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Coronavirus: Help is needed to save Northern Ireland charities from collapse

Nora Smith

Sector says it requires assistance beyond the £15m fund announced by Stormont Executive last week


Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on our society and economy. Jobs have been lost or furloughed, crucial public services have been halted and our way of life has changed completely.

The charity sector in Northern Ireland has been severely hit and thousands of local charities have seen their fundraising and donations dry up overnight. The cancellation and postponement of major fundraising highlights, like the Belfast Marathon, has also meant that charities will miss out on major fundraising opportunities that they rely on.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £750m of support and funding for charities over three weeks ago, with £22m allocated to charities in Northern Ireland. A sum of this has been allocated to hospices (£6.75m) and last week Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced that £15m would form a Covid-19 Charities Fund to help those most in need.

While we are grateful for all funds, this equates to just £2,459 when split equally between our over 6,100 local registered charities. This is clearly not enough to sustain the sector when some charities have already reported losing over £100,000 in income.

CO3, in partnership with the Institute of Fundraising, recently surveyed over 200 sector chief executives to understand the immediate pressures they are facing. The results illustrate a sector that finds itself on a financial cliff-edge.

Over three quarters of charities are already experiencing serious financial difficulties and the vast majority have found themselves frozen out of support schemes previously announced by Government. 97% of charities are ineligible for the government's business interruption loans, and only 8% are able to access support grants announced by the Executive.

Most worryingly, however, nearly 40% of charities have been forced to cease some of their key services to protect their cash flow, with a further 33% considering similar steps in the coming days and weeks.

Behind every disrupted frontline service are people who rely heavily on local charities. Without significant government intervention, more and more people will be affected by this crisis.

CO3 and the charity sector are calling on the Executive to help stabilise the third sector in Northern Ireland, save jobs, and protect vital frontline services by ensuring the Covid-19 Charities Fund and the Hardship Funds are allocated with immediate effect, advising on eligibility and how charities can access these funding streams as a matter of urgency and opening up the business and employers grant schemes to charities and social enterprises.

It's also calling for a wider support package including a stabilisation fund to enable charities to stay afloat and for changes to the Job Retention Scheme to enable charity workers to be redeployed within their charity and to enable charities to access 80% of wages immediately rather than having to pay and claim back.

Northern Ireland is an incredibly generous place and people here donate and fundraise in their millions every year. But our sector cannot rely on the generosity of ordinary people to pull us out of this current crisis.

Meeting our request now will protect vital services which improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. The Executive must step in now or watch our charity and voluntary sector collapse.

Nora Smith is chief executive of CO3 @noraatco3

Belfast Telegraph