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It’s Trustees’ Week 2020: an annual event that calls on the voluntary and community sector to celebrate the great work that trustees do and highlight opportunities for people from all walks of life to consider getting involved and becoming trustees themselves.

But this year, in the middle of a pandemic and a new lockdown, how can we achieve this? Is it even appropriate to be celebrating our trustees when there is still so much uncertainty out there, and so much need in our communities?

Of course it is!

This year, it’s even more important that we do so. Because this year, our trustees are experiencing their most challenging year yet.

The COVID-19 crisis has meant that traditional methods of generating income in charitable organisations have all but dried up. The first results, published last week, from the new national COVID-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer show that the financial position of 39% of responding organisations has deteriorated in the last month, while 56% expect demand for their services to increase in the coming month, and 60% say that the COVID-related safety measures they’ve had to instal have increased their operating costs.

That’s a lot of extra pressure on the shoulders of our trustees, the vast majority of whom are unpaid volunteers who have taken on the role because they have a deep passion for their organisation’s cause and want to make a difference in their community.

 

Trustees in Northumberland

There are around 1,020 registered charities based in Northumberland (and approximately 400 more that aren’t based here but include Northumberland in their geographical coverage, but let’s forget about those right now). Based on previous estimates of 3.66 ‘under the radar’ charitable organisations per 1,000 head of population, there are also likely to be more than 1,150 of these unregistered groups operating in the county.

Add those figures together and you have in excess of 2,170 charitable organisations based in Northumberland. Now if we assume that all of those charitable organisations have just the bare minimum of the three trustees necessary to run their organisation effectively, then we can come up with a very rough, extremely conservative guesstimate that puts the number of voluntary and community sector trustees in Northumberland at somewhere over 6,500.

That’s 6,500 people who volunteer their time in our communities to take on the vital role of steering their organisation; 6,500 people who could never have foreseen the events of the past eight months and the difficult decisions they would be called upon to make!

In Northumberland, 71% of responding organisations surveyed in April by Northumberland VCS Assembly expected coronavirus to have an impact on their total income, while half of respondents had less than 6 months of reserves at that time and it remains to be seen how many will have succumbed to COVID pressures and ceased activities permanently.  

 

Their biggest challenges during the pandemic

In the run up to Trustees’ Week 2020, we carried out our own very small survey of trustees. There were 26 responses. As part of the survey, we asked the question: ‘What has been your biggest challenge during the COVID-19 crisis and how have you dealt with it?’

More than 20% of respondents talked about the extra workload caused by challenges such as ensuring any emergency response they undertook was covered under their existing charitable purposes, understanding the risks and applying new COVID rules to their particular setting in order to keep people safe and do the right thing by everyone, or as one respondent put it, “balancing the safety and the social requirements of our beneficiaries.” Another respondent told us that “shaping and shifting emphasis to account for emerging needs and restrictions” had required a much greater investment of time than would normally be required.

For almost 80% of respondents, their greatest challenge lay in changing methods of delivery and communication, in quickly putting into place arrangements to establish remote working and maintain contact with staff and beneficiaries, as well as each other. Some talked about the problem of online meetings via platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams feeling so much less personal and so causing some participants to feel uncomfortable contributing. Others talked about the issue of digital exclusion in a lack of IT equipment or reliable internet connection, or simply a lack of confidence in using the technology. Two respondents said that they had been unable to continue delivering their service at all during the pandemic, although they had tried to maintain contact with each other.

While almost 50% of respondents said in response to another survey question that they would like support with funding, only 3 listed this as their biggest challenge during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s true that funders have done a great job in refocusing their priorities to make short term grants available to organisations to help them survive so they can support their communities through the crisis, but not all organisations have been eligible. One respondent, a trustee of two different charities, told us that while one organisation was able to access a £10k grant from Northumberland County Council to help them keep going, the other – a faith-based charity – had ‘fallen through the gap’, despite being “for a considerable part of lockdown, the only one supplying food to people in need in the locality.”

 

All the more reason to celebrate our trustees

It is clear then that during this COVID-19 crisis, our trustees have had many complicated issues to wrangle with and difficult decisions to make, and have been called upon to volunteer more time than usual in their trustee role to establish what is likely to be a ‘new normal’ for their organisation for some time to come so that staff, volunteers, beneficiaries and communities remain safe when interacting with their services.

Trustees’ Week 2020 then is far more important this year than in any other. Our trustees need to be celebrated. And while we may not be able to mark the occasion in the usual ways by having a coffee morning, celebratory meal, or a drinks evening, we must still let them know how appreciated they are.

So, why not organise a special Zoom event, talk to your trustees on the phone, call in a dedication to a local radio station, use the #trusteesweek hashtag on social media and tell the world how much you appreciate them...

Don’t let a pandemic stop you from celebrating Trustees’ Week 2020.

 

Jackie 3

Jackie Auld

Information & Communications Officer