philanthropy sector


2020 In Review: What can we learn from the philanthropy sector’s COVID response?

“2020 has been the most important year for philanthropy in recent times.” – Matthew Bowcock

Throughout 2020, hundreds of millions of pounds in grants have been distributed to non-profit organisations throughout the UK. The purpose, to support those that found themselves on the frontline of the country’s response. 

With the funding sector stretched to its limits, those in the philanthropy sector found new paths through collaboration.


The wake-up call

Shortly before COVID hit, New Philanthropy Capital surveyed over 300 charities to get their perspectives on the state of the charity sector, a follow-up to its 2017 research covering the same topic.

State of the Sector’ – the resulting report – served as a timely exploration of the non-profit sector’s strengths and weaknesses. NPC’s findings included:

  • Widespread agreement that public trust in the charity sector had fallen, with just 5% of leaders believing it had not.
  • Overconfidence among charities in their ability to use data to evaluate their work.
  • Concerns that there was a lack of flexible core funding for charities.

These proved to be critical weaknesses when COVID hit. The response demanded agile solutions developed through unprecedented levels of collaboration across the funding sector. 

In March, when the UK went into lockdown, a decision was taken by the members of our Organisations’ Council to increase the frequency of meetings from quarterly to monthly. This enabled the philanthropy sector keep pace with a fast-moving landscape. It provided a forum for philanthropists, funders, wealth advisers and policy makers to keep in touch on critical developments.

Through this and other fora, the philanthropy sector and national charities swiftly began to work together to share knowledge. They identified what was happening on the frontline and analysed how best to get funding where it was urgently needed.


Central to the funding efforts:

Beyond these alliances, Beacon undertook to provide weekly updates on how COVID was challenging a variety of sectors. The ‘COVID Guide’ project – spotlighting Women & Girls, Racial Justice, the Environment, Data and more – recognised the work of myriad organisations, and sought “to help donors decide on how to give most effectively” during the crisis’ early months.


A shift to better data

In parallel, the philanthropy sector switched gears to support donors, philanthropists and funders with better data to pinpoint emerging needs.

New Philanthropy Capital launched a project to open up government administrative data to the social sector. Assisted by Health Foundation, Turn2us and Buttle UK, NPC built an interactive data dashboard helping charities and funders identify areas at greater risk of coronavirus and assess the extent of charitable provision in those areas.

The Association of Charitable Foundations set in motion their Funders Collaborative Hub, working with Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Lloyds Bank Foundation. Guided by principles of trust, transparency and co-creation, the Hub collated the knowledge, skills and resources of the philanthropy sector.

Philanthropy Impact kept the wealth advisory community informed and initiated a Technology and Data Standards working group to support philanthropy platform providers to meet the needs of donors, philanthropists and advisers.


Coordinated communications

A joint letter to philanthropists’, published in the Financial Times, called on philanthropists “to think broadly, be clear and straightforward in their giving, and encourage [the] charities they fund to be open about where the challenges are.”

The Institute of Fundraising, Charity Finance Group and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations worked with philanthropists and community leaders to promote the #EveryDayCounts campaign, asking for government intervention in both the charity and philanthropy sectors. The campaign received backing from over 236 MPs and Peers.

It emerged that a coherent message was needed to encourage existing and new donors to commit to giving throughout COVID. Subsequently, the Organisations’ Council set up a Strategic Communications Sub-Group – a platform to coordinate messaging and amplify each other’s work.

Led by the work undertaken by the London Community Response and Charities Aid Foundation, the philanthropy sector adopted the mantra ‘Survive, Adapt, Thrive’, describing the different phases of funding that would be needed to support charitable organisations through the pandemic and beyond. 

The message – that charities need long-term funding to recover – resonated with wealth holders looking to target their funding most effectively.

To track funding patterns among the high-net-worth community in the UK, Beacon and Savanta launched quarterly pulse surveying in June. The quarterly surveys asked a cohort of 300-500 wealthy individuals about their philanthropic activity. Comparing their planned and actual giving, we were able to see which sections of the wealthy population were responding most. Around a quarter of wealth holders have consistently donated more than planned during COVID, a net increase overall.

As the year draws to a close, the £20 million success of this year’s The Big Give’s Christmas Challenge highlights the ongoing need of charitable organisations for philanthropic champions and wider funding supporters.


Questions for the future

There are two questions that emerge from this crisis for 2021. First, what can we learn from 2020 that will strengthen civil society in the future? Second, how can we sustain the increased engagement from wealthy individuals and avoid funding fatigue? 

This first question is already being explored, by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society asking how to unleash the full potential of civil society in the UK. And by DCMS’s follow up to MP Danny Kruger’s report, Levelling Up Our Communities.

On the second question, we continue to see collaborative initiatives breaching new territory even 9 months after the first lockdown. Big Society Capital and Schroders, for example, teaming up this week to launch the World’s first listed social impact investment fund.

2020 put the philanthropy sector through its paces. The same effort will be required again in 2021. This time, to tackle the systemic weaknesses in civil society that the crisis laid bare. 

Yet, we now know the philanthropy sector can be stronger than the sum of its parts. New relationships have been forged through the crisis along with agile methods for effective, streamlined collaboration. This has been a critical year for philanthropy and provides a foundation for ensuring philanthropists are part of future transitions.