next?

The goal cannot be to return to ‘normal’: our sector did not go into the COVID-19 crisis in perfect health. A succession of safeguarding, abuse and bullying scandals had seen a dramatic decline in some well-known organisations’ fortunes, and continuing pressure on public trust in the concept of charity. As charities compete for scarcer funding, and are increasingly challenged on their participation in deep-rooted inequalities, there is no reason to believe that any of those issues will be less prominent in the deep recession to come.

To survive we will need to recapture the public’s imagination, building new and deeper relationships which people do not feel they have with other kinds of organisation. We will need to demonstrate that not only can we address the equalities issues facing our own sector, which we have previously not taken seriously enough; we will need to build ways of working which are part of the solution. For instance, while mutual aid groups have sprung up largely without input from charities, not every street has formed a new self-support network and we have never been more aware of deeply our communities can be divided, and how systematically black and minority communities and other groups are oppressed and excluded. Charities and community groups at their best have relationships and trust within communities ignored or oppressed by state (and private sector) organisations. This often happens most clearly when organisations are run and owned by members of the community or group they seek to serve.

Pre-Covid I had been working with NCVO and RSA on a paper arguing that how charities work can be as important as what they do. It aimed to challenge charities which are providing support to people to consider how they are not only doing that effectively, but also drawing driving social change through the values and ethos they bring to their work. I wanted to challenge our sector to consider the power that organisations can hold and to understand the behaviour changes we need to see at every level to change that. I had collected examples of ‘asset-based‘ working from organisations including Recovery Connections, RECLAIM, CHANGE and Cornerstone Scotland.

So in a Covid era which looks likely to persist and create changes which are permanent, I am redrafting the paper and its action plan for asset-based charities. I’m seeking new examples of how charities and social enterprises are moving towards (or away from) asset-based working during the pandemic. What has become easier, harder or more vital about taking an asset-based approach? Are you starting to plan for the future again and if so, how does asset-based thinking inform your strategy, if at all?

If you have relevant experiences, please share any examples or thoughts you have below in the comments, or by emailing me on alex at sharedlivesplus.org.uk or  on Twitter: @AlexSharedLives

Many thanks – this feels like a crucial moment for the not for profit sector!

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