24 Jun 2020

As with many sectors, the charity and voluntary sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and Pro Bono Economics, an independent charity, estimate that UK charities are due to lose £6.4bn worth of income, as demand for extra services piles on extra costs of £3.7bn over the next six months.

This loss of income and increase in demand means charities face a £10bn freefall in finances and comes primarily from a lack of opportunities to fundraise (fundraising normally makes up approximately 82% of charity income), as well as a reduction in charitable donations with money channelled directly to more visible causes related to the pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis also came at an unusually tough time for the sector. Following a series of media scandals involving Oxfam, Kids Company and others, there has been a decline in public trust in charities. This, as well as austerity, has no doubt contributed to a slowdown in fundraising for some charities, with 47% of organisations suffering a decline in fundraising in the last reported figures.

In the long term, pressures on fundraising and capacity will balance out, particularly following the recommencement of mass participation events. However, prior to this it is likely that charities with lower yearly incomes, less cash reserves, and smaller supporter bases may unfortunately no longer be able to operate. 93% of charities fall into this at-risk category, with yearly income below £500k.

The UK Government has dedicated a £750 million support package to charities in recognition of the additional support they will need to weather the COVID-19 storm, but this will only go some way to keeping charities afloat. Additionally, it is clear the majority of health charities will not be able to access this funding based on the criteria, which focuses on the requirement to provide commissioned frontline services in relation to COVID-19.

These funding challenges come at a time when patients and caregivers most need support from charities. People with underlying health conditions are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and many charities have seen a surge in demand for their helpline services, particularly in supporting patients with advice on existing care regimens. These crippling pressures on funding and support services means their often already-limited resources are being channelled to these areas.

The pre-existing decline in income, coupled with the huge impact COVID-19 is having on charity finances, and a lack of Government support, is likely to change the focus of patient groups in the future. For health charities the immediate and long-term changes to services are:

Policy and campaigning programmes being cancelled and changed: Many organisations have paused traditional policy work that was being undertaken due to resource being channelled into providing direct information and support to patients on how to navigate the COVID-19 outbreak. As we pass the peak of the pandemic, organisations are likely to shift priorities in line with:

  • The resumption of services and addressing the backlog of appointments and diagnosis
  • Impacts on mental health as a result of the outbreak
  • Locking in positive change, such as the utilisation of telemedicine and other virtual/digital tools
  • Difficulties that societal changes such as social distancing pose to those with disabilities

Clinical trial funding: In 2018, the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) members invested £1.3 billion in medical research across the UK, accounting for 41% of all publicly funded medical research nationally. However, in a recent survey of its members the AMRC found that more than two thirds of members are deferring upcoming grant rounds and withdrawing future trial funding, due to uncertainty on income.

While it is likely that many trials will start up again at some point, a number of them will still have a funding gap. Furthermore, delays to trials likely means lost data or disrupted reporting, among other negative ramifications, and therefore the costs required for completion have increased beyond the initial budget. Not all trials will be able to find the additional income to restart, which will inevitably slow the pace of medical innovation.

On the whole, it is clear that, charity priorities have and will continue to shift from providing various elements of tailored support, instead focusing on core services such as patient information, advocacy and research, however these traditional activities may change considerably due to a different health policy and charity resource landscape for the foreseeable future.

Key strategies that organisations may employ to achieve this are:

  • Increased informal or formal partnerships working with organisations in the same health area to provide both a stronger voice amongst decision-makers and greater capacity by sharing resources.
  • Regular patient surveys that can track immediate concerns of the patient community over the course of the COVID 19 pandemic, enabling clear action to be taken both by patient groups and decision-makers.
  • As the pandemic reduces and the ‘new normal’ begins, organisations can utilise COVID-19 related Government priorities in key areas such as certain underlying health conditions (e.g diabetes), the elderly population, and diagnostic testing.

During this challenging time patient advocacy groups are as vital as ever, meaning mitigating the damage COVID-19 may cause to their capacity to influence change is essential. Hanover Communications are currently supporting clients on how to maintain and amplify patient voice.