Charity Finances: 10 Reasons to Re-Evaluate in 2021

Andrew Seager, Executive Director at Citizens Advice, shares 10 reasons to re-evaluate your charity's finances this year.

With our collective perception of normality altered beyond recognition in March last year, I think it would be fair to say that no individual or organisation escaped unscathed by the challenges the pandemic threw our way. For months, our most essential services operated under immense pressure as demand rose exponentially, and charities of all shapes and sizes stepped up to bridge the gap and provide people with very necessary and life-changing support. Now, as lockdown restrictions ease and we grapple with the idea of what our ‘new normal’ might look like, it is vital we take a step-back to fully understand the challenges that we as a sector have been through, as well as the challenges that are still to come.

Andrew Seager explores 10 reasons why it is absolutely vital for our charities to re-evaluate and refocus in 2021 in order to develop greater resilience to change.

1. To enable your charity to respond to ever-changing needs

 If I were writing this blog two years ago, ‘furlough’ would never have appeared in the list of the most common issues Citizens Advice would be providing advice on. Fast forward to 2021 and we are all very familiar with the term, one that very few of us had heard of before March last year. As a result of Covid-19 the needs of the individuals and communities supported by Citizens Advice changed dramatically. Whilst face-to-face advice remains a core part of our service at Citizens Advice, in 2020 we helped 77% more people by phone, 83% more by web chat, and 41% more by email compared to the previous year.  
It’s incredibly important that we as a sector reflect on this change and understand what it means for our organisational purpose. In doing so, it will enable us to remain relevant to the people we set out to help.

2. To encourage flexibility and pace

 One of the things that is particularly great about the charity sector is our ability to react quickly to the changing environment around us. Like lots of you reading this, Citizens Advice had to switch to a remote service almost overnight - something I don’t think any of us would have thought we would ever have to do. Despite this, as a sector we have clearly demonstrated how responsive we truly are. Looking to the future we must now consider what we can learn from the last year to ensure that we continue to adapt, iterate and evolve the services we provide to fit the needs of the people we are here to help. This flexibility and pace didn’t limit itself to service delivery; colleagues across the sector did the same to adapt to a changing funding and fundraising climate. It has been challenging and extremely worrying but working together we can continue to support each other to build on lessons learned and success achieved.

3. To ensure you are focusing on your people

Although there were lots of common trends throughout the pandemic - from making banana bread (not one I ever fully understood) to the constant use of the phrase ‘you’re on mute’ - one thing that varied hugely from person to person was how we individually dealt with the challenges of the pandemic to our mental health and wellbeing. At the heart of any charity is a group of passionate individuals coming together to support others and improve people’s lives. Supporting staff and volunteers to do their job, and understanding their different needs, over the last year has been more crucial than ever. But continuing to focus on the wellbeing of our people shouldn’t go away when the pandemic ends; it should continually be at the forefront of our minds as charity leaders.

4. To ensure you are resilient

 Covid-19 has been one of the biggest tests the sector has ever faced. There is no doubt that the future is going to be challenging. At Citizens Advice, this has made us even more thoughtful about what to prioritise. This means we have to say no to things, which is an incredibly hard thing to do. Charity organisations are passionate about their cause and providing the very best service to people in society, but this can often lead to a risk of mission drift. Turning this on its head, the focus should be on doing fewer things but doing them really well. By not overstretching ourselves we will be able to build the resilience of our individual organisations and the sector as a whole.

5. To encourage new opportunities for partnership

 With income being tighter, there is a risk we pull up the drawbridges around our organisation and try to hold on to what we have. It’s vital we take precisely the opposite approach, asking ourselves how can we work with others more to ensure we are best meeting the needs of the people we are here to help. During the pandemic for instance, we at Citizens Advice partnered with the Trussell Trust to establish a service to help those facing destitution. More partners have since joined the service and we are continually looking to build relationships with others. If I were to have only one take-away it would be ‘Let’s not let money divide us - let's find ways to work together to amplify our impact.’

 6. To recognise new risks for competition

 It would be naïve of me to talk about partnership within the sector without acknowledging competition. 2021 is the time to reflect on your unique selling points and use them to promote your organisation. What makes you stand out? Has that changed during the pandemic? Should it remain this way? As leaders, it is critical that we take the time to look at those around us. If you are now delivering new services, then your competition will have changed as well. Understanding those shifts will help you understand what it means for the services you provide.

7. To harness community spirit 

 We clapped on our doorsteps, checked-in on our neighbours and banded together when our communities needed it most. There are so many examples of people being resilient and giving back during the pandemic. Charities have an opportunity to build on this new sense of community to attract a new group of advocates and volunteers to support our work.

8. To build on relationships

 Not only did the pandemic revitalise local community spirit, it also prompted local funders, leaders and decision makers to think differently about the voluntary sector. I’ve read lots of examples where new delivery arrangements were developed and commissioned, often at speed, with the voluntary sector being recognised as a crucial part of our local and national Covid-19 response. Investing time in nurturing newly formed or freshly invigorated relationships for me is an investment definitely worth making. There’s a great opportunity here to cement our role as a sector to be a vital part of delivery.

9. To continue to shine a light on how valuable our sector truly is

 It is important to recognise that social and economic inequalities existed long before the pandemic. What Covid-19 did was bring these issues into really sharp focus. If there is a positive legacy from this, it is that decision-makers truly recognised the value of our sector and its ability to adapt and find solutions to the complex challenges facing people and communities across the country day in, day out.

10. To champion equity, diversity, and inclusion

 Linked to the above, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on some groups more than others. This requires charities to consider how they can truly champion equity, diversity and inclusion in their work - both through their campaigns and the services they provide. But it also means thinking about your role as an employer, ensuring a diverse workforce that reflects society and the people you seek to help. I hope you find these reflections helpful and that they stimulate your thinking for your own organisation, either way I would welcome your feedback.

Voluntary Finance Series