Charities are working harder than ever to care for the vulnerable and hold communities together. But they are also struggling at this time - what could be done to support them as they support others?

The Evangelical Alliance has spoken to all its member churches and organisations over the last month and has heard incredible stories of how they are responding to this crisis: from making practical changes to deliver church meetings online to caring for the vulnerable in their community in new ways. We’ve heard how the church in the UK is committed to making Jesus known through their words and actions. 

However, we’re also very aware that it’s not easy. From decline in income, to increased demand on services, to swift changes in operation and structure, we know that this is a time of significant challenges for churches and organisations. As a membership organisation we are committed to providing a voice for evangelical Christians in the UK, and representing our members to the governments and parliaments of the UK

We want to be a prophetic voice that offers hope to society, and we want to help the church provide that hope. Sometimes that also means calling to attention things that are not the way they should be. In this crisis, it means holding the government to account for their actions, and highlighting to them what is happening — because local churches and charities know far better than most what the impact of this crisis is where they are serving. They see the daily reality of lockdown, they know the problems it is causing and the individual specific crises it is exacerbating. 

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The House of Commons is currently holding a Select Committee inquiry into the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on charities, and we have responded to this, representing the concerns of our members. We asked our member organisations what challenges they were currently experiencing and how these problems could be alleviated by government action.

Local churches and charities know far better than most what the impact of this crisis is where they are serving

Challenges

The principle challenge experienced by evangelical charities across the UK mirrored of the charity sector more widely: the pincer movement of reduced fundraising opportunities and increased demand for services. 

The most obvious reduced funding opportunity for churches is not the most significant one. Churches are no longer able to receive tithes and offerings through collections on Sunday services, and this is a lost stream of income, but many churches now see most regular giving online or through standing orders and direct debit so this is not impacted as much. 

However, the lost revenue that is hurting churches the most is that of rental income. Churches across the UK play host to countless toddler groups, dance classes, boys brigade groups and many other community groups. As well as providing a local place for these groups to meet at the heart of the neighbourhood, this also provides needed funding for many churches. The indefinite cancellation of many of these bookings means that churches are still facing bills for their buildings but not income to cover costs. 

While the Government’s primary mechanisms for business support include furloughing workers, this is not practical for organisations finding demand for their support at record levels, nor possible for some churches given the employment status of some ministers. 

Funding is not the only challenge facing charities at this time. The essential restrictions on contact mean that organisations face additional challenges in delivering services. The government regulations provided an important exemption for church buildings to open for the delivery of essential services such as foodbanks or homeless shelters. However, these have still had to modify their operations to reduce the risk of transmission. Organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, for whom in-person contact and debt counselling is a crucial component of their work, have had to revise their operations to continue to support people in the greatest need. 

Additionally, there is the challenge that many organisations rely on the voluntary services of those now categorised as especially vulnerable. This particularly applies to those over 70 who have been encouraged to exercise particularly stringent social distancing. 

Support for charities

It is not for the Government to do the work of charities or of wider civil society. This is an important principle. It is not that charities exist solely to highlight the shortcomings of government (although they often do), but that civil society, both formal charities and other local community groups, can do what government cannot. 

Therefore, while there is a place for government support for the charitable sector, it is not for the Government to take over what charities do best. This is unlikely to be done directly, but the prospect of increased state funding for charitable causes does threaten to blur the line. 

We recognise that financial support for the charitable sector is needed at this time. The government has announced a package of financial support for the charitable sector, but analysis suggests it is far less than will be lost in three months of lockdown. The package provides £750million in two main tranches, the first half being allocated directly by government departments to charities providing essential services and supporting the vulnerable during this crisis, including hospices and St John’s Ambulance. The other half will be allocated by the National Lottery Big Community Fund to small and medium sized charities who are, in the government’s words: making a difference during the outbreak”. This funding is to be welcomed; however, we have raised concerns about its distribution through a National Lottery fund, a mechanism that many Christian organisations will have qualms about accessing. 

The funding is also limited to those organisations directly responding to this outbreak. While this is of course important, it does not replicate the support for businesses, which recognises that a wide range of organisations have had their work disrupted by coronavirus. We are therefore encouraging the government to provide additional support that is not contingent on the particular activity that charities are providing. One way of doing this, which was suggested by several Evangelical Alliance members, is a temporary uplift in gift aid. If gift aid were increased to 30 per cent (from its current rate of 25 per cent) this would provide approximately an additional £270million to charities in the coming year. 

As well as the financial support that charities require during this crisis, we also need longer term affirmation of the unique role of charities. As noted above, the need for financial support must note be blurred into the co-opting of charities into public operations. The independent nature of charities through the local connections, philanthropic support and entrepreneurial leadership, are the things that make them effective at solving problems that otherwise appear intractable. 

It is not for the Government to do the work of charities or of wider civil society

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash