Rod Buckley, Director at the Rapid Relief Team, looks at the ways in which charities and voluntary organisations can overcome the challenges of the uncertain winter ahead.
The role of charities is never clearer than in times of crisis and this year has been no exception. In fact, 72% of charities have seen an increased demand for their services during the pandemic. It is cruelly ironic then, that during a time when the most vulnerable need our help the most, circumstances mean that mobilising volunteers and resources becomes much more difficult.
As a charity, the Rapid Relief Team has seen first-hand the impact of the virus on vulnerable families across the United Kingdom – from Liverpool to Kings Lynn. One area which has been particularly impacted since the pandemic began is food poverty. This topic is something which my own organisation deals with on a regular basis through our food parcel deliveries, and it is also something which we have seen a huge amount of interest in recently, thanks in part to Marcus Rashford’s tireless campaigning. Despite the increasing awareness surrounding the issue, the reality remains stark. In September this year, food bank charity the Trussell Trust predicted a 61% increase in the dissemination of emergency food parcels between now and December.
We are facing further lockdowns across the UK, and we know the government is willing to move fast to impose restrictions. For now, the government measures exempt volunteers from both social gathering and travel restrictions. This is a welcome move, but it should not be taken for granted if we see a dramatic increase in cases. To prevent the spread of infection, charities should try to create conditions in which volunteers can socially distance and mask-wearing should also be enforced. This is not just to protect those you are helping, but to protect yourselves and your volunteers too.
At the Rapid Relief Team, for example, we have developed our own pioneering tracking app, informing recipients when a parcel was on its way and when it has arrived. This app means that no-one receiving a parcel has had to put themselves or their family at risk by making unnecessary physical contact with volunteers and delivery drivers. This is ongoing and will prove an invaluable tool through further lockdowns.
The charity sector has a reputation for being slow to innovate, yet innovation will be vital in breaking down the logistical barriers which lockdowns present. The St John Ambulance service in Wales, for example, have set up eLearning courses to provide staff with the knowledge they need to undertake vital frontline work. But innovation does not necessarily have to be digital. Given the closure of non-essential retail venues like charity shops, the British Heart Foundation started a new postal donation service making it easier for people to support the charity. These are just two examples of how the charity sector has innovated throughout this crisis, and as we move towards an uncertain season ahead, further innovation must be encouraged and embraced.
This has been a hugely difficult time for charities and volunteering organisations. Despite this, the response from our sector has been immense. Despite these challenges, the voluntary sector has been heroic in helping people combat the economic consequences of the virus. In May, it was reported that ten million UK adults have been volunteering in their community during the coronavirus crisis. Research shows that the average volunteer was contributing three hours of their time, meaning that the work of this volunteer army had an equivalent economic value of more than £350 million a week. We saw thousands of people – many of whom had never volunteered before – signing up to hundreds of different causes, all with one aim: to help people in need. But the winter will present further challenges to charities and their volunteers, and charitable organisations should be preparing now for these exact challenges.
Both fundraising and service delivery have been made much more difficult by the pandemic, yet charities are constantly finding new ways to offer the help which people need. As we look towards a difficult winter, innovation will be key. Not every charity needs its own app, but it is always helpful to consider how existing technology can help support your staff, your volunteers, and those who will need help through these challenging months. The charities who have the systems in place to be flexible and adaptable in highly fluid circumstances will be the ones who are able to keep providing vital services and resources to those in need, while also keeping their volunteering team and staff healthy, happy and resilient.