Survey highlights varied pandemic impacts on charities

A survey of charity trustees finds smaller charities are much more likely to have halted all services due to COVID-19

A sign about donations on a charity shop door.

The research looked at the pandemic impact on charities and public attitudes to charities. (Photo: quimby via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Annette McGill

A survey of over 2,700 charity trustees has found that COVID-19 has had an uneven impact on their activities, depending on their size and ways of working. 

A quarter of the smallest charities (with incomes of less than £10,000) say they were forced to halt all their services or activities. This compares to only 3% of charities with incomes of £500,000 or more. A majority of trustees reported that their charities halted some services or activities during the pandemic. 

The survey was conducted for the Charity Commission by independent research firm Yonder.

Around one in six of all charities reported that they started a new activity to respond to the crisis. More than a third of non-profits moved some of their services or activities online, with a fifth adapting how they worked in other ways. The largest charities were more likely to have moved their existing services online (63%) and to have helped directly with the pandemic (36%).

Uneven access to emergency support

Access to general emergency funding and furlough was also uneven – half of the largest charities made use of these sources of support, but fewer smaller charities did. Nearly a quarter of charities drew on their reserves.

One in five charities (19%) have made use of the furlough scheme or other emergency funding. 7% benefitted from the £750 million coronavirus funding for frontline charities. 

As fundraising events were curtailed, over a quarter of the largest charities (> £500,000) were able to find alternative sources of income, compared to only 5% of the smallest (<£10,000). 

Around half of the largest charities used furlough or emergency government support, and 17% accessed the government’s £750m fund set up specifically for the voluntary sector. Smaller charities were less likely to have accessed either resource.

While most charities reported significant challenges arising from the pandemic, some reported the crisis has also resulted in longer-term benefits, including better and quicker decision making.

Charity Commission Chief Executive Helen Stephenson said: “… it is clear that whilst the pandemic has deeply affected all charities, it has done so in myriad ways. Its longer-term impact, on charities of all sizes, remains uncertain, but at the Commission we will continue to play our part in helping the sector to succeed into the future.”

Public trust in charities slowly returns

The Charity Commission also welcomed findings from research suggesting trust in charities is recovering after hitting an all-time low three years ago. But the Commission says trust remains fragile and that charities must respond to underlying public expectations if they are to fully return to levels of trust last seen a decade ago.

The Commission says improved public trust may be linked in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and charities’ visible role in responding to the national crisis. It says the repeated high-profile scandals in large household-name charities appear to be fading from the public’s memory.

For several years, the proportion of the public who thought that the role charities play in society was ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ was falling, moving from a high of 76% to a low of 55%. A survey of 4,037 members of the English and Welsh public found that for the first time since 2012, there has been a small rise in the perceived importance of charities post-pandemic. The proportion of those who agree ‘charities are more important in today’s society than they’ve ever been’ has increased, but only by 3% to 70%.

Four key factors for public trust

The research found that public expectations of charities focus on four main issues:

  • where the money goes: that a high proportion of charities’ money is used for charitable activity;
  • impact: that charities are making the impact they promise to make;
  • the ‘how’: that how they go about making an impact is consistent with the spirit of charity; and
  • collective responsibility: that all charities uphold the reputation of charity in adhering to the law and regulations.


Tags COVID-19