Pandemic improves ‘responsiveness’ of local authorities to charities, but new research finds smaller charities missing out

Ahead of May’s local elections, new research has found that the pandemic has offered ‘promising signs of improvement’ in relationships and collaboration between charities and local authorities.

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Smaller charities appear to have missed out on improved relationships with local authorities

Over half of the charities surveyed said local authorities have become ‘more responsive’ to their needs during coronavirus, and many charities have increased their engagement with local government. However, improvements in relationships with local authorities appear skewed towards larger charities, with smaller organisations missing out or seeing a decline.

Almost 550 organisations from the UK voluntary, community and social enterprise sector took part in the sixth survey of the Respond, Recover and Reset: The Voluntary Sector and Covid-19 project, which is led by Nottingham Trent University (NTU), the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and Sheffield Hallam University.

The research shows a high level of collaboration between charities and local government during the past year, with 71% of respondents reporting that they were involved in working with a local authority. Over half of respondents (52%) said that local authorities had become more responsive to their needs as a result of the pandemic.

There is also evidence of increased engagement and partnership between charities and local authorities during the pandemic, with 36% of respondents stating that they had increased their engagement with local authorities in the past year. One in four (25%) respondents reported an improved relationship with local authorities due to the pandemic, while only 7% believe their relationship had declined since March 2020.

However, the extent of these improved relationships varied dependent on the size of organisation. Larger organisations – those with annual income of £1-10 million – were more likely to see an improvement in their relationship with local authorities (33%). Smaller organisations – those with £10,000 annual income or less – saw the lowest (9%) improvement. Smaller organisations were also more likely to report a deterioration in the relationship (12%) compared to larger organisations (1%).

Daniel King, professor of organisational behaviour at Nottingham Business School, part of NTU, said: “The pandemic has revealed that in some areas local authorities and charities and volunteers have found new ways to collaborate with each other. We have seen in some local authority areas barriers were broken down, joint work undertaken and partnerships developed in ways that did not seem possible before Covid-19 hit.

“Whilst this is not true everywhere, and smaller organisations seem to be more likely to be excluded, it does demonstrate it is possible for new partnerships to be developed in ways that can be creative and beneficial to local citizens. Yet, as the initial crisis of the pandemic eases, there is a danger that things go back to business-as-usual and the silos go back up. With funding cuts on the horizon the next year is going to be challenging for many charities and voluntary organisations”.

Alex Farrow, head of networks and influencing at NCVO, said: “After a difficult year, the urgency of the pandemic has seen charities and volunteers working more closely with local authorities to respond to the immediate challenges of their communities. Ahead of the biggest ever set of local elections, it’s clear that this relationship will continue to be key as we work to ensure our communities are empowered, resilient and sustainable.

“Charities and other social organisations offer councils local expertise and knowledge and help local services be tailored to the needs of residents. While over half of the charities we surveyed saw an improvement in their relationship with local government, with the pandemic making local authorities more responsive, it’s clear that this is not universal and that lots of smaller charities have not seen an improvement in their relationship.

“The results also highlight that nearly half of the organisations have seen a decrease in their services but the demand for charities to provide services continues to grow, as the pandemic continues to strain communities. To support local communities and cope with increased demand at this difficult time, charities need longer-term financial support to be made available to their key partners in local government. We continue to call for central government to strengthen the long-term financial sustainability of local authorities by increasing core funding. This has a huge impact on charities around the UK.”

Among other findings, the research also showed:

  • 30% reported a deteriorating financial position the past month, 46% said their finances were stable, while 22% saw improvement. 22% expect a deterioration in their finances over the next month.
  • 48% report an increase in demand for their services over the past month, and 59% expect an increase in demand for their services over the next month.
  • 68% of respondents expect coronavirus to continue to have a moderate or significant negative impact on delivering their objectives next year, while 8% said it was likely or very likely they will no longer be operating next year.