A Perfect Storm – CAF’s Social Landscape Survey

By Simon Dixon, Policy Officer

Brexit. Social care. Trump. Internal strife in the Labour Party. NHS data loss. Benefit controversies. Given all that is going on in the world, it maybe isn’t surprising that the launch of CAF’s 2017 Social Landscape Survey doesn’t dominate the front pages of our national news today. The truth of the matter is that most people aren’t interested in the daily struggles of the charity sector.

But to me, the fact that the wrong envelope was opened at the Oscars is far less shocking than the fact that 80% of charities have seen demand on their services increase in the last year. 85% expect it to rise further in the coming year. And this isn’t just a blip. These results are, give or take the odd percentage point, the same as they were in 2015. This trend can be seen as far back as 2010.

To somebody who only has a passing engagement with charities, this may seem somewhat underwhelming. Yes, some charities are struggling to reconcile their funding with the demand on their services. This may seem like a niche problem, one that should only trouble the charity CEOs that have responded to CAFs survey, however these statistics should be of concern to all.

‘80% of charities have seen demand increase’. This tells you something. But what it doesn’t do is really show you what that means. Increased demand means that there are more homeless people on our streets. More families turning to foodbanks to get through the week. More elderly people unable to afford their own care. More people out of work needing support and training. Charities are often the final safety net, and more people are relying on them. When we say the charity sector is under pressure, this is what we mean. It isn’t charities who are suffering – it’s the most vulnerable in our society.

So, it is clear that demand on services is rising. And, yes, funding could be described as stagnant at best. But, somehow, the vast majority of charities have battled on for the past seven years. Now, for the first time, the sector is starting to doubt that they can keep this up. In the face of a seemingly never-ending perfect storm, fewer than half of charity leaders are optimistic about the future of the sector, and its ability to meet demand. Whilst leaders were more optimistic about their own organisations, levels of confidence have still fallen substantially since 2015.

Most tellingly of all, less than one in seven charity leaders is optimistic about government support for the sector. At a time when charities are under unbelievable pressure, they feel abandoned by those who have the power to help them most.

It would be hyperbole to say that this is an existential crisis for the charity sector. But the danger should equally not be understated. Charities need support if they are to continue to serve our communities. With 83% of people using a charity service in the last 12 months, this is something which affects all of us. Without change, the gulf between supply and demand in the charity sector will only continue to grow. The worst case scenario is that the pessimism felt by many charity leaders proves to be justified.

Since last autumn, it seems impossible to discuss politics without hearing the phrase ‘a society that works for everyone’. This has become the Prime Minister’s mantra, a welcome mantra that has been repeated since she gave her inaugural speech on the steps of 10 Downing St. I would also struggle to come up with a single phrase which better described what the charity sector is working towards. It seems that the government shares the aims of the sector.

Given the aims which we share with the government, now is the time to make the case for our importance. If charities are struggling, then we need to make sure that everyone – be it the public or the government – knows what that means. Charities need to work not only to regain the trust which we have lost, but to reinvigorate the image of charity to fit its modern guise. This is something that ACEVO, NCVO, CAF and others have been working on through projects like howcharitieswork.com, but it will have a  far greater impact if  the whole sector applies itself to the task. We must come together and shout loudly and proudly about the role and impact of charities across the UK.  With public support and a unified voice we can start truly making the case for the local and national government support that is needed if we are to continue supporting the most vulnerable in our society.

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