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The U-Shape

17 August 2020

The U Shape - by Ian Boyd CEO

Where to start? What a whirlwind 2020 has been so far. I had such big and exciting plans for what I thought we were going to be focused on as a charity; how wrong I was! It goes without saying that these are indeed unprecedented times. The financial pressure that this health emergency has thrown up are the biggest challenge to our sector in living memory. Austerity was a hard, slow slog. A squeeze on the sector brought on over many years of cut backs. This may well turn out to be similar into the future, but the biggest difference so far has been the speed and scale of how quickly this challenge has developed. The domino effect of this pandemic wreaking havoc across businesses, charities, local government alike. We live in what we like to think of as a mature, western, developed society, but at times everything has felt very vulnerable.

Initially one of the hardest parts of lockdown for me were the limitations of what we were all allowed to do. I am sure I am describing how many other charity workers felt, but I got into this sector to help others and it felt like at the one time when everybody needed the most support, was the one time when everyone was locked down and limited in how they were able to respond. In theory it was for times like these that charities were established in the first place. Supporting others was our collective core purpose, our time to shine, but either financially or physically we were being prevented in doing all we wanted to. For us that led to some very creative conversations across the team, with the result being that we found new and innovative ways to continue our work with others. I have been very proud of the support FITC has continued to offer during lockdown, and the many thousands of community members we continue working with remotely. When our beneficiaries needed us most, I feel confident that hindsight will show we stood up when required.

Finances have undoubtably been a struggle and will continue to be for the foreseeable. With the temporary shutdown of the Portland Leisure Centre back in March and with that our ability to trade and fundraise through events, we estimate missing out on around £500k of much needed support for the charity. Support for the sector has been there in drips and drabs, the furlough scheme for us has been a lifeline, but in many cases, Central Govt solutions feel more like a sticking plaster; providing short term relief, but in many cases not changing the fundamental challenges we will all face a couple of months further down the line.

There is also a big difference between restricted and unrestricted funding that is being made available as a result of the health crisis. Much of the funding (rightly so) is going into new work for covid related projects; there is clearly a need for this type of work, but this is new work, requiring new resource and doesn’t support the older, regularly type of work we were all involved in pre covid. Some funders have shown a level of flexibility around this, which is most appreciated, but in general I would say there is more that Government, funders and commissioners could do. I am still reflecting on the Johnson Government’s many mixed messages but none more so than when they spent many months encouraging the positive effects of physical exercise through people’s 1hr lockdown activity per day, and also encouraging good emotional health and wellbeing, but when it came time for unlocking it was disappointing to see Boris prioritised beers over staying physically healthy, with pubs and drinking establishments getting the green light to reopen well before gyms, pools and leisure centres. I also note that the Arts have collectively been provided with more than double the support package for the entire CHARITY sector. £1.57 billion for the Arts versus £750 million for the entire Charity sector?! I have nothing against the Arts, but for one theme to receive more than twice an entire sector…?

What I think is clear is that the charity sector must survive, more must be done to support those thousands of charities across the county supporting the most vulnerable. Even if we do, as individuals, all manage to survive these first initial months of the pandemic, it is clear that whether through mental health, drug and alcohol, divorce, domestic abuse, obesity or negative lifestyles choices there are still plenty of challenges that this episode has brought to light that society will need support with now and long into the future.

I’m sure many others would agree, the speed at which events have moved has been one of the most challenging parts of the past 4 months. Due to updating Govt and health guidelines, plans are made, but are often outdated before they are even put into practice. At a time like this it’s been important to ‘control the controllables’ and remain open minded and flexible towards some of the other challenges that seem to be beyond our initial control. We will continue to monitor progress and finances over the coming weeks and months in order to keep ourselves as sustainable as possible.

As I write, we are looking to progress with our unlocking plans. We reopened the Portland Leisure Centre on Monday 27th July on reduced hours and have plans in place for both local holiday provision for local young people and our NCS delivery throughout Aug.

I have been describing much of the past 4 months as a metaphorical U-shape. The drop down into that elongated U-shape in March was fast and furious, then once we got over the initial shock and fear of what had just happened, then we reinvented our delivery and utilised the support of the furlough scheme; this gave us a cocooned, safe’ish feel at the bottom of the U-shape. This continued for many months, until around now, as we look to start unlocking and establishing our new normal. This feels rewarding and exciting in being able to get back to business, this also feels like the hardest part; the fine balance of HR, financial and delivery planning around unlocking for right now, and of course into the future as well.

Our future strategies have been based around a shrink to grow model, meaning that if we can get into our fighting fit shape ready for early 2021, when we anticipate some of the deepest societal and financial pressures to emerge then we will have done all we can. Of course, we need to plan for the future, but we also need to get to that future first. Which in some cases we cannot do without fighting those initial fires. But when we allow ourselves, it does feel good to lift the attention to future.

This truly feels like a reset moment for our charity (and much of the wider sector). Who are we? What are we here to do? I have been very proud of the way we as a charity have reacted and continued supporting others during lockdown. There have been many positive innovations and examples of creativity that I’m sure are here to stay. A renewed focus on tackling health inequalities will be a key priority for us as we continue to use the power of sport, physical activity and Notts County Football Club to engage and empower local communities and the individuals we serve. 

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