Furloughing: What NCVO is doing

I know many charities are in the middle of working through furloughing questions at the moment, so I thought it might be helpful to set out how we’re approaching furloughing at NCVO.

Like many organisations, a significant proportion of our income dried up overnight. Around 40% of the money we raise to fund our work supporting the sector comes from events in one form or another. We run hundreds of face-to-face training courses for charities every year, and our conference venue in King’s Cross hosts dozens of events every week, contributing over £1m to our work supporting the sector.

At the same time, like many others, the demands on us have increased. Enquiries have doubled. The number of people using our website has increased by 700% compared to this time last year. We’ve published enormous amounts of guidance, we’ve launched a new series of webinars and of course we’ve been busy making the case to government for support for the sector. And we’re going to keep doing these things.

We have a challenge that will be familiar to many of you: balancing the immediate needs for our work with making sure we are sustainable in the long term, so we can still be there for the sector in the future. Using the job retention scheme to furlough a proportion of our staff is not a decision we have taken lightly. It is also one of several measures we are looking at, including a temporary reduction in pay for our senior leadership team, in order to tighten our belts during this crisis and plan for the period that will follow.

Our process

Like everyone, this has been a new experience for NCVO’s senior management team to oversee and staff to participate in. We’ve had to make decisions quickly given there is only a short window of time – currently until June – within which organisations can benefit from the job retention scheme.

Some decisions were straightforward. Our conferences, catering and facilities teams can’t do most of their usual work at the moment, so it makes sense to furlough them. They were the first teams we furloughed.

Beyond that, we asked staff to offer to be furloughed on a voluntary basis. In doing so, we recognised that everyone’s circumstances are different, and everyone will feel differently about furloughing.

But we needed to make sure that the process was still fair. To do that, we set up a reference group with representatives from our board, our union, our equality working group and our BAME staff network. They didn’t get involved in decisions about individual roles, which wouldn’t be right, but they provided assurance and challenge about the overall approach we’ve taken. That group has been meeting weekly since we first started to explore furloughing.

Many staff told us they wanted to do what would help NCVO the most, which at a time of national crisis made us so proud of our teams that they have such loyalty to the organisation. Understandably though, staff also had concerns about being furloughed, or indeed not being furloughed. Concerns included the impact on their employment in the long term, about opportunities missed out on, or decisions taken in their absence. On the other hand, some staff had reasons for wanting to be furloughed, such as caring responsibilities or health considerations.

By and large, we’re balancing the need to reduce our staff costs with the need to maintain our services and work for members by rotating who’s on furlough within different teams. The minimum period you can furlough an employee for is three weeks, so there is some leeway to allow the load to be shared while ensuring continuity of service.

We asked for people to put themselves forward for different time periods, and once managers and senior managers had approved this, we regularly updated an organisation chart with who’s away and when, and we circulated this to all staff.

It’s worth noting that you need to get written agreement for staff to furlough – there’s more on this in our furloughing guidance.

While people are away

The reality is that some people will find being on furlough really tough, and others will be perfectly relaxed and will welcome having more time to themselves or with their families during this difficult period. Again, we’ve tried not to make assumptions about how people will feel – indeed people may find their own assumptions about how they’d feel were wrong.

We’ve been careful to reiterate the value of the work that everyone at NCVO does. Everyone makes a truly important contribution to our work, and the fact of being furloughed or not isn’t a reflection on what someone contributes. We’ve also done what we can to be honest about job security: we’re doing everything we can to ensure our sustainability, and furloughing is an important part of that. Neither being furloughed nor not being furloughed will have any bearing on someone’s future at NCVO.

We’ve also been very careful to follow the guidelines about furlough leave, that staff must not do any work for NCVO while on furlough leave. This could be seen as an abuse of the scheme by HMRC and put payments from them into jeopardy. It’s also not fair on staff. (Though it’s ok to keep furloughed staff informed of important changes and decisions.) I know staff will be keen to help out, but we’ve made it clear they shouldn’t be doing things like checking emails or making calls. We’ve created an updated organisation chart showing who is working and who isn’t to help things run more smoothly internally.

We are however making provision for staff welfare. Work is an important part of their social contact for many people, even now. We’ve set up a specific Microsoft Teams channel for our staff on furlough to keep in touch with each other. But again, we’ve been careful to draw a clear line between this and actual work and made it clear that this is a social channel only.

Where appropriate we’ve also given staff information about how they can volunteer with any spare time they now have. You may know of other organisations locally who need support. Be careful though that you are going above and beyond in making clear that volunteering is voluntary – and you must avoid making any sort of arrangement to ‘swap’ furloughed staff as volunteers with other organisations, which will be seen as an abuse of the scheme.

Finally, if you have staff away for prolonged periods, make sure that you give some thought to how best to welcome them back and get them back up to speed when they return.

If you can, furlough

While it has its flaws, the furloughing scheme is a way to help protect organisations and employees against the worst of the financial impacts of coronavirus.

Of course, there will be some organisations which do not have the luxury of choice about which staff to furlough – they will furlough all or most of their staff so the organisation can survive. Equally, there are many roles in our sector where it would be impossible to furlough staff and continue to support people in need. But for those organisations that do make use of the scheme, this is not a ‘bad’ reflection on you – in fact, I think it’s very positive to show that you’re handling a situation in a way that looks after your staff and your future viability.

Support and advice

Now free to everyone, NCVO KnowHow has the latest information to help you decide the steps you and your organisation need to take during the coronavirus pandemic.

This includes a detailed section on the coronavirus job retention scheme.

We have also published what we know about furloughing and volunteering. You may also find this recent webinar with Bates Wells helpful. Book your place to access the recording.

Further resources:

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Susan Cordingley Susan Cordingley is director of planning and resources at NCVO. She leads on NCVO's fifth strategic aim, to be a sustainable and socially responsible organisation.

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