Just like civil society, it’s time to stop taking data for granted

15 May 2020

This article originally appeared in Civil Society Media on 15 May 2020.

Surveys. There are a lot of them about right now. With time at a premium for many of us working in the social sector, filling in yet another questionnaire doesn’t always feel like a priority. But understanding what’s going on in charities, voluntary groups and civil society organisations at this time of crisis is important. Communicating that understanding beyond the sector itself is even more crucial.

The headline numbers help to shine a light on the pressure being felt, supporting the case with government and funders for more assistance. But such research can also let us pick out the variation and nuance that exists across different parts of civil society, highlighting the issues that can get missed when focusing on the bigger picture. And the current proliferation of surveys can also help us monitor change over time – a significant consideration when the nature of the crisis is so uncertain and the timescale for recovery so indeterminate. 

The weekly survey Pro Bono Economics has been running in conjunction with Civil Society Media is certainly proving illuminating. Last week’s iteration contained some unsurprising but important findings: like the fact that nine-in-ten civil society organisations expect Covid-19 to have a negative effect on their ability to meet their objectives over the coming six months. It provided some more revealing findings too: with two-in-five becoming more pessimistic in their outlook over the past week (a week in which the government announced an extension of its Job Retention Scheme and some modifications to England’s lockdown rules), suggesting that for many organisations the challenges posed by Covid-19 are growing greater over time.

And it threw up some outright surprises: finding that just one-in-ten organisations think it “likely” that the financial challenges posed by the pandemic will result in their having to shut down within the next six months. That’s a much lower figure than has been recorded in some other surveys, but one that is depressing nonetheless. Such is the scale of the current crisis that the idea that ‘just’ one-in-ten organisations might disappear can be thought of as good news. Tracking this particular figure week-by-week over the coming months should allow us to better understand – and communicate – the changing financial fallout from the crisis for charities and others.

The survey also highlights some interesting differences (and similarities) across organisations of different size. Small (annual income of less than £500,000), mid-sized (income of £500,000 to £10 million) and large (income of £10 million and more) charities are all equally likely to say that they are being affected by the crisis – it truly is something that has affected all parts of the sector. But the nature of the challenge and the reactions recorded have varied.

For instance, when asked to name the Covid-19 issue most affecting them right now, small organisations had a clear front runner, with 42 per cent saying it was the effect social distancing rules were having on their ability to deliver services – easily ahead of the 28 per cent who pointed to the effect on fundraising opportunities. Among large charities however, the lead was shared, with both service delivery and fundraising concerns scoring 34 per cent. A good reminder that the stories we tell about the strains being felt in the sector right now will likely be ringing true to different degrees from organisation to organisation.

In terms of how charities are responding, there is again no real difference at the headline level: nearly all organisations have taken some form of action over recent weeks, irrespective of size. But the nature of the response has differed quite significantly, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1:    What actions have you taken in response to any financial challenges that Covid-19 have presented to your organisation? 12-13 May, by size of charity, top five shown

Notes:      406 responses, comprising 125 'small’, 211 'medium' and 67 'large'. Respondents were asked to tick all options that applied.

Source:    Charity responses to PBE & Civil Society Media survey.

Smaller organisations appear to have been less able than others to date to access government financial support: just 38 per cent say they have furloughed staff, compared with 75 per cent of large charities. They also appear to have less financial room for manoeuvre: 31 per cent have drawn down on their financial reserves, compared with 43 per cent of large charities. In the absence of such sources of resilience, the primary response of smaller organisations has instead been to cut back on their activity. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the proportion of small charities who say they think it is “likely” that they will cease to operate within six months stands at 15 per cent – 50 per cent up on the survey’s headline 10 per cent figure.

Look beyond the numbers, and there is even more nuance to be found in the survey responses. Asked to add general comments about their recent experiences and messages and suggestions for government and funders, respondents haven’t held back. Following three waves of the survey, we’ve had 450 comments – many of them very detailed. They serve as a powerful reminder of the diversity of the sector, with response after response explaining the way in which their particular activity has been overlooked in the public debate.

And one message above all comes through: that demand for civil society services is rising at the very same time as the capacity of the sector is being severely squeezed. Amid uncertainty over what comes next and with a financial response from the government that has fallen well short of the sector’s needs, the tragedy of that imbalance is a message that bears repeating.

Like civil society, the value of good data is being recognised now in the way that it should have been long before the pandemic struck – experts are back in vogue. Navigating our way through the crisis, and hopefully plotting a path back to something better than ‘normal’, means no longer taking these forces for good for granted. Filling in surveys might feel like a second order priority right now, but civil society organisations need to tell their story. And they need to be heard.

Matthew Whittaker

Chief Executive Officer

Matt joined PBE in November 2019, having spent the previous 11 years at the Resolution Foundation think tank. He joined RF as Senior Economist shortly after its creation, and was instrumental in developing its research output and defining the low-to-middle income group that is the focus of the organisation's work. He went on to grow RF's research team considerably, becoming Chief Economist and, from 2015, Deputy Chief Executive. He is a leading expert on the subject of income inequality, and has worked across a number of areas related to UK living standards.

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