Vicky Browning, charity sector leader

Vicky Browning, charity sector leader

Since 2017 Vicky Browning has been CEO of ACEVO, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations – one of the leading bodies in the sector. Before that, she was director of CharityComms, the fantastic membership body for communications professionals working in charities. Amazon PR has always been involved with CharityComms, and Vicky and Louise worked on a project together a few years ago. We have been very keen to hear her thoughts on the likely effects of Covid-19 on the sector.


Impact of lockdown on charities


Louise: Anyone connected with the voluntary sector will know that because fundraising events have been cancelled and charity shops were closed for months, lockdown has caused a massive shortfall in charities’ income. NCVO (the National Council for Voluntary Organisations) estimated this at £4bn for the first 12 weeks of lockdown alone. The government has provided a £750m support package for UK charities. What has been the short-term impact on charities?


Vicky: In recent months charities have responded to the urgent needs of people across the country quickly, effectively and without question. Putting all our efforts into helping our communities, we have put our own survival on the line. With little chance to fundraise, a loss of income from trading and providing services, and much greater demand, many charities are now in real danger of having to close completely.


“But the immediate response to coronavirus is only the start.”


People across the country know that charities are #NeverMoreNeeded than now and for the foreseeable future. And it’s not just the response to the pandemic where charities are essential – from the dignity offered by hospice workers to those at the end of life, to the safety provided by domestic abuse organisations and the community shown in mutual aid groups and foodbanks.


Lockdown has also thrown a light on the things we value most, things that are too often dismissed as luxuries but are instead the mark of a well, healthy, happy society. Theatres, dance, access to green spaces, museums, community choirs, the local Scout, Woodcraft folk or Girlguiding troop – these are all a vital part of civil society. The work charities do helps change people’s lives, and our communities, for the better and we need to make sure that can continue.


Several of our clients and contacts are looking now at the longer-term impacts and the likelihood of a protracted and deep recession. Do you think some parts of the voluntary sector will face greater challenges than others?


The long-term impact of this crisis will be felt right across the sector. Charities have been encouraged over recent years to diversify their income, and many have moved away from reliance on grant funding to generating their own income, often through social enterprise and using assets such as buildings to house community services or cafes and shops which generate funds in normal times. These have all been hard hit, and any continuation of lockdown measures will exacerbate this. Meanwhile, those reliant on community fundraising such as live sporting events or coffee mornings have seen these opportunities vanish. And even those whose income comes from delivering public services commissioned by local authorities will be affected if the national economic crisis means a reduced settlement from Whitehall for already cash-strapped local government.


It seems to me that some organisations, having survived the immediate crisis and despite many persistent challenges, are beginning to pick up and revisit their planned activity. We are seeing new briefs and some of those charities that are in a position to do so are restarting some of their ‘normal’ work. In talking to your members – leaders of charities of all sorts – would you say that most are now focused on planning for the future, or are many people in fact still in reactive, crisis-handling mode?


We’re seeing a bit of both. Charities are definitely looking at restarting as much activity as they can where delivery has stopped, and reviewing and enhancing the new methods of delivery which enabled services to continue where they have kept going. CEOs are thinking about which elements of the way things happened in lockdown they want to keep, which of the old ways of working they want to ditch and what to reinstate, and how they can build back better. But at the same time, the demand for services is still there – and likely to keep rising as the economy is further impacted – so all this thinking is running in parallel to the continuing response to the ongoing challenges.


How do charity leaders review their organisational strategies when there’s still so much uncertainty?


Uncertainty is the new normal, but this crisis has shown how innovative and flexible charities can be. One of the fundamental requirements of any organisational strategy going forward has to be the ability to flex and adapt as circumstances change. Focusing on the purpose – the why – of what we do is core. The what and how may have to change as circumstances dictate. At the same time, as CEOs we need to think about how we create structures and processes that allow us to deal with crisis as a constant, without burning out ourselves or our teams.

Impact of charities on society


When you run a business, the possibility of failure is pretty much always present. It’s one thing for a business to fold, but quite another for a charity that many vulnerable people rely on. Do we talk enough about what charities are actually here for, the vital role they play in our society and what would happen if significant numbers were to disappear?


I like the analogy used by Vu Le, a not-for-profit leader based in Seattle in the US (and incidentally the closing speaker for #ACEVOFest, our week-long online festival of leadership taking place from 16 November – thought I’d get that plug in!).


“Le says: “Nonprofits are like air: we’re invisible. People don’t really appreciate it until they really need it. You don’t appreciate air until it’s gone.”


I often think that people don’t ‘get’ charities. The average person will know a few, of course. Some of the biggies. Those that have had a direct impact on their lives, or that campaign on issues they are particularly passionate about, or those very local to them. But they won’t think about the sector as a whole, or its breadth or value. I know you have worked on this before, but what more can charities do to increase understanding of their work and their impact – particularly now?


I mentioned that charities are #NeverMoreNeeded. This is the hashtag for a sector-wide campaign that calls for recognition of the contribution of charities during the pandemic, and our need for them and the services they offer as we rebuild. We need to keep telling the stories of the work we do and why it is #NeverMoreNeeded. Any charities who want to support the campaign can download an information pack here.


I’ve become a dedicated reader of Positive News. I love that it’s a printed magazine as well as a website. But also it is a refreshing buffer to the daily headlines in the mainstream media. I thought it might be a bit cheesy but in fact it is good, informative journalism, just focused on solutions rather than problems. In part, it helps demonstrate that charities are at the heart of solving many of our problems. Wouldn’t it be great if this approach to reporting permeated more of our media?


It is frustrating that much media coverage of charities is split into heroes (such as ‘plucky fundraiser’ stories) or villains (‘fat-cat’ charity CEOs). There are so many interesting stories about the work charities do, and their role in addressing many of society’s thorniest problems, that would make great copy!

Looking to the future


Covid-19 is not the only challenge facing charity leaders, of course. The climate emergency. Racism. Brexit. Charities exist to improve people’s lives, but can’t fix everything. Realistically, what should be the focus for the sector over the next couple of years?


I would say purpose, values and partnerships.


Charity leaders need to keep a laser-like focus on their organisational purpose, but also make sure that how we deliver our purpose reflects our core values. Last year ACEVO published a general election manifesto with a difference. ‘We Imagine Better’ asked those elected to serve in government to root their work in seven core values: equity, opportunity, safety, community, love, dignity, and sustainability. And in 2020, it is the actions that have arisen from these values, not just in formal civil society settings but in individual and community action, that offer us hope for building back better.


“Our sector has a crucial role to play in tackling the main challenges our society faces. But we can’t do it alone, so partnership working between charities and between sectors will be key.”


I’ve been asking people whether or not they envisage a full return to office-based working any time soon. The general consensus is that some sort of ‘blended’ way of working will become the norm – organisations will keep their offices, but they’ll only be used a couple of times a week, with many staff continuing to work from home long-term. What do you think will happen for your team?


The ACEVO team has adapted really well to remote working – in fact, it’s been something of a revelation for some team members! But we definitely miss seeing each other in person. Some of our team would prefer working from home to remain the norm for them, others would like to work with team-mates in an office environment for two or three days a week. We’re looking at this now and I imagine we’ll end up with a hybrid approach, but will definitely switch from being an office-based organisation where people occasionally work from home to a remote-working organisation where people occasionally get together in an office.


Technology is a wonderful thing and has enabled us to continue to work effectively and to remain connected. But parts of it are hate-filled, narcissistic and downright depressing. You had a digital detox recently. How did that go and will that become a regular thing for you?


Technology is a vital part of our lives, but particularly since the coronavirus pandemic I spend most of my days in front of a computer screen, answering emails, watching myself on Zoom calls (and questioning my hair choices), and chatting to others on Twitter and WhatsApp. So sometimes it’s good to have a break from all that and focus on family, friends and life off-screen. I always come off Twitter when I’m on holiday and do my very best not to check work emails. It’s important to have proper rest so I’m refreshed on my return to work and raring to go.


Interview originally published in September 2020.