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Struggling Northern Ireland charities at risk of collapse as funds dry up amid coronavirus pandemic


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Roisin Foster, CEO Cancer Focus

Roisin Foster, CEO Cancer Focus

Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

Nicole Lappin

Nicole Lappin

Roisin Foster, CEO Cancer Focus

Charities are in crisis as Covid-19 decimates fundraising but increases the number of people relying on their services.

A recent coronoavirus impact study by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) found 98% of charities had been affected by the pandemic.

Some 81% said they had cancelled events and 80% reported they had stopped services or activities.

Most worryingly, when the survey was conducted at the end of March, one in six had no more than five weeks of financial reserves to take them through the crisis.

Charity Commission chief Nicole Lappin said Northern Ireland's 12,000 to 12,500 charitable groups faced an uncertain future.

"It's very early days, but the NICVA survey suggests some will soon run out of money. Covid-19 may well mean that some charities are unable to survive," she said.

Our funding has dried up at a time when patients need us more than ever. Cancer patients are seeing their treatments postponed or cancelled, or are having to face hospital appointments alone Roisin Foster, Cancer Focus NI

Many charities have already furloughed staff after seeing their income streams completely collapse. Cancer Focus NI, for example, has been forced to put 80% of its workforce on temporary leave and scale back many services - a decision chief executive Roisin Foster described as "heartbreaking".

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Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

"Our funding has dried up at a time when patients need us more than ever. Cancer patients are seeing their treatments postponed or cancelled, or are having to face hospital appointments alone," she said.

"I predict that we're going to see a wave of late cancer diagnoses when the Covid-19 crisis eases. At the moment some screening and diagnostic services have been cut back and people with symptoms such as weight loss or a lump may be putting off going to their GP."

Roisin estimates that her organisation stands to lose around £1.5million this year - half its expected income.

"We understand that many households are seeing a drop in income too, but if people are able to make a donation to us, no matter how small, we'd be very grateful," she said.

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Nicole Lappin

Nicole Lappin

Nicole Lappin

"We're starting to see people doing fun things at home to support us, such as sponsored head shaves because they can't get to the hairdresser, and that's brilliant. Other people are donating their commuting money because they're not travelling to work."

Stroke Association NI is another local charity facing difficulties. Director Barry Macaulay told this newspaper: "We need to be very flexible as an organisation and I'm proud of how the team has responded.

"For example, we've partnered with Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke to deliver a support programme for stroke survivors when they are discharged from hospital.

"This allows them to benefit from emotional support and counselling, as well as online speech and language and physical exercise sessions.

"Additionally our team are using technology to allow stroke groups to meet virtually, using home laptops.

"This is a technology we may continue to use after the pandemic to reduce isolation and loneliness for stroke survivors, particularly in rural areas."

Another charity trying innovative ways to drum up support is the premature birth group Tiny Life.

It organised a Great Non-Event to ask for donations last month and is now running a Crawl-athon.

"The distance to travel around Northern Ireland's seven neonatal units is 260 miles. That fed into the 2.6 challenge that many charities are running following the postponement of the London Marathon, so we're appealing for 260 parents to send us a short video of their baby crawling, as well as a small donation," said Tiny Life head of fundraising Valerie Cromie.

We've had to furlough some staff, so we're just trying to do as much as we can. We had a summer of fundraising events planned, like coffee mornings, colour runs, an abseil and Mournes walk, and they've all been cancelled or postponed Valerie Cromie, Tiny Life

"Each of these videos will represent a mile and we'll create a montage of all these babies on our Facebook page."

Tiny Life has managed to move many of its services online, including its peer support group for parents. It's also working in partnership with Disability Action to keep its breast pump loan service running.

"We've had to furlough some staff, so we're just trying to do as much as we can. We had a summer of fundraising events planned, like coffee mornings, colour runs, an abseil and Mournes walk, and they've all been cancelled or postponed," said Valerie

There is hope, however. Across the province, members of the public are rallying to support charities.

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Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

Paul McElkerney from Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service.

The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service has amended its practices to meet social distancing rules and has had extremely positive feedback from donors. It has also reduced donor sessions to one a day and is asking people to book online at www.nibts.org.

"Blood stocks are thankfully holding up," said the service's Paul McElkerney. "With many routine operations postponed, demand has dropped, but there are still around 500 patients in Northern Ireland each week needing a blood transfusion for things like birth complications and cancer treatment.

"Demand will rise again as surgeries are rescheduled, so we would welcome anyone wanting to register to give blood.

"There is a lot of goodwill out there and people are looking for ways to help others. Giving blood is an excellent way to do this. Within five to six days, you will have saved someone's life."

Nicole Lappin agrees there has been a swell of altruistic feeling and hopes charities will benefit.

"Someone told me recently that we're not all in the same boat, but we are all facing the same storm," she said.

"The voluntary sector is very good at adapting and we're already seeing charities working together to keep services running.

"There is a massive amount of goodwill out there and people want to help. From volunteering to donating and giving safely, we have advice on our website."

Belfast Telegraph