With concern rising nationally in recent weeks about the pressure staff and volunteers are under in the voluntary sector, here at CAS we’ve been asking what can be done on a local level to offer further support. It’s a complex picture of incredibly passionate people working and volunteering in organisations that often deal with very challenging topics, but which can also bring an enormous sense of wellbeing through the difference they are making to individuals in Suffolk on a daily basis.
With national research highlighting burnout as a very real risk for the sector, it is certainly something to focus on. Our own CAS research during the cost-of-living crisis has seen an escalation in organisation concerns for their staff and volunteer wellbeing right here in Suffolk. Conducted earlier this year, our most recent survey reported 47% of respondents saying they had lost volunteers in the past year, a third saying they had trouble retaining volunteers, and just under half saying that reduced volunteer numbers had affected their ability to deliver services. Coupled with staff recruitment difficulties and the seemingly ever-present difficult financial situation, it is little wonder that those employed and/or volunteering in our sector are feeling the pressure.
The additional challenge that we face in Suffolk particularly is that the majority of our sector is made up of small organisations, 87% of our charities have an income less than £100,000. Our most recent State of the Sector report also showed that movement in the larger charities financial thresholds is occurring in Suffolk with 35 charities moving from an income of over £500,000 to under £500,00 in the last 5 years. 53% of Suffolk charities are also classed as micro charities, with an income less than £10,000 per annum, a category which the NCVO Almanac 2022 (published 2023) has reported 42% of which nationally were in deficit at year end.
The CAF Charity Resilience Index published in September 2023 has further reiterated some of these findings stating that more than half the charities they surveyed (600 in total) are worried about their survival, and that 41% can’t help anyone else, while 12% are having to turn people away. Pro Bono Economics and Nottingham Business School have also published A tale of two sectors in October 2023 stating that “…it is small charities that appear to be struggling the most currently” but that “for charities of all sizes, the combination of increased demand, challenges recruiting volunteers and, until recently, recruiting enough paid staff to deal with growing demand, is impacting staff workload.” They go on to state that 30% of charity employers reported rising rates of exhaustion and burnout in the last year.
Having said all that and knowing that much of the national picture is at least echoed if not exacerbated in Suffolk, these statistics and reports are at their most useful when used to elevate and highlight the situation alongside a practical approach to supporting the sector. A tale of two sectors also says that in the last 12 months, 60% of charity employers have provided their staff with access to mental health support, which should be seen as a positive step. There is no doubt that for Suffolk charity leaders the wellbeing of staff, volunteers and those we work with more widely is talked about much more and practical support within organisations has increased.
There does seem to be a shift occurring that is elevating the positives and, while it is no doubt important to raise the issues above and use them to raise awareness and as tools for change, I am particularly inspired when I see our sector heralded as organisations and groups that encourage, support, advocate and inspire. Suffolk Mind’s recent report Wellbeing Among Volunteers does this particularly well in showing that volunteers are better meeting all their needs than those not volunteering, most notably those of Community, Value, Meaning & Purpose, and Achievement. For me, findings like these are essential drivers to promote volunteering and by using these nuggets of information to promote the benefits of volunteering, the practical solution of increasing volunteer numbers can become a little bit easier. A solution focused approach, backed up by shouting about what we do well stands us all in good stead.
I find myself promoting this approach on a daily basis – yes absolutely, let’s raise awareness and have the tough conversations about the current climate and external pressures, keep reading and noting the reports and gathering data; but let’s also use that to proactively take steps and collaborate on creating change.
If you’d be interested in being part of an approach like this for some of the key challenges I’ve highlighted above, I’d be very happy to hear from you in the near future.