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Charities need to be nimble in times of crisis, and that has never been more apparent than since the start of this year. Initially the continued tightening of charity finances, and then the massive impact of coronavirus on the operations and money of charities. When users want to engage with the various services that charities offer, the first place they look is usually online, and their first port of call is most often going to be your website.
When users visit government or NHS websites, spending time admiring fancy graphics comes low on the priority list. After all, they are there seeking advice or solutions to a problem, sometimes an urgent one. They want a site that’s easy to navigate and allows them to access important information. Charities are no different, and it’s more important than ever to make sure your information is as accessible as possible.
Featuring important content
With this in mind, the homepage needs to feature the most up-to-date and important content. What is the service or information that you anticipate most users will need? Where can they get advice or urgent help? Users should be able to follow a clear roadmap that helps them quickly locate the information they need. Not only that, the website itself needs to be robust and well-supported to withstand a crisis.
Nothing good ever comes from being underprepared, and here I will run through the four most important things charities need to consider when designing websites that are able to cope in times of crisis when traffic is sure to surge, and services become ever-more vital.
Most charity websites largely act as hubs of information, allowing service users and interested parties to find essential advice, news and data. The last thing you want is for the site to be slow or unresponsive, even during “normal” times. The platform you use needs to provide a high degree of security, resilience, and scalability to cope with heavy demands and unexpected peaks.
This means selecting a hosting provider with a proven track record of enabling sites to continue to run under extreme pressure. Collaboration will work so much better than going it alone. The day that user traffic spikes is not the day you want to find out just how secure and stable your website is – or isn’t
Website crashes and slow loading pages create a sense of insecurity amongst users, so it’s much better to have a website that fails rarely and gracefully, rather than one that looks pretty. Even websites for retail firms like Screwfix have pre-built queue systems for unexpected spikes in traffic. Since the start of the pandemic, it has been common to hear about websites not queueing users and simply crashing altogether, leaving people in the dark and feeling stranded.
Giving and charity sites have, in the past, crashed under the strain of huge spikes in donations. Sometimes all it takes is a wave of overwhelming good will, not even a crisis. Having a website that’s able to support such level of activity is paramount.
Hosting providers can give charities the all-round services they need on shared platforms. There’s growing support for these platforms, for example Wordpress, to be used for the public good, with hosting based on shared values and an equal partnership between the charity and hosting provider.
Not all hosting is created equal. If things go wrong, you want the reassurance that your hosting support provider has sound plans in place to handle any outages should they occur, for whatever reason. It’s important that charities look to partners that offer monitoring and alerting services, as well as out-of-hours contracts and 24/7 emergency support. Without a holistic service, you risk leaving yourself exposed, with gaps in monitoring which could result in service users’ needs unintentionally not being met.
There’s an increasing climate of collaboration and fully accessible support when it comes to hosting providers, so don’t settle for one that neglects to provide you with full technical support. Aim to work with teams that have expertise in crises and building resilience.
Content design is fundamental to the effectiveness of public facing websites. Charities provide services for many diverse groups, including those who are vulnerable and will be in need of content that is accessible, easy to understand and laid out in a simple format. In times of crisis emotional responses are heightened, so it’s important that users can easily access the information they need.
The key here, first and foremost, is not to overcomplicate the homepage. The more pages you have, the more complicated your website will be, so it’s best to keep the number to a minimum and direct users to the most important information using banners. If you were to look at the NHS England or GOV.UK website right now, you are likely to see large banners in bold colours and a simplified design, reflecting the fact that people will be seeking information on
Covid-19 and making the location of advice immediately accessible.
Although these kind of changes can be made retrospectively, in an ideal world, you should always design your website as if it you are going to be using it during a disaster.
A clean looking, stripped-down homepage is likely to perform better in an emergency. Information is easier to update for those working behind the scenes, as well as being accessible to a potentially larger group of users.
Although it seems pretty obvious, it’s important to remember that sites need to be optimised for mobile users too. People expect to be able to access high-quality information and services anytime, anywhere on any device – especially in times of crisis. How many times have you tried to access a website on your phone and been bombarded with wrongly sized images, miniscule text or content that simply doesn’t flow on the smaller screen?
Content publishing models
When you need to get information onto your site quickly the last thing you want to be doing is creating a new process. The current need for timely information has put the responsiveness of organisations under the microscope and highlighted how slow some have been to get off the mark.
Changes in government policy and narrative are happening all the time, sometimes from hour to hour, and keeping up with that is vital. You know that your website is resilient and robust enough to deal with large traffic spikes, but if the information it contains isn’t up-to-date, you will inevitably run into problems.
Updating your website is important but especially when you’re experiencing a fast-changing situation and a surge in visitors. It’s important that charities have well-established and efficient content approval processes in place. Assigning team members according to their skills and expertise makes it so much easier to get vital information to users. If there is a clear chain of approvals through the correct people, website updates will be timely and you don’t risk users not being able to access urgent advice or services.
Knowing you can cope
A famous advocate of your charity drums up nationwide support, a video about your work happens to go viral – or maybe a change in policy results in users of your services needing more support and advice: for whatever reason, a surge of website traffic can be an adrenalin rush. But it can also be very stressful if your website isn’t properly prepared for it.
Whether you experience a small spike in traffic or a large surge, it’s important to know that you are able to cope, and that you are fully supported during times which challenge the website’s capabilities. Today, the global and public health situation is constantly changing, and you never know which government announcement could apply to your sector or the people you are supporting..
Quite apart from the pandemic, there aren’t always warning signs that a surge in traffic is coming, so the best defence is to run your website the right way all the time, and make sure it’s updated, secure, optimised and backed up regularly. That way you’ll be prepared when the unexpected does happen.
Before the closure of all non-essential shops due to the coronavirus outbreak, charity shops were a bright spot on the high street. Charity shops boasted a 3.2% increase in sales, year-on-year from Q4 2018 to Q4 2019, as compared to commercial retail’s negative sales growth of about minus 1% in the same period. (Charity Retail Association Market Analysis Report.)
While charity retail may have been faring better than commercial retail chains before the pandemic, the entire retail sector is facing new challenges now. And as stores re-open and lockdown measure continue to evolve, it’s essential that charity shops – from large chains like Oxfam and the British Heart, to medium and smaller charity outlets like Marie Curie and local hospices – are in a position to adapt to changing circumstances and respond to customer concerns and needs.
Here are critical steps that charity retailers of all sizes can take to ensure their charity marketing is effective now and in the future.
MAKE SURE ONLINE INFORMATION IS CURRENT AND CORRECT. Even though only essential businesses remained open during the strictest period of lockdown, people still needed to go online to find out which supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies and the like are open, and if so, when. Add to that, as restrictions have eased, we’ve searched online to try to figure out what restrictions may still be in place (limits on the number of customers allowed in the store at one time or certain locations of a business remaining closed).
More often than necessary, it’s been difficult to find the information we need, or worse, we’ve turned up at the store only to find the online information was wrong and the store is still closed. While charity retail begins to resume, now is the perfect time to make sure your online information is correct and that you know how and where to update key information online that will help your customers get the answers they’re looking for.
To start, this includes name, address and phone number. Although it may sound extremely basic, you’d be surprised how many online business listings have incorrect information. Research has revealed that more than 85% of the UK’s largest department stores had inaccuracies in their Google My Business listings, with store names and addresses the most common inconsistencies.
Not only does this make it harder for consumers to find you and get information, any inaccuracies in your business listings held on various directories (e.g. Google, Bing, Facebook) can negatively impact search engine rankings. Search engines like Google continually cross-reference directories with other platforms to verify their results. So if the information they find matches, it boosts search engine rankings. But inconsistencies could mean your charity store doesn’t show up in Google’s highlighted top three results, or worse, could bump your store off of the first page of search results entirely.
Furthermore, analysis of 73,000 business locations, across 37 directories, showed that almost 50% of all business locations had errors or missing information on their Bing profiles. Even though Bing isn’t as popular as Google as a search engine, it is the search engine that powers voice search assistants Alexa and Cortana. Consequently, people who are asking Alexa, “Where’s the closest charity shop?” could be missing out on your store completely.
In addition to being one of the most important directories for voice search, it’s also one of the key directories that Google cross-references for search ranking purposes.
Making sure that your business listings are complete and accurate across Google, Bing and Facebook is an important first step in preparing your stores for reopening.
CUSTOMISE YOUR ONLINE INFORMATION FOR BETTER VISIBILITY AND TO REACH THE RIGHT AUDIENCE. As the UK returns to some semblance of business as usual, consumers will continue to have many questions. As we’ve seen from other European countries that started reopening businesses in April, there are still strict measures in place as to which ones can open and how they must operate.
For instance, Germany announced that retail businesses smaller than 800 square metres would be allowed to open as of April 20 — as long as social distancing and strict hygiene measures remained in place – and by early May, all stores were reopened, but with appropriate public health measures still required.
Once you’ve made sure your basic information is correct in Google My Business, and other relevant directories (i.e., Facebook, Bing, Yelp, etc.), be sure to provide information that answers the key questions you anticipate consumers will have. Customers will not only be looking to see if you’re open, but also whether you’re accepting donations or what restrictions there might be, such as whether they need to wear a mask or pay by contactless only. Try to anticipate what those top queries will be.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has published guidance on retailers reopening stores, teaming up with shop worker trade union Usdaw to provide advice to support non-food retail stores. These measures include limiting the number of entry and exit points in and out of stores – as well as keeping separate entrance and exit points if possible, limiting the number of customers in stores at any time, and considering keeping changing rooms closed.
Using BRC guidelines as a reference, prepare updates for your online listings and website, if you have one, and share what measures you are taking, both with respect to customers and staff. As government guidelines change and evolve, you may need to act fast and adjust your listings, operating hours and responses right away.
Also, charity shops can vary greatly in terms of what items are offered for sale, ranging from the standard inventory of clothes, home furnishings and toys, to specialist charity shops that sell furniture, electrical goods or even bridalwear. If your location does specialise, or if your standard inventory has changed, it’s important to give customers more context about your current product offerings, e.g. items, such as fabric or sewing haberdashery, that maybe you don’t normally offer but now you do.
Google continues to provide businesses with the ability to add a Covid-19 update post to your profile, where you can share more detailed and timely updates about what’s going on at your store’s location. Google’s Covid-19 update posts appear prominently on your online profile, and are more noticeable to customers. Updates can include adjusted hours, special promotions or extra services that you’re providing.
COMMUNICATE ON MULTIPLE ONLINE CHANNELS. Consumers are consulting a number of different online channels to get the information they need – Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, store websites, and the like, so making sure you are managing your online presence in key platforms is essential. 86% of consumers are more likely to shop at a store that responds to reviews and the conversion rate (number of clicks on phone number, driving directions and website) climbs sharply when businesses respond to online reviews left by customers.
Social media accounts and online reviews are an important way to strengthen your online marketing, and it is in this area that smaller charities can shine. An analysis of the Google My Business profiles of 64,000 business locations across the UK, USA, Germany and France showed that smaller businesses – those with 10 or fewer locations – responded to reviews at almost double the rate of bigger businesses with more than 10 locations. The study also revealed that this higher response rate equates to higher star ratings for smaller businesses.
With fewer locations, it’s easier to manage business listings, engage on social media and respond to online reviews directly. Be sure to use social media not just to post updates, but as a way to have conversations in as close to real-time as possible. Social channels can be one of the best ways to communicate quickly and directly with a broad audience.
But even for the UK's largest charity shop retailers – such as the British Heart Foundation with 732 shops and Oxfam with around 650 – or medium sized charity retailers like Scope and Marie Curie, it’s still possible to update information and manage customer reviews and social media for tens, or even hundreds, of stores.
Larger charity retailers can use technology tools that both automate and centralise the way they update and monitor these various listings, and respond to social media and online reviews. And in fact, when bigger businesses increase their response rate to 32% of customer reviews, those businesses see 80% higher conversion rates than similar sized ones replying to just 10% of reviews.
A further benefit to charity shops managing social media and online reviews is boosting search engine rankings and improving consumer engagement.
Today, more so than ever, consumers are relying on online channels to get the up-to-the-minute information they need about local businesses. As the UK begins to return to normal trading, now is the perfect time for charity shops to master the basics, like maintaining correct business listings across key search engines, and develop systems and processes to manage social media and online reviews.
These capabilities are especially important now, but once established, they will continue to help charity retailers of all sizes optimise their online visibility and drive foot traffic to the high street in the future.
Back on Friday 13 March, a date that feels so long ago now, I woke up to breaking news that the coronavirus had caused stock markets to crash and major events were beginning to be cancelled. The speaker at the seminar I was attending spent the first hour of the day talking about the need to prepare for the impending recession and my social media feeds were awash with charity leaders and fundraisers speculating on what to do.
That Sunday, I went into my office to think about what this meant for our sector and wrote an article setting out the likely impacts on funding and what to do next. My advice was to communicate transparently with your supporters, to explain what the pandemic means for your charity in terms of delivering your services; looking after your beneficiaries, staff and volunteers; the impact on your financial position; and how you are responding to these challenges.
I predicted that people would want to help and thankfully that has been the case with many appeals performing better than they would in normal circumstances and additional grant funding being secured.
Since then we have seen further support from the Government through the Job Retention Scheme and the £750 million announced for the sector, as well as a lot of emergency funding grant programmes from trusts and companies. This funding has been focused on the emergency response to support vulnerable groups during the lockdown.
Now, as we emerge from the safety of our homes and funders begin to think beyond the next few months, how can we best position our charities to secure funding for the “recovery phase” and beyond?
This is partly about ensuring your case for support is strong in terms of the key criteria that funders always look at and partly about understanding your place in a world that has been changed by Covid-19 (by that I mean the pandemic and the lockdown).
WHAT IS THE NEED/PROBLEM THAT YOUR CHARITY/SERVICE EXISTS TO ADDRESS? HOW HAS THIS CHANGED AS A RESULT OF COVID-19? The answer may be a relatively subtle change. For example, if you support children with autism they are going to have the same support needs as before but there may be some additional issues such as increased anxiety, and there may be changes to how you can provide support due to social distancing measures.
Alternatively, the answer may be a significant change. For example, if you previously provided a lunch club for lonely older people, but they are now too scared to attend and have developed mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In this case your beneficiaries’ needs have completely changed, raising big questions for your charity such as how do you meet those needs and are you best placed to do so?
Surely it will look odd to funders if you were to apply for exactly the same service you provided before with no reference to the impact of Covid-19 and the change to the context you work in. Maybe you can adapt your service or maybe you need to work in partnership with a mental health charity to address these new issues and reintroduce your beneficiaries to the social activities you offer, which they will still need for their wellbeing in the long term.
As always, funders will be looking for evidence that you have consulted with your beneficiaries to understand what their needs are now and whether your proposal is what will best meet those needs.
WHAT ELSE HAS CHANGED FOR YOUR COMMUNITY? Whether a local community or a community of interest (e.g. people with a particular health condition), funders want to know that you have a good understanding of other activities and services which people can access. This may have changed if some charities or groups no longer exist or have stopped certain activities, or if statutory services have reduced support.
Funders want to know that you are aware of what other support is available to your community, that you have ensured your activity is adding value to this rather than duplicating, and that you work in partnership where appropriate.
DO YOU HAVE A CLEAR PLAN? Funders typically want to see a clear plan of activity, so they can see exactly what it is they are funding, i.e. if they give £50,000 how many people will you reach, how many of x output will you deliver, what will be the outcomes and impact.
But we live in a complex world and as we plan for the recovery phase and beyond, there is still so much uncertainty over whether Covid-19 will go away or spike again and what the economy will look like. Will funders factor this into their assessment process or will they revert to the “we need to know exactly what our money is spent on” mentality?
During the initial emergency phase, there was definitely a shift toward trusting charities to get on with it and spend grants on meeting immediate needs, although it should be noted that many of these grants have been relatively small. I think funders will still want a clear plan but they may be more open to you stating that it is subject to change due to the uncertain environment we are operating in.
I certainly think that funders will appreciate seeing your approach to learning and evaluation factoring this in. For example, continually consulting with beneficiaries to understand changing needs and whether your activities are making a difference so that you can adapt if required.
HOW WILL YOU DEMONSTRATE IMPACT? Despite the complexity of our lives in the real world, funders tend to respond well to the “slightly” artificial model of inputs-outputs-outcomes-impact, e.g. the funder provides a grant to pay staff salaries – to run x health education workshops and x cooking classes – which leads to behaviour change – resulting in reduced obesity.
However, in reality we live complex lives with many influences outside these workshops and classes, including media, social, psychological, economic, biological, medical and so on.
In recent years, we have begun to see a shift in the funding world (with some major grant-makers and commissioners) from rigid impact frameworks to more of a trust based approach where funding should enable rather than control. We have seen more of this in the emergency response to Covid-19 and it will be interesting to see if this continues through the recovery phase and beyond.
In the context of trust based funding, evaluation is less about impact measurement and more a tool for learning about and improving practice. In a complex environment, learning is a continuous process. There is no such thing as “what works” because “what works” is always changing. ‘What works’ is a continuous process of learning and adaption.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DO YOU MAKE? While there may be changes in how we talk about impact, articulating the difference our charities make is fundamental and will always be essential. Depending on your cause and the type of work you do there will be a range of ways that you can show what difference you make and therefore what difference your funders are making by supporting your charity.
Which charity do you think of as making a big difference? Why do you feel that way? While data is important, I bet it’s not because 90% of respondents to their feedback survey said x is it? One way that almost every charity can demonstrate the difference it makes is through the stories of the people who benefit.
So, always remember to keep the voice of your community in your case for support, applications and appeals. It should be the people you support who articulate their needs and how your support makes a difference to them.
POSITIONING YOUR CHARITY FOR THE FUTURE. Your charity may have some big questions to answer in terms of what it does, why and what difference it makes. Reviewing your case for support can be a useful prompt to help think through some of these questions, or it may need updating having answered these questions as an organisation.
Either way, having an up to date case for support that reflects the changes to your community resulting from Covid-19 and how you are learning and adapting to this new reality, will be essential to positioning your charity for funding in the recovery phase and beyond.
The Charity Commission published COVID-19 guidance for the charity sectoron 19 March, which it has since been updating on an almost daily basis, as the impact of the virus and associated social distancing rules put an increasing strain on charities. The guidance is prefaced by an assurance that the Commission will take a “flexible and pragmatic approach” to regulation in the period, whilst urging trustees to remain conscious of the wider impact of their decisions.
In short, crisis or no crisis, it is incumbent on trustees to continue to take reasonable decisions in this most unreasonable of times.
Although Parliament is not in session, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees charities, held an evidence session on 31 March on the impact of the coronavirus on the sector. The session highlighted some of the key challenges faced, with the disappearance overnight of huge percentages of income, but in many cases an increase in demand for services. The likely loss to the sector was calculated as being in region of £4.5bn.
Those giving evidence highlighted the need for action from DCMS, HM Treasury and the wider government, which will need to be supported by clear guidance and continued reassurance from the Commission in these unprecedented times.
At the time of writing, the Commission’s guidance focuses on:
CHANGING OBJECTS TO ASSIST WITH THE CRISIS. Many charities are considering how they can help the effort to tackle COVID-19 and its associated effects. Charities will need to consider their existing objects and whether the contemplated activities fall within scope. This may be by providing direct support to those in need, or indirect support, for example museums making their collections available online to help relieve isolation.
If the existing objects are not wide enough, it may be possible to change them subject to ensuring such change is reasonable and doesn’t undermine the existing mission. Helpfully, where regulatory consent is required, the guidance confirms that the Commission will prioritise COVID-19 related urgent requests.
USING RESERVES AND RESTRICTED FUNDS. The Commission has confirmed that charities can, if necessary, use their reserves to survive in the current crisis. After all, what else are reserves for, if not a crisis like the one unfolding?
Trustees are also encouraged to consider their short, medium and longer term priorities, and to review projects to see what scope there is for reducing spend on non-essential activities.
Whilst it may be tempting to think that, in these extraordinary times, restrictions on the use of funds or assets can be ignored, this is not the case. However, there are options to be considered. For example, asking funders to relax existing restrictions, so that restricted programmatic funding can be used for core costs.
We have already seen several charities considering whether they can spend their permanent endowment. Although the ordinary rules governing permanent endowment still apply, one would hope that the Commission will apply the pragmatic approach indicated and, where regulatory consent is required, deal with requests to release restrictions swiftly.
CANCELLATION OR POSTPONEMENT OF AGMs AND OTHER KEY MEETINGS. Normally one would advise looking at your charity’s constitution to determine the answer to this. However, as the Commission notes, following the current rules on travel and groups, charities (as others) will have no choice but to cancel or rearrange face to face meetings pending a relaxation or suspension of the restrictions. The guidance makes it clear that such decisions are for trustees – not the Commission.
However, it is essential (as with all decisions at this time) to record both the decision and the reasons for making that decision (see the Commission’s guidance, It’s your decision). It will also be important to communicate with members, so that they know what is happening.
If cancelling or postponing your AGM has a knock-on effect on your ability to meet annual filing deadlines, the Commission asks that charities contact it for an extension.
USE OF VIDEO, TELECONFERENCING AND THE INTERNET IN PLACE OF FACE-TO-FACE MEETINGS. The Commission accepts that, even if you do not have power to hold virtual meetings in your governing document, being able to hold meetings remotely is going to be essential at present and trustees need to take a pragmatic approach to enable them to make the necessary decisions to manage their charity during the crisis.
There may be situations in the current circumstances, however, where boards are unable to form a quorum for a meeting, due to trustees being unwell or unable to participate remotely. Although this point is not mentioned in the guidance, it would be worth considering whether the decision can be ratified at a later date, once a quorum can be convened or via email consensus.
PAYING STAFF. The Commission has provided a link to the Government’s new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme announced on 26 March. While the guidance around this scheme is still in development, it should be noted that the scheme is designed to help employers retain employees who will be needed when they begin to rebuild their business after the end of the pandemic. The aim is to reduce redundancies and lay-offs.
The scheme applies to employees who have been placed on ‘furlough leave.’ i.e. those who will remain on their employer’s payroll but are temporarily not working because of COVID-19.
Charities will need to review the rules to determine what they can claim through the scheme, who is eligible, how to calculate claims, what happens to employee benefits while on furlough leave, and whether there are any other options they ought to consider in the circumstances.
SERIOUS INCIDENT REPORTING. Trustees are still required to report serious incidents, in accordance with the Commission’s serious incident reporting guidance, and to use their judgment in deciding whether an incident is significant in the context of their charity and should be reported to it. The Commission will continue to prioritise those incidents that place individuals at risk, or incidents that have had a significant impact on a charity’s operations and therefore serious harm to the charity’s work.
Continuing to report during this time may also assist the Commission to identify key issues across the sector and enable the Commission to adapt the guidance more quickly.
SAFEGUARDING. The guidance reminds charities of the importance of protecting and safeguarding their beneficiaries, volunteers and staff (and refers trustees to its safeguarding guidance). Obviously this is particularly important for those charities directly helping communities or vulnerable people who are self-isolating.
SIGNPOSTING. The guidance provides links to further resources, such as to advice issued by the Charities SORP on the financial reporting implications arising from the social distancing measures put in place to contain the impact of the COVID-19 virus. The advice (which is not obligatory) does not amend the Charities SORP but aims to assist in the preparation of accounts not yet filed.
One would also highlight that other regulators are producing guidance, such as the Fundraising Regulator for fundraising questions, for charities in Scotland, OSCR, and for those in Northern Ireland, CCNI. There is also an ICO FAQs (although at the time of writing this is not specific to charities).
With mounting challenges on all fronts, it is to be hoped that the Commission continues to expand and refine its guidance, including developing the guidance as a centralised point of information for charities, and that it adopts the pragmatic approach in practice.
From the questions one is seeing, it is clear that further guidance or central signposting would be appreciated on a number of issues, including for charities in financial distress. Although the Government has announced certain changes to insolvency rules in an attempt to protect businesses during this period, such changes may only be a short term solution. It is important that trustees speak to professional advisers to protect the charity’s assets, as well as the trustees’ own position.
With such rapidly changing circumstances, restructuring professionals will be able to advise on maintaining liquidity, reducing overheads, changing management structures, managing payments with creditors (e.g. HMRC and landlords), discussions with lenders and investors and what government aid packages may be available. Needless to say, it is vital trustees ensure that their charity’s financial position and cash flow are being managed carefully.
While matters continue to develop at a rapid pace, it is worth keeping an eye out for further changes and additions to the Charity Commission’s guidance.
With so many measures being publicised in quick succession to tackle the effect of the coronavirus, it is difficult to believe that it was just a couple of weeks ago that the Government first announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to help employers cover salary costs.
While some might feel as though the concept of “furlough leave” has always been with us, given how much it has been talked about, charities are still looking for answers to key questions about how it will work in practice. Let us consider some of the most commonly asked questions based on what we know so far.
What is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme? The scheme has been devised to provide support for employers whose operations have, or will be, severely affected by coronavirus. The aim is to avoid, or limit the need for, redundancies by reimbursing up to 80% of salary for qualifying employees. The scheme will run until at least 31 May.
How will the scheme work? UK employers will be able to temporarily place workers on a leave of absence and claim back up to 80% of salary, subject to a cap of £2,500 per month, as well as associated employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on that wage.
Online portal soon
Claims will be made through an online portal administered by HMRC. The portal is not available yet, but the Government hopes that it will be up and running by the end of this month. HMRC will pay the grant via BACS payment into the employer’s nominated UK bank account.
Can charities use the scheme? Yes, the scheme is open to all UK employers, including charities and other not-for-profit organisations, provided they had a PAYE payroll scheme on 28 February 2020 and have a UK bank account.
Guidance published by HMRC on 26 March says that employers who continue to receive public funding for staff costs during this period will be expected to use that money to pay staff, rather than putting them on furlough leave.
This could be relevant to some charities, although one suspects it is intended to cover organisations that are primarily funded by the Government and whose staff are either still required to provide essential public services or can be redeployed to assist with the coronavirus response.
Who can be placed on furlough leave? The scheme is open to all employees including full-time, part-time and casual staff. Although the guidance only talks about “employees”, it is likely that workers will also qualify. (It's hard to summarise the differences between workers and employees as each case will turn on its own facts and there are a number of factors that can be taken into account.) Self-employed contractors do not qualify for support under the scheme, but the Government has up a separate scheme for the self-employed.
No evidence needed
Business support guidance published by the Government suggests that the scheme is for employees who would otherwise have been laid off or made redundant, although there is no suggestion that employers will need to provide evidence of this to HMRC in order to qualify.
What about employees who have already been made redundant or who have been given notice of redundancy? In order to qualify for furlough, an employee must have been on PAYE payroll on 28 February 2020. Anyone hired since that date, or whose employment ended before that date, cannot be placed on furlough leave. If an employee was made redundant after 28 February, however, charities can rehire them and put them on furlough leave.
If an employee has been given notice of redundancy but is still employed, it is open to the charity to put them on furlough leave instead. If employers fail to consider furlough as an alternative to redundancy, they could risk claims that the dismissal was unfair.
What is covered by the grant? Charities can claim:
- Up to 80% of basic salary, subject to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month. Any fees, commission, or bonuses cannot be included in this calculation.
- Enhanced (earnings related) contractual maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental pay.
- Additional sums for employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions, based on the amount of grant received.
Charities will be responsible for calculating the amount of the grant and submitting claims to HMRC every three weeks. HMRC has published guidance on how to perform the salary calculation for different types of employees, including those with variable hours.
Do we have to make up the difference between the grant and full pay? Charities must pay the employee at least the amount received from HMRC under the scheme, but there is no requirement to top up their salary.
What about the National Living Wage (NLW) and National Minimum Wage (NMW)? NLW and NMW rules will not apply to employees on furlough leave because they will not be working. If employees are required to undertake training while on furlough leave, they must be paid NMW/NLW, even if that means the charity needs to top up the Government grant.
What if we can’t afford to continue paying salaries while we wait for the grant? The scheme will not be operational until the end of April at the earliest, although claims can be backdated to 1 March. If charities are unable to continue to pay salaries in the intervening period, it may be possible to get consent from employees to delay some or all of their salary until funds are received through the scheme.
How do we place someone on furlough leave? Unless there is a lay-off clause in the employee’s contract of employment, charities should get agreement to place someone on furlough leave. A minimum period of 7 days for consultation is advisable, although any variation to the employee’s contract will be effective from the date of their agreement to the change.
Duty to collectively consult
If charities intend to dismiss more than 20 employees who do not consent to being placed on furlough leave, the duty to collectively consult could be engaged. Charities should take advice if there is any question about whether collective consultation applies as penalties for failing to comply can be costly.
Employers must give employees written notice of furlough leave and keep a record of this. The notice should say how long the leave is expected to continue and employees must be furloughed for at least three weeks at a time.
How do we choose who to put on furlough leave? Employees cannot carry out any work while on furlough leave so it is not possible to share the burden by reducing everyone’s working hours and still claim reimbursements under the scheme.
Charities should make sure they use fair and objective criteria to select employees for furlough leave, following a similar approach as that used in a redundancy selection procedure. Guidance suggests it is open to employers to rotate furlough leave between employees in minimum 3-week blocks and this could be a way to limit claims of unfairness if some employees will be required to continue to work while their colleagues are placed on furlough leave.
What about employees who are already on sick leave, family leave or unpaid leave? Employees on sick leave or who are self-isolating in accordance with guidance published by Public Health England, NHS National Services Scotland, or Public Health Wales should receive Statutory Sick Pay. Once they are fit to return to work, they may then be placed on furlough leave.
Vulnerable employees who are shielding in line with Government guidance, who can be placed on furlough leave.
Employees on unpaid leave cannot be furloughed, unless they were placed on unpaid leave after 28 February 2020.
It appears that statutory maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave payments will continue as normal. Enhanced (earnings related) contractual maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental pay can be claimed back under the scheme.
What can employees do while on furlough leave? Employees will continue to be employed and will still be bound by the terms of their contract of employment during furlough, subject to any changes agreed with them.
Employees cannot do any work that provides services or generates revenue for their employer while on furlough leave – this includes work on reduced hours or reduced pay, or work on a voluntary basis for the employer.
There is nothing in the guidance that prohibits an employee from working in another job while on furlough leave, although the contract of employment will continue during the furlough period so any restrictions on working elsewhere will apply. Employees can volunteer for another organisation while on furlough leave.
What is the effect of furlough leave on holiday entitlement? Workers will continue to accrue annual leave whilst they are furloughed, and an amendment to the Working Time Regulations 1998 means that employees will be able to carry forward up to 4 weeks’ paid holiday over a 2-year period if they can’t take their holiday due to coronavirus.
The NVCO predicts a catastrophic long term hit to the charity sector from COVID-19. Given the cancellation of traditional fundraising events and closure of physical stores, the sector may see a shortfall in income of £4 billion – triggering a devastating and long lasting impact on the future of the charity sector in the UK. While emergency fundraising appeals have launched and grants made available, these are still only likely to cover a fraction of the income lost.
Charities are naturally focused on two things right now: organisational survival and delivering their services in unprecedented circumstances. In this context, should marketing even be on the agenda at board meetings?
The answer is yes.
Charities are brands. They may be led by purpose rather than profit, but the rules remain the same: they need income to deliver their services, and this relies on being relevant and visible to donors and supporters. The big challenge of today is how to be relevant and visible when all your traditional tactics no longer make sense. It requires new thinking and new approaches for both now and the future.
Managing the new now
The global crisis came fast and came in force - and there was no playbook for dealing with it. Despite this, some charities responded incredibly quickly. Shelter rapidly evolved both its service support and fundraising messaging. Housing concerns were answered though a wide-reaching TV campaign and an updated online presence. Those fortunate enough to have homes (albeit confined to them) were encouraged to donate.
The lockdown is of course closely linked to Shelter’s purpose; it makes complete sense to the public that the charity is highly visible. Likewise, Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK - given the sharpened focus on care for the elderly and vulnerable - have also been able to quickly launch fresh appeals which don’t carry concerns of attempting to capitalise on the situation.
Other charities, especially those outside the health or medical and social care spheres have had to find other ways to respond. For example, museums are opening up their collections online, using the hashtag #MuseumsFromHome, and conducting more entertaining social campaigns to keep home-bound audiences engaged.
The Getty Museum of Art is encouraging people to recreate famous artworks from their homes. Similarly, theatres are streaming free shows - like the National Theatre, making content available every week. These cultural charities, which typically rely on physical visitors, have taken art into people’s homes instead – and helped build new audiences in the process.
Non-cultural charities are also using the lockdown as a way to provide entertainment – and use this as a platform to promote their services. CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is running “Friday Night Lock-Ins” on Instagram with live performances from musicians. Fitness charities are also having to rethink their role, with some great initiatives. Paths for All provides tips for those that can’t leave their home, but still need to keep moving. Better, the charitable social enterprise, is providing free virtual classes through its mobile app.
Pet shelters, while having to close to the public, have updated their sites and feeds with insights and tips for looking after animals and how to keep them entertained while at home. The Wildlife Trusts has turned to digital as a means to help families at home during lockdown, quickly activating a series of videos to help both to educate and entertain children on the nation’s wildlife.
Everything is digital
All these projects rely on being able to respond quickly to the new circumstances, understanding what people need right now, and being smart on what role you can play. They all also rely on having digital skills and experience: everything right now is digital.
For many, this has had to go beyond making some changes to the website and updating social media profiles. Many charities are having to work out quickly how to deliver core services through digital channels. The COVID lockdown has accelerated the digital journeys that many charities have been undertaking for some time. It has meant that plans and strategies which may have been in place for further down the road have been more quickly implemented, and that digital teams are rapidly learning to be more agile. This shift to digital is critical in providing the all-important visibility and relevance.
Planning for a new future
Every organisation, whether commercial, public or charity, is having to tear up its strategic plans and rethink its role in people’s lives. Even after the initial health crisis is over, we are going to see a long period of financial instability. Funding from government and trusts will change. And the public will have new priorities on what matters to them. We will all be thinking differently.
Perversely, it’s in this new context where we will need charities most – and why it’s so important that charities plan now for this new future. Many in the wider marketing sphere have already started to use the current time (if teams are not furloughed for the duration) to assess their digital architecture and longer term marketing strategies, and to simply run an intensive Marketing MOT on current work. Channel strategies, budget allocation, messaging and creative approaches, and data capabilities are all being reviewed against the new reality.
When the lockdown lifts, it will be the charities which understand new human behaviours (their employees, volunteers and supporters) which will be best placed to grow again. Many charities rely on a few big bang, high profile events like the London Marathon. With these all cancelled, now might be time to plan a more data-led, personalised, always-on approach to fundraising – and be testing this approach out over the coming months. Some charities will also rightly be questioning whether they have enough technical and digital knowledge in their delivery, management and trustee teams.
And with marketing budgets likely to be reduced, it is also the time to look for efficiencies in media and marketing spend. Investing time now in assessing any possible wastage in ad spend, to make sure keywords are working as hard as possible, and to ramp up appropriate and refreshed content is all going to prove vital.
No one knows how the next 1-2 years may turn out. But those charities which start to think and plan now are going to be best prepared for whatever does come our way.
Understandably, many charities are very concerned about a number of issues during this unprecedented time. However, as a priority, trustees should consider what their short, medium and longer term priorities are and amend their plan accordingly.
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions from charities:
Can a charity’s reserves and restricted funds be utilised to help get through the coronavirus crisis? Reserves can be spent to help cope with unexpected events like those unfolding at present. Trustees should identify which funds and assets have limits on their use. If they are found to be internal only and your charity has ring-fenced certain funds for a particular purpose, then you may be able to reprioritise these.
However, if they are restricted funds – meaning they cannot be spent at trustee discretion – then they can only be used for a specific, defined purpose. For example, if you have a permanent endowment, there may be restrictions on selling it to release funds.
In some instances, there may be ways to amend these restrictions, but accessing or releasing restricted funds should only be considered if there are no other options.
Can a charity cancel or postpone its AGM or other key meetings? Given the current Government guidelines around social distancing and non-essential travel, it may be necessary to cancel or postpone your AGM and other critical meetings. If this decision is taken, then it’s vital that it is recorded to demonstrate good governance of the charity. This is particularly important if a meeting was due to discuss annual reports and accounts.
Wherever possible, try to get your Annual Reports to the Charity Commission on time. As a result, it is worth considering an alternative way of meeting, which brings me on to the next frequently asked question.
Can a charity use video or teleconferencing in place of face-to-face meetings? Some charities have clauses in their governing documents that allow virtual meetings or the use of telephone facilities. Therefore, I’d recommend that trustees check these documents and see if amendments can be made to enable digital meetings.
Even if there is no such clause in the governing documents, in such unprecedented times the Charity Commission is likely to be flexible as to what is reasonably practicable in the circumstances but be sure to record the decision to demonstrate good governance.
How do I get support to pay my charity staff? Many charities will be concerned about their staff in what are unprecedented times. However, the Government has announced that all employers – small, large, charitable or non-profit – will get support to help them pay wages.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been designed to help any UK organisation with employees. To access the scheme, you must designate affected employees as “furloughed”.
Furloughed employees will remain on the payroll during this time but to be eligible, they must have been on the payroll since 28 February 2020 and on any contract – from full time to flexible or zero hours contracts. When on furlough, an employee must not undertake work for or on behalf of the organisation. This includes providing services or generating revenue.
You will then need to make a claim for wage costs through this scheme, however fees, commissions and bonuses should not be included unless contractual. The grant from HMRC will cover 80% of an employee’s regular wage or £2,500 per month (whichever is lower) plus the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on paying those wages. It’s then your decision whether to top up the remaining 20%.
Again, if the decision to furlough staff is taken, then it’s vital to record it in order to demonstrate good governance of the charity. A record of the temporary variation to each affected employee’s terms should also be retained for five years.
How hard can you expect staff to work at home? For home working to be successful, your staff must have a suitable place to work where domestic and family commitments do not, as far as possible, intrude into working time.
Whilst employers usually steer clear of asking questions about home arrangements, it is reasonable to assume that an employee may not simultaneously work and care for a young child, elderly or disabled relative. If you don’t know whether your employee has caring commitments, don’t be afraid to ask them. You just need to ensure that you ask the same questions to all staff to avoid accusations of discrimination.
How can you ensure staff are not taking advantage of the situation? You may be concerned that employees working from home for the first time will not put in the same effort as when they are in their usual workplace. You will be reliant to a large degree on trust and may fear that some workers will not pull their weight.
However, you will likely already know which members of your staff are self-motivated, and which are going to see the requirement to work at home as an excuse to do less. This is where managers keeping in touch with staff should help.
Homeworkers should be appraised like any other workers. Some thought should be given to how you the charity employer can measure the quality and quantity of the homeworking employee’s output.
I would suggest that the manager may need to engage in a little more micro-management than usual: setting regular specific projects or targeted tasks with specified deadlines, building in sufficient opportunity for reviews of work progress, and expectations in performance so any difficulties that arise can be addressed swiftly.
If it transpires that an employee is not pulling their weight and is taking the opportunity of working from home to avoid undertaking their work responsibilities, there is no reason why formal or informal disciplinary or capability action should not be implemented.
As long as the correct procedures are followed, such action will be justified. It may be necessary to adopt a slightly different procedure (with the agreement of the employee) e.g. undertaking investigation meetings by video conference rather than face to face meeting, or even by written representations only if, for example, the employee does not have the technology to undertake video conferencing.
What should be reported to the Charity Commission? It is ultimately still the responsibility of the trustee to report serious incidents using Commission guidelines. Using their judgment and common sense the trustees should, as always, decide if an incident is significant within the context of their charity and whether it should be reported to the Commission.
The situation remains very fluid and subject to change with new guidance and support consistently introduced and updated. The key takeaway is to ensure that each decision taken is properly recorded to ensure good governance.
The Charity Commission has made it clear that its approach to regulation during this uncertain period will be as flexible and pragmatic as possible. However, although it is an unprecedented time, trustees must continue to be aware of and think about the wider impact of their decisions on the charity in the long run.