Looking at the road ahead after a turbulent year

Traditionally, January is a month where we reflect on the year that has passed, celebrate our achievements, and set out goals and resolutions for the upcoming year. But 2020 was not a year that anyone could have predicted. As we are now in the midst of a third national lockdown, we could be forgiven for feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It is difficult to plan for the future when you feel cursed to relive the same day.

However, we are not where we were last March. Our understanding of the virus has developed, a vaccination programme is being rolled out and we have embraced new ways of working. This is not meant to erase the pain and hardships that we’ve faced nor ignore the difficult times ahead. But as we begin a new year, let us take a moment to reflect on what we have learned from the past year and what that means for us as a sector moving forward.

Innovation and collaboration

With the initial lockdown in March, we saw an incredible community response snap into action. Many in the voluntary sector changed how they operate overnight, including by digitising their life-saving services. The sector has tried to fill the gap created by social distancing restrictions through a variety of innovative and creative digital approaches, including online befriending schemes, helplines and remote support groups.

As a sector we have begun to not only adjust how we operate internally but externally too. The response to the pandemic has been marked by more collaboration between infrastructure bodies and national and local-level charities. These new partnerships have allowed us to combine top-level strategic planning with essential insight based on lived experience to inform better decision making. It is incumbent upon us to work together in order to attain the best results for our members. The question now is how do we preserve these levels of collaboration? How do we embed this culture and make sure that these relationships are not merely personal or based on individuals?

Although these new ways of working have a greater reach, allowing us to simultaneously connect with people at different corners of the country, they do not have the same financial intake as previous working models. As a result of social distancing restrictions and cancelled fundraising events, financial reserves are dwindling. Charities will not be able to continue to provide support to communities at the current scale without additional financial support. While the extension of the furlough scheme until the end of April will provide short-term relief for some, the end of the scheme will have an impact on the wider economy which in turn will impact on the sector. At NCVO, we will strengthen our calls, alongside our partners across the sector, for more funding to allow charities to support those in need throughout this crisis and the recovery phase to come.

Volunteering matters

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the contribution of volunteers has been crucial. The initial outbreak of the pandemic saw communities band together and offer help wherever they could. By early April, more than 750,000 signed up to NHS Volunteer Responders and started undertaking tasks such as picking up prescriptions, driving patients to appointments, or making regular phones calls to isolated members of the community. Local businesses joined in the efforts, donating food and offering available services including unused vans. Alongside this, thousands of mutual aid groups were created across the country, as friends, families and neighbours came together to support each other. These vital efforts did not go unnoticed – 65% of the people on the new year honours list received an award for undertaking outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity.

With the ongoing administering of the vaccine, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we still have a long way to go. With the current restrictions and nationwide vaccination roll-out programme now underway, volunteers are urgently needed to continue to support our communities and help us move into the next phase of the fight against covid-19. For example, Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) is working in partnership with St John Ambulance to support the NHS in delivering the vaccination programme. RVS is inviting any available members of our sector to sign up and volunteer in one of the many roles urgently needed to support our nation during this ‘Hour of Need’.

Another challenge for us now is to mobilise the good will we’ve witnessed throughout this crisis. If people want to make a difference, of course they can do it on their own. But as we’ve seen, by working together and sharing resources, a sense of community is developed and an even greater difference can be achieved. This is where the expertise and knowledge of charities comes into play. At NCVO we will do more to effectively argue this case for charities and champion the sector.

Depleting emotional reserves

Another difficulty that we face as a sector is burnout. Everyone is tired. As well as managing the challenges of day-to-day life including home schooling, remote working and feelings of isolation, charity workers and volunteers are facing increasing demand for services coupled with decreasing financial reserves. The only way we are going to get through this is by coming together and helping each other. The strengthening of networks and sharing of expertise is now more important than ever.

People want change

The covid-19 crisis has amplified pre-existing social inequalities. However, as we emerge from this crisis, the British public does not want to go back to ‘business as usual’. People want a greener, fairer more equal society. The voluntary sector is perfectly placed to facilitate this. But as the Voice4Change and ACEVO ‘Home Truths’ report demonstrated, we also have a lot to learn and a lot to change. As a sector, we must confront internal and external structures of power and privilege with humility, determination and a willingness to listen – and perhaps most importantly, take action. In order to create deep and lasting cultural change we must live our values.


If you are interested in reflecting further on the current environment and how it impacts our sector, read The Road Ahead 2021. This report is our annual analysis of the changing operating environment for anyone working in the voluntary sector. It identifies and explains forces and trends that are shaping the sector and are likely to have an impact on organisations in the future.

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