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Doing more with less in uncertain times: supporting post-COVID recovery in the third sector

As we cautiously emerge from lockdown and plan to ‘Build Back Better’, how can the sector use skills development to support recovery? And, in a landscape characterised by diverted resources, diversified delivery and dwindling reserves, how can they do so affordably?

Challenged on all fronts

It’s been said that Coronavirus hits you where it hurts; finding your personal challenges and making them worse. Lonely people become more isolated. Ill people become more vulnerable.

The same is true of the charity sector as it is of individuals. COVID has exacerbated the challenges that charities have always faced. Income. Reserves. Volunteers. Demand. Delivery. Leadership. Staffing.

The charity sector has been challenged on all fronts by COVID. As many charities – such as food banks, mental health and domestic violence support – have seen a significant upswing in demand, their ability to deliver services has been seriously impacted.

  • Difficulties delivering face-to-face services in a COVID-secure way
  • Challenges pivoting to online delivery and support
  • The reduction in volunteer numbers due to self-isolation and government restrictions
  • The redirection of funds to the emergency response

The economic impact of COVID on the charity sector

Charities have welcomed flexibility from grant-making organisations to redirect their funds to the urgent concerns of the COVID crisis. But with limited government financial support, many have had to draw on reserves to continue their services.

Kyrus Daniels, The Open University’s Third Sector Account Manager works closely with charity partners and says that austerity and lost income are the biggest challenges facing the organisations he speaks to.

The public is just as generous as they always were, But there’s been a realignment of priorities. Volunteers are giving their time to mutual aid and covid relief efforts in their community; they’re donating to different causes. This has meant that many other charities have lost income and are drawing on their reserves. It isn’t sustainable.

Kyrus Daniels, The Open University’s Third Sector Account Manager

But where next, when reserves run out? In recent surveys conducted to assess the impact of COVID 30% of small charities said they feared they’d not bounce back from COVID and would close their doors permanently (

A report from Lloyds Bank Foundation (Small charities responding to COVID-19, Dec 2020) says that whilst emergency funding in the form of core and unrestricted grants has been helpful, a longer-term view of funding for small charities is needed. This is particularly important as local authorities face difficult funding choices when setting their budgets from March 2021 onwards.

It looks certain that, in the post-COVID landscape, charities are going to need to work harder and smarter, doing more with less. This will inevitably impact on budget for training and development. Which is why The Open University is redoubling its efforts to help the sector develop the staff and skills it needs to succeed.

Collaboration and partnerships

Helping charities work together to find solutions for the sector is a key focus of The Open University’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership (CVSL), an Academic Centre of Excellence based in the OU’s triple-accredited Business School.

‘Charity leaders need to reflect, reconvene and reimagine the future of the sector, says Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, Director of CVSL. ‘Charities are facing an uncertain future and can’t solve these challenges in isolation. Working together to reimagine the sector and service delivery is going to be key.’

To support collaboration, networking and leadership development, CVSL provides a range of resources, including:

Developing digital skills

The pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital change for charities. Organisations have had to get to grips with new technology quickly, for communication and service delivery. As organisations discover the potential and limitations of digital services, the role of technology in the sector needs further exploration. For charities that choose to build on their recent digital developments, staff training and infrastructure investments could be on the agenda.

The Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership is partner to a new project researching the digital skills of the third sector across Europe, which will result in the production of new learning resources.

In the meantime, The Open University offers a wide range of digital courses – from free learning via the OpenLearn platform, to individual degree modules and microcredentials, all the way up to degree-level apprenticeships and Master’s qualifications.

Upskilling leaders

The charity sector has often struggled to attract and retain top talent due to lower salaries and benefits. However, to face an uncertain future effectively, charities need effective leadership.

For example, the Charity Digital Skills report 2020 showed 28% of respondents said they would like to improve leadership skills in their organisation – up 5% from the previous year. However, the cost of training is often prohibitive and finding a programme that fits around the professional and personal commitments can be a challenge.

Degree and higher apprenticeships are one way for charities to overcome these barriers, and access high-quality, flexible, work-based training.

Outdated misconceptions about apprenticeships led people to believe they’re just for school leavers. This isn’t the case. Apprenticeships are now available to people at any stage of their career and in a diverse range of disciplines, including business and management, and digital skills. Furthermore, the Apprenticeship Levy can be used to develop staff and further funding and incentives are available.

This makes apprenticeships an ideal choice for cost-conscious organisations seeking to upskill their staff, improve productivity and retain talent. The OU’s Build The Future Apprenticeship Survey found 74% of employers in England said that apprenticeships boosted retention and 77% said they boosted productivity.

The Open University partner with a number of third sector organisations to deliver the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship. This is a work-based programme that integrates professional practice with formal training, to enable in-work learners to develop new knowledge and skills that they can apply immediately in the workplace.

Training staff and volunteers

Another challenge for charities is upskilling staff and volunteers, particularly if they are geographically dispersed. Providing training is one way charities can recruit, reward and retain workers, whilst developing the skills portfolio of their staff. 

If your charity needs more wide-spread training to upskill staff or volunteers – as individuals or a collective – The Open University offer several ways to achieve this without incurring extra cost.

Part of our mission is to support social mobility through accessible learning. One of the ways we fulfil this is by providing free learning through our flagship OpenLearn platform.  

OpenLearn provides thousands of free courses and resources, including professional development programmes in leadership, management and digital skills. Staff can self-guide through training or we can work with you to create a bespoke learning pathway to meet your organisation’s needs and aspirations.

The quality and popularity of this provision was demonstrated by more than 2.5 million users visiting the site in April 2020 just after the first lockdown, and one in four visitors enrolled on a course, leading to 1.8 million enrolments.

How Barnardo’s adapted to challenges

Our core mission is to protect vulnerable children, young people and families, and we have done that for 155 years through providing face to face services. So when the first lockdown was announced we were presented with a challenge of how we could respond to the crisis and support people through it.

We kept services open and embraced a new flexible operating model to best meet children’s needs in these unique circumstances. Where we could not meet face to face we found other ways to support children and young people - primarily on the phone, by video calls or through apps and so on - after strict safeguarding assessments.

Key to this was ensuring our staff were equipped with the training and support to work the software - after all, who knew about Zoom before lockdown - while also giving them the tools to look after their own mental health and wellbeing while working from home.

We did this through a combination of resources on the BU, which oversees the learning and development of staff and volunteers at Barnardo’s, and also by providing tech support from our digital and IT colleagues. Barnardo’s will be adopting a 'work from anywhere' model of working from the end of June we will be looking at continually developing learning resources and advice we can provide to ensure all of our colleagues have the necessary skills and expertise to do this.

Charlotte Corfield, the Dean of the BU (Barnardo’s University)

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