Light at the end of the tunnel or just a train coming the other way?
This year has got to go down as the third sectors "Annus horribilis". Organisations have been asked to do "more and more" for "less and less". Grants have dried up, staff and volunteers have been isolated, and most of the usual ways of delivering services have been severely affected.
It would be easy to put our heads in our hands and wonder where it will all end, but I believe that as well as being a real detriment, the current situation offers the sector a wide range of opportunities for expansion and development.
I can hear the howls of laughter from here but bear with me for a moment.
The crisis saw an almost immediate response from civil society.
Organisations adapted their services overnight to deliver food and supplies. Many of those services are now embedded and valued and will continue into the future.
The issue of homelessness thought intractable for decades was almost entirely resolved in a matter of days.
We have discovered that with world-wide co-operation, we can develop and test a vaccine in months rather than years.
On the environmental front, we saw just how quickly the public could adapt to reduced travel options and realise the benefits of clean air and reduced noise and air pollution.
If nothing else, the current situation has demonstrated that the public is much more adaptable to widespread change than was thought and that by focusing resources, significant change can be brought about swiftly and effectively.
Technologically, we now know that many of us can work effectively from home and start to save our organisations time and resources as a consequence - I'm certainly going to take a lot of dragging to London for meetings in the future!
We are operating in a very different environment than that before the pandemic. We now know that altering behaviour patterns is much more straight forward than anticipated and that innovative solutions can be quickly adopted if the will (or necessity) is there.
I think that there are a few other drivers that are going to change the landscape.
The first is the need to undo the undoubtedly catastrophic damage that the isolation of vast numbers of society will cause. Before the epidemic, the health service recognised that social isolation (loneliness) was killing more people than smoking. Just imagine then, the impact of locking thousands of people in their homes and telling them that they could die horribly if they come out. Add to this the number of cases where illness is made worse by people avoiding hospitals, and you can start to imagine the scale of the potential health crisis.
Next, we need to think about the state of the economy. It doesn't take a crystal ball to forecast that all levels of government are going to need to squeeze as much value (economic and social) from every buck they spend. We know already that the impact on jobs and worklessness will be huge and unfortunately, as always, will impact most on deprived communities and disadvantaged people.
There is a widespread acknowledgement from across all parties that a decade of under-investment in the most impoverished communities has had a significant impact on their ability to sustain themselves through the pandemic and that overcrowded housing, and lack of income impacted on peoples ability to socially isolate.
Social investors are already starting to see downturns in the levels of borrowing taking place and are actively seeking new ways to stimulate activity that can lead to the need for investment.
Business in general and the high street, in particular, will leave swathes of empty premises and landlords will inevitably need to consider property rents and re-set the values attached to business premises.
And my point is?
Well, who else, but the third sector can play a role in tackling the challenges that we are going to face? We have a track record of success in solving societies ills, using innovation and partnership and often (reluctantly) doing it on a shoestring.
The social investment market is keen to support social innovation and government has had its eyes opened to the ingrained needs of poorer communities and evidence of the impact of the third sector in tackling that need. New forms of payment are(such a social prescribing and impact bonds) are now coming to the fore and offer alternatives to relying on grants.
The bonus is there will be a surplus of property to operate from, that can be adapted into supported housing for the more vulnerable in society.
Now is the time to start thinking about where your organisation can increase its impact, the organisational changes that will involve and where you can find the resources to adapt and innovate your services. Many organisations are now looking at new joint working arrangements and mergers between organisations and whether effective partnerships with the private and public sectors can be developed. As always, CERT is happy to help in any way we can and are actively seeking resources and partnerships to deliver organisational support to the third sector.