A Northern Ireland social enterprise chief has called for businesses to collaborate with the third sector during and following the coronavirus crisis.
Maeve Monaghan, chief executive of Now Group - an NI-wide social enterprise providing training, employment and support services to people with learning disabilities and autism - said she was "keen to raise awareness" of how her organisation supports vulnerable people and how the business community can help to continue that work when the aftermath of coronavirus is felt on the economy.
"Right now the third sector is facing a crisis; social enterprises even more so," she said.
"It is very challenging because there isn't a separate intervention for us, we fall between two stools. Every business is important but we have a social purpose and coming out of this we need to look at a different way of doing business. The private, public and third sector need to work together," she added.
Her plea follows on from "priceless" support the group has already received from business advisory firm Deloitte during lockdown when Now was forced to furlough the majority of its staff.
The group, which includes Loaf Catering - a cafe and catering business with outlets at Belfast City Hall, Omagh's Ulster American Folk Park, Crawfordsburn and Grosvenor Road, Belfast - has continued offering takeaway and delivery from its Grosvenor Road site. It has also been donating food packages to vulnerable families and soup kitchens but all other support work and training has stopped.
"Now Group supports 1,000 people with learning difficulties throughout Northern Ireland. That can be anyone from a lecturer to a frontline worker," said Ms Monaghan.
"We have been forced to close, like many businesses. We have 100 people in paid jobs who are furloughed and a further 30 at least furloughed with other hospitality businesses and I would be really concerned about what happens to people with disabilities as the market changes. We need to make sure they're not more disadvantaged when the unemployment rate rises.
"Lockdown for someone with a learning disability is a much harder period of time and we may have to look at retraining our catering and hospitality staff for roles in other sectors like retail and cleaning," she said.
With the support from Deloitte, the social enterprise has been able to continue to offer a delivery and collection service from its building Loaf Cafe, located directly facing Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, but it hasn't been enough to continue at the rate the £1m-turnover business was used to.
"We've been working with Deloitte for four years and when lockdown began they contacted us to see if they could help.
"Cash was a big issue as we lost over £100,000 a month with the closure of our cafes but they donated money to help us get our delivery service up and running, they assisted with that cash flow," added Ms Monaghan.
But she said business support for the third sector isn't just about financial aid.
"Deloitte also provides us with pro bono services that have helped us to deliver more impact, develop strategies and they are helping with an expansion plan which will come after an interim emergency plan.
"I think many businesses don't realise they can offer this kind of support to a third-sector organisation. Tapping into their resources and skills for an organisation like us is priceless."
Ms Monaghan described Deloitte's work with Now Group as "a good example of the future of business" in a post-lockdown world.
"I think business will need to change on the back of this crisis and we will have to look at a collaboration to get society up and running again.
"It will be less about driving profit, then feeling guilty and giving to the third sector as part of CSR and more about understanding how we can all do business together for the better," she added.
Now Group is hoping to deliver packed lunches to businesses when staff return to work. It's a service Ms Monaghan hopes many firms will avail of to welcome back employees.
"By putting someone like the Now Group in your supply chain, that's a sustainable model rather than a one-off cheque and it helps us support more vulnerable people who have been marginalised," she said.
Looking to life after lockdown, Ms Monaghan continued: "The calibre of a country can be determined by how well you treat your vulnerable. Northern Ireland was starting to make real inroads with equality but I would be concerned about the potential high levels of unemployment and where that puts people with disabilities.
"When we look at what we have with Deloitte, it's a marriage made in heaven and when businesses restart I would love to see them collaborate with social enterprises in a different way, using the tools they have. We can all get through this together."
This year alone Now Group has supported 745 vulnerable people through training. It has helped source employment for 81 people and supported a further 122 people in earning qualifications that will help them move into employment.