How charities are impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and what they can do about it

Written by David Somerville - 15 May 2020

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, it was widely known that the charity sector was experiencing some fairly hefty challenges, particularly when it came to fundraising. However, the onset of the pandemic has only complicated the situation further for many charities, with supporters (or potential supporters) having their focus shifted to their own personal financial situations as a priority, before considering giving to others.

In this article I take a look at how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting charities right now and consider what they should be doing in order to ensure they are armed to be able to react and respond in the best possible way.

A shift in behaviour

There is no question that we have seen a huge amount of change and upheaval over the past month or so. At the time of writing, we are seven weeks into enforced lockdown in the UK and people are adapting to a new way of working and living their lives.

Here are a few things we do know about this changing human behaviour:

People LOVE the NHS – if the NHS was a charity it would be heading straight into number one spot in the fundraising revenue charts. The support has deservedly been overwhelming  from clapping in the streets every Thursday, to people printing 3D protective masks (including our very own IT director, Gavin), people want to show their support for our health service and find ways of helping.

In relation to fundraising, we have seen people get behind activities such as 100-year old Captain Tom Moore’s garden walk that raised a staggering £30m (to date) in just a few weeks. The money Tom raised will be given to the NHS Charities Together, an umbrella organisation that supports more than 140-member health service charities that are typically linked to specific hospitals or NHS trusts.

People are looking after their community first – modern society has often been criticised for a breakdown of the local community and neighbourhoods. However, this has seemingly swung back the other way, with people now looking out for their neighbours – shopping for them, creating Facebook groups for their street and setting up parish pantries’ in telephone boxes. This change could bode well for local charities (including smaller ones), as people realise that charity really does begin at home.

People are focused on the right now – whilst there is some talk about the ‘new normal’ and speculation over what will happen when “this is all over”, there is a feeling amongst many that they need to take each day as it comes and make the most of every moment they have.

How the pandemic is impacting charities already

Whilst we are several weeks into the pandemic, it was only a matter of days before many UK charities started to see the real impacts of it in several ways, including:

Volunteers – many people like to support charities with their time, as well as directly with monetary donations, but lockdown restrictions meant that this was not as easy as before. We saw immediate and widespread impact across typical volunteer activities, from charity shops closing to key fundraising events, such as the London Marathon, being cancelled.

Demand for services  with immediate financial implications for many, plus other changing situations for people, the demand for many of the services provided by charities increased literally overnight. And this demand isn’t just from humans  according to the RSPCA’s website: “We've dealt with nearly 11,000 wildlife incidents through lockdown, and are bracing for a further surge in calls to rescue sick, injured and orphaned wild animals as the breeding season starts.”

Whilst this demand may not be wholly related to the pandemic, there are restrictions on the public being able to bring animals into a rescue centre or animal hospital, therefore the inspectors must carry out even more rescues.

Fundraising  as mentioned above, the restrictions on public events will have a direct impact on fundraising levels. Arguably the monies that would have been raised could still be given at some point in the future, however for many charities they need those vital funds right now. Another important way in which charities will be affected is from supporters who have themselves been impacted financially simply not being able to support in the same way they would have done before. Regular giving is possibly going to be impacted at a slower rate, as this requires effort to amend amounts or cancel, however one-off campaigns might not gain the traction they need.

Many charities were however quick to adapt to the situation. The 2 Minute Foundation, an environmental charity behind initiatives such as 2 Minute Beach Clean and 2 Minute Litter Pick, relies on its community of supporters going out daily to pick up litter and other items from beaches, parks and neighbourhood streets.

Naturally this was impacted by lockdown restrictions, however using their extensive social media network they switched the messaging immediately to one of “pick up litter on your daily allotted exercise, but ensure you are always wearing gloves and are abiding by social distancing rules at all times” and “see how you can be more environmentally friendly in your own home”.

As a result, whilst they are not getting the same levels of participation, they have found supporters switching attention to getting creative at home and sharing this instead - for example, with “2 minutes of positivity” videos posted online. Their social media messaging changed and now they are posting positive posts to help support their community.

There are some ways in which the sector itself is responding, by trying to ensure the Government provides the support it needs for those being affected by the above. For example, CharityComms has launched its #NeverMoreNeeded campaign to ensure that there is a shared narrative and that the voices of the sector are heard.

Find out how we created a three year digital strategy for charity Christians Against Poverty

What can charities do right now?

Whilst many charities are already responding well to the current crisis – with some amazingly creative campaigns being launched and lots of hard work under adversary happening  there may still be some who are struggling to know where to focus.

Here’s my thoughts on what you can be doing right now in order to readjust and develop your marketing activity.

  1. Listen to your audiences – it might sound obvious, but now is even more important than ever to ensure your thinking really is ‘audience first’. We have established already that not only has the behaviour of people changed, but also their needs. You must therefore ensure you are listening to what they are saying and respond accordingly with your activity. Use any customer feedback you have, for example from social comments, emails and phone calls.

  2. Get creative and test new things – because the situation is so unique, there’s an argument to say that there has never been a better time than now to test some new things and see what happens. This could be some different content messaging or trialling using a new platform to reach your supporters. Obviously, what happens now may not have the same impact when the “new normal” happens, but you can test again and see.

  3. Use your data – as well as gaining ‘qualitative’ insights from audience feedback, there are several quantitative data sources that can provide clues as to how your different audiences are behaving and reacting. You can then look to use these insights, in conjunction with the audience ones, to work out whether you are communicating correctly with supporters or whether there are any content gaps you need to fill. These sources can include:

    • your website analytics (using Google Analytics or similar) 
    • Search Console (how visible your pages are and what’s getting the clicks) 
    • Google Trends (will show you what people are searching for now and how that has changed)
    • your CRM (what patterns can you see in relation to supporters, for example donation frequency or average amounts)

  4. Prioritise your tactics – it's likely that the digital marketing or comms strategy that you lovingly created at the end of last year might now have become outdated (at least for a period). That’s why it’s important to take a step back and prioritise your tactics based on the current situation. What you might have scored as being impactful a few months ago may not be the same now.

  5. Get help from others – the charity sector is fantastic at sharing, something that clearly represents the attitude of many people who choose to work in it. Now is the time to seek help and advice from your peers if you need it. There’s no shame in asking, especially as everyone is in the same boat. Keep an eye out for some of the great content being offered by people and organisations. For example, CharityComms has published a page of communicator coronavirus resources. And don’t forget there may be things you can offer others too, so promote your own insights if you can.

A ray of hope

Although the current situation is challenging on many fronts for charities right now, there are positive stories coming out too.

One UK charity that we work with, that helps with people with financial difficulties, has launched a one-off giving campaign that resonated so well with its existing supporters that it has outperformed all previous campaigns in the past few years by a significant level. The messaging has clearly hit home with the right audience, at the right time, and as a result it will be able to put the additional monies raised to good use.

Hopefully as the current situation develops, even more stories like this will surface and perhaps there will be an even greater desire from the public to support those in need, whether human or animal, living in the UK or overseas.

Support for you

If you work for a charity, then you might be interested in downloading one of our many free resources, for example, our Google Ad Grants guide, and sharing them with your teams.

To see how we have helped other charities with a range of digital marketing challenges, have a look at some of our recent work in the sector. 

Join the discussion at our next Fresh Thinking Live!

How to prioritise digital marketing tactics