The current COVID-19 pandemic presents a challenge the likes of which most of us have never seen before, and will hopefully never see again. This applies not just to us as individual members of the public, but also to organisations and companies. Many organisations will have had some degree of crisis planning in place, perhaps for a supply chain interruption or terrorist attack, but few outside of healthcare or government would have considered what they would need to do in case of weeks (or possibly months) of lockdown due to a pandemic.

This also applies to the charities sector. Some charities has seen demand swell, for example food banks and domestic violence charities. Others have, for various reasons, all but ceased their activity. In many cases, especially among smaller local organisations, this situation is not something they could have prepared for.

There has also been a marked impact on donations and funding. Some charities, particularly those directly connected to the NHS have seen donations increase significantly. NHS Charities Together raised £100m in a 6 week period, more than 20% of what they raised in 2019 (though the demand for their services will undoubtedly be higher as well).
The consensus, however, is that a significant proportion of charities are at risk of collapse due to funding shortfalls. For example, according to sector analysts Legacy Foresight, income from legacies is predicted to fall by up to 25% across the sector in 2020 purely due to the logistical impacts on the execution of wills.

Environmental and conservation charities are among those thought likely to suffer in the near future, as their work drops out of the limelight and public consciousness. Equally, these charities are now unable to carry out much of the work they usually would have been doing, especially as we come into spring and then summer when the public is most likely to want to get out and enjoy nature. This denies them many of their usual engagement opportunities, and so they are having to come up with other ways to engage the public with nature.

Looking at the ‘Big 3’ UK conservation organisations – the RSPB, the Woodland Trust, and the Wildlife Trusts, a common theme in their public communications is accessing nature whilst under lockdown, and sharing that with other people. The RSPB have a breakfast birdwatch, the Woodland Trust and Wildlife Trusts both have live webcams focused on bird nests. These are ways in which the public can enjoy nature that they might have otherwise been denied due to the lockdown.

Another clear theme, if you compare to say 6 months ago, is a pivot away from jeopardy messages. They’ve not necessarily been dropped entirely, but these organisations are talking much less about the threats to nature than they would have done otherwise, and more about what their supporters can get from nature. In more abstract terms, they’ve focused more heavily on how they can create value for the supporters, as opposed to extracting value (either political or financial) from them.

This makes sense in a time when they might otherwise be struggling to gain attention from the public, and when jeopardy messaging might not be viewed as a call to action, but rather one more piece of bad news on top of a seemingly ever growing pile. It does raise the question of how long can they sustain this if the coronavirus crisis drags on?

Obviously the financial question is hanging over most if not all charities right now, but aside from that there’s also the question of political capital. There will come a time, even if it’s some way away, when avoiding more challenging messages begins to degrade an organisation’s ability to impart political pressure.

Notably, environmental NGOs that are more focused on campaigning than direct conservation, for example Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, haven’t changed their messaging nearly as much. If anything they’re making attempts to use the current situation to strengthen their existing messaging (e.g. demanding that any bailout packages must be green). This doesn’t seem to be hurting them, at least not among their core supporter base. That doesn’t mean that the same would be true with other environmental charities, as their audiences are more nuanced than simply ‘pro-environment’. It is possible however that those more campaign focused supporters may find themselves, over time, drifting towards the organisations that are providing those campaigns.

As with everything in our new world of coronavirus and lockdown, the future is uncertain, and could play out in myriad different ways. In a year’s time, it’s entirely possible than some of the larger charities in the sector today may have had to greatly scale back in order to remain viable, others may even have expanded their work to cover that previously done by smaller organisations that have collapsed.

Either way however, it’s clear that for all types of organisations, from charities to business, maintaining engagement with the supporter or customer now is going to be critical in order that they remain a supporter or customer in the future. The organisations that succeed in doing that will have strategies that mesh with their existing audience and their current brand identity.

James Motteram
Woodland Trust