At times like these we all feel a little helpless –  everything seems so out of our control. The only way we can take some control is to do something to help. So why aren’t our institutions making that easier? 

There is huge amount of good will right now. Showcased by the outpouring of commitment to the NHS – 750,000 volunteers responded to the call to get 250,000 in days. The response was so overwhelming the Government has closed the scheme while they work out what to do with everyone. There are hundreds of other useful things people can do, and we need to activate that potential.

What about our mental health?

The current furloughing scheme is a positive Government intervention. Generally, those I’ve spoken to who are furloughed find that times are very hard, but manageable – they can’t go out so they aren’t spending a lot, it covers their immediate bills – they can survive. However, the question on their mind is what on earth should they do with this time stretching before them, trapped inside no longer allowed to work? I’ve never seen so many articles about mental health online. Stuck at home with nothing to do and no clear end in sight, this is going to be incredibly challenging for your mental health. Even more so if you live alone.

Charities’ experience of COVID-19

Meanwhile the amazing charities which serve us so well are in generally one of two states:

  1. All hands to the pump delivering front line services which have never been so in demand – like our wonderful partners Fareshare
  2. Frantically furloughing employees, trying to get grant extensions and emergency funds or/and pivot to online delivery where possible. Leaders are hoping this won’t go on longer than their reserves, and dreading the year of fundraising coming up. CSR budgets and ‘high net worth’ philanthropists will take hits, and every potential fundraising or networking event is cancelled for the foreseeable.

Brokering skills

So why are we not doing more to bring these two groups together? As a small business there isn’t a huge amount we can do for our partner charities during this crucial time. We do our bit with volunteering and our own fundraising efforts – Tesco’s adverts assure me every little helps. However, we cannot make the amazing commitments that Burberry, the Co-op and others are making in money and other resources. What we have usefully done is brokered opportunities for talented furloughed staff from our clients with our charities. It has given the individuals a purpose in their furlough and the charity the chance to access key skills they otherwise wouldn’t. There was a real appetite from the individuals, desperate to keep busy and feel ‘useful’ in this this situation where we feel so out of control. 

This small local matching is helpful – but I can hardly manually do that for hundreds of charities and thousands of furloughed workers! We need a national effort to make this happen systematically.

Where is the system solution?

NCVO offer some useful guidance about what you as a charity and individual can and can’t do, but someone needs to make it practically possible for people on a big scale. ‘Furlunteering’ has been coined with accompanying hashtag and social media activity, but as a willing individual it would still seem wholly impossible to find out who you help, how, without doing a lot of work yourself. Even the furlunteering website doesn’t really help here. You can find info on about helping your local community, and of course this is important – we must keep the elderly and vulnerable fed during this challenging time. However there is a broader and bigger potential for good right now.

Volunteering infrastructure has consistently been underfunded in favour of frontline delivery. Leaders recently compared the state of affairs in New York to the devastation that hit the city after 9/11. Indeed, that’s precisely why Mayor Bloomberg started the Cities of Service movement – to capture the good will of the people of New York to rebuild the city. This concept inspired the Mayor of London’s Team London to be born, setting up the first ‘City of Service’ in the UK, including a volunteering brokerage.  Perhaps Team London can rapidly mobilise and kindly lend its brokerage technology to this problem within and beyond the M25 border?  Alternatively Government could include in their support package a quick small grant to a national brokerage like This would pay huge dividends. You will get a far greater return on investment by enabling more people to support these charities.

Untapped potential

Let’s be clear I am not suggesting that furloughed charity staff should be replaced with volunteers, more that we should be enabling skilled staff to gift their skills to charities in this challenging time. Skills that charities often don’t have the luxury of having. Costs of developers have halved since this happened, there are accountants and data scientists (who no one could hire for love nor money before this) furloughed from large travel companies and the like. These expensive skills which charities often struggle to access, are suddenly sat at home with nothing to do. Wouldn’t it be great if instead, they could build a charity a website that supports them with their future fundraising efforts? Or help a charity with its commercial plan coming out of this? Or just lend a hand with social media while the people the charities serve need more communications than ever? 

Of course, it should still absolutely be voluntary. This is an opportunity to enable the individuals to have a purpose and the charities to have more of a chance to both survive and thrive coming out of this. Who knows, we might even build some longer term beneficial relationships.

Time is ticking….

We are missing a trick – and we only have a few weeks to fix that. I hope that, Government or Team London and the other Cities of Service can pick up this call to action  – it is such an easy way to help the third sector. In the meantime, as an individual organisation, do chat to your charity partners about what they need and try and connect them with those in your network who are looking to furlunteer.

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