PREVIEW: Charities and COVID-19

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Go, post a lookout and let him report what he sees … let him be alert, fully alert.
(Isaiah 21:6, 7)

                         “The Covid-19 crisis is massively affecting charities.”

If you look back to the end of chapter 13 (p255), which was on succession planning and possible future trends, you will find this conclusion:  

Future-proofing our ministries as much as possible underlines that we believe there is a future, and doing it well will give the best opportunity for the work to continue after the current trustees, chair and staff have moved on. 

When I wrote that in the summer of 2019, little did any of us know what was about to hit us in 2020 as the world was engulfed by Covid-19. Now we need to add to that sentence ‘ for the work to continue after the pandemic’, as well as after the current trustees, chair and staff have moved on. This book was already in the hands of Instant Apostle and due to be published by them in the autumn of 2020. It was soon agreed that the pandemic could not be ignored and so this postscript is being added close to printing, to be as up to date as possible.  

During February and March, as more and more countries went into lockdown, it very quickly became clear that churches and charities were not immune from having their world turned upside down. The challenges and opportunities for churches and charities are changing frequently, so I offer here some reflections for trustees and leaders rather than detail, as we all move forward into what will inevitably be a different world for at least the foreseeable future.  

What steps can we take? 

Return to core vision 

We examined the topic of vision in chapter 2, but the current situation demands that we look again at what is at the heart of our vision.  

Cataclysmic change makes us go back to basics. 

Over time it is easy to add a variety of peripheral activities and ministries to the core vision, but the virus stripped away many of those for both churches and charities.  

  • Charities. Some charities were unable to operate at all, while for others it was still possible to fulfil their core ministry, but it had to be done in a different way. YoYo’s strapline is ‘Bringing the Christian faith alive’, and that had always been done face to face in schools, clubs and other settings. The trustees thought and prayed long and hard about whether to furlough the staff, but there was plenty of scope to help both schools that were open for children of key workers and parents who were home schooling. Working individually in their own homes was more difficult than working in teams and developing ideas and lessons together. But very quickly resources were created and posted online. YoYo’s core vision is still being fulfilled, though in a very different way for the time being.  

That is true of many other ministries. Carecent in York normally provides breakfast for homeless, unemployed or socially excluded people, but that had to stop. Homeless people were being housed temporarily in a local hotel with no provision of meals, so Carecent provided packed lunches for them and for some vulnerable people who continued to turn up at the centre’s gates. The local food bank delivered parcels to people in self-isolation, as did York Neighbours. Anecdotally, this adaptability and use of social media was repeated by charities across the country. However, while some were able to find alternative ways to fulfil their vision, there were many others who could not.  

  • Churches. Churches faced similar issues, particularly about their evangelism or social action. Some of this outreach also had to stop, but where it could be carried out by alternative means, that helped embed witness and ministry in the community – and who knows what opportunities that might open up in the future? 

The Charity Commission soon published guidance for trustees, encouraging them to continue to have an eye on the wider or longerterm impact of decisions on their charity and beneficiaries.  

We have advice for the many charities looking at how they can help the effort to tackle Covid-19 and whether they can do so within their existing objects.

Good governance became even more important with the demands of the unprecedented situation, and a few weeks later the Charity Commission felt it necessary to warn some charities to pay attention to their governance. 

At this stage nobody knows the long-term situation, but core vision is still being fulfilled by many churches and charities, even though peripheral activities have been stripped away. Wrestling with the issues and applying different methods provides an opportunity for new direction, which if it is not taken now may not come our way again for a very long time. 

Reassess priorities 

In the first week or two of lockdown, churches and charities had to quickly ask, ‘What is most important to maintain?’  

  • Churches. Church is not the building; it is the people. Initially it felt like church as we had known it had disappeared, so how could that belief become reality with the building closed? Social media and video conferencing came to the rescue, though a bishop I talked to early on was inundated by conversations with vicars who had poor internet access or were unfamiliar with social media.  

There were soon widespread reports of much larger numbers of people ‘attending’ online than previously came to services (though not all watched for the whole time!). Some were chronically sick or disabled housebound people who were able to ‘attend’ church for the first time in many years; others were churchgoers ‘visiting’ other churches, or families watching together from different parts of the country so they could share the same experience. In spite of this, the majority of these extra ‘attenders’ are unknown and anonymous. How important was it to include those with no internet access? Delivering notice sheets or liturgy being used in streamed services was appreciated, as were phone calls, but nevertheless some felt abandoned as regular churchgoing ceased to be part of their lives.  

In the long term, what will be the right mix of face-to-face and online for services and activities, balancing the needs of the new online viewers, including the anonymous or housebound, with the needs of those without internet access? 

Forced out of comfortable familiarity and ritual, creativity was let loose in churches in a multitude of ways: Sunday services and daily prayers or mass became a spiritual and social lifeline for many churchgoers; youth groups moved on to mobile phones and activities such as Messy Church and toddler groups migrated to social media, sometimes with ‘goody bags’ of activities delivered to homes in advance. Can the creativity and flexibility which lockdown demanded be retained? 

  • Charities. Some of these observations apply to charities too: can they remain creative, and retain new people who have plugged into what they offer?  

The key questions are what is most important for our church or charity to continue to do, what do we restart as and when we are able, and what should stop permanently? Trustee boards will need to be involved in such decisions, especially at a time when income has been drastically reduced, but the crisis allows, even demands, a major rethink.   

Re-examine resources 

One of the immediate effects of lockdown was that income all but dried up. Charity shops shut, national and local fundraising events were cancelled, there were no offerings in church services, community groups were suspended and therefore also the rent they paid. Some donors were no longer able to give while others redirected their donations to charities focusing on the virus in some way. The situation was serious enough for the Charity Commission to respond (in the advice quoted above): 

We understand that many charities are currently very concerned about their financial position Reserves can be spent to help cope with unexpected events like those unfolding at present All decisions on such financial matters should normally be taken collectively, and significant decisions and action points noted in writing. 

The guidance about reserves was helpful, though of course only if you had reserves beforehand! In the same guidance, permission was given for trustee meetings, and AGMs if necessary, to be held online even if this was not specifically permitted in the governing document. Will this blanket permission be extended long term or rescinded once social distancing requirements are eased? If it is withdrawn, it may be wise to seek to add it to a governing document, though that is a time-consuming process and it would be wise to get advice before starting down that route. 

When considering resources, finance comes to mind first, but there are other aspects to consider alongside money. 

  • Fundraising. Many charities issued public appeals for support, and individuals plunged into fundraising, the iconic example of which was Captain Sir Tom Moore who set out to walk one hundred lengths of his garden before his one hundredth birthday. He captured the hearts of the nation as he raised nearly £33 million for NHS charities. As individuals, including some amazing children, followed his example, many charities benefited; nevertheless, most charities and churches faced a major shortfall in income.  
  • Cut back, or even close? There were various dire predictions about the likely resulting closure of charities and small churches, especially independent ones, and about the amount of money the charity sector might lose by the end of 2020. Charity trustee boards had to examine their finances carefully in order to decide whether to press on through the crisis, albeit perhaps with cutbacks, or reluctantly call it a day. Church trustees had to consider redundancies or furlough for staff and whether to reduce their giving. I suspect it will be a year or two before the full picture of closure and survival becomes clear.  
  • Merger or partnership? A devastating drop in income may lead charity trustees to conclude that they can no longer continue, but first consider what you can realistically do using the resources you have and then look at whether there are other options. Partnering, or even merging, with another organisation has already been suggested (see p254). This is a good time to seriously consider such action, which may be a positive way of combining limited resources and enabling ministry to continue in some form. Churches could consider whether they can invite local charities to move into unused space in their premises at a reduced rent, simultaneously helping the charity and bringing some income for the church. 
  • Volunteers. The wave of volunteering that swept across the country fuelled by employees on furlough filled many of the gaps created by volunteers who had to self-isolate because of age or medical conditions. But can people who have returned to work be encouraged to continue to volunteer? And what about the multitudes, especially young people, who have already been made redundant, doubtless with more to join their ranks in the months to come? Encouraging them to volunteer would help them gain experience and skills, as well as helping the charity. Will the changing employment scene lead to new ways of working, a possibility which was also raised earlier (see p250)?  

If employment changes as the demographic changes and the nature of work changes, maybe people will have time again, even if they haven’t got the money. 

In the long term, the changes forced on charities and churches in the pandemic may not all be negative. It will be interesting to look back in, say, 2025 and see how it has all worked out.  

The lookout 

So how can we sum all this up other than by looking to the Bible again as we have done in every other chapter? This time I want to take you to one of Isaiah’s prophecies, rather than to Nehemiah or Daniel. In chapter 21:6-12 Isaiah’s prophecy against the then worldconquering power, Babylon, uses the metaphor of a lookout, or, as older versions translate it, a watchman.  

Be alert 

The Lord told Isaiah, ‘Go, post a lookout and let him report what he sees … let him be alert, fully alert’ (vs 67). 

In the first half of 2020 the situation regarding the pandemic changed repeatedly and there were regular pronouncements by the government and guidance from the Charity Commission and elsewhere. Issues that may have been peripheral previously may now be more important, such as mental health, poverty or fear. It is critical for trustees to be alert, up to date with not only what is happening but also how it affects their charity or church.  

Keep it up 

The lookout reported, ‘Day after day, my lord, I stand on the watchtower; every night I stay at my post’ (v 8). 

This situation will affect what churches and charities can do and how they do it for a long time, so it may be worth giving one trustee specific responsibility to keep a lookout for relevant information. 

Be ready for the unexpected 

Babylon was a strong nation which had overwhelmed many others. The lookout saw ‘a man in a chariot with a team of horses’, but the news that man brought was probably unexpected for those who heard this prophecy, ‘Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground’ (v 9). 

The pandemic itself was unexpected by almost everyone. It has made us wake up to the possibility of sudden, radical change, and there is nothing to be gained by burying our heads in the sand! Risk assessments will need to be reconsidered, and this is an opportunity to think carefully about which activities to restart and which to stop permanently. We should also be ready to respond to other unexpected events, for example the sudden emergence of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020. 

Realise God knows the situation 

Israel was in a dire state after most of the people had been deported to Babylon (see p257), and here God describes them as ‘crushed on the threshingfloor (v 10). 

It is a powerful description: what was left crushed on the threshingfloor was the chaff when the wheat grains had been removed, which is no doubt how the remnant felt. God had seen their situation, and he knows ours also. Much has already been written and said about God’s role, or not, in Covid-19, and no doubt there will be much more, but one thing is certain: the pandemic did not catch God out, any more than the Black Death which devastated Europe and Asia in the mid 1300s or the Great Plague of 165566 in London.  

Listen to God 

The prophet went on to reveal that God had spoken to him: ‘I tell you what I have heard from the Lord Almighty’ (v 10). 

There are many ways to listen to God, but as Christian trustees it is vital that we balance the challenges of what we see when we look around us with listening to God. What He says to us will be unique to our situation and therefore may change our perspective. Human logic or official advice may point one way, but God might give you the faith to believe and work towards a different outcome. The crisis of the pandemic may be an amazing opportunity to discern new avenues of ministry or new methods of fulfilling your vision. May how you respond to Covid-19 reveal tracks of trustworthiness which others can follow 


July 2020 


Tracks of Trustworthiness is published on Friday 23rd October 2020 – available now to preorder!


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