NCVO Submission June 2020




public services: lessons from coronavirus


1. About NCVO

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) is the largest membership organisation for the voluntary sector in England. With over 15,000 members, NCVO represents all types of organisations, from large ‘household name’ charities to small voluntary and community groups involved at the local level. We are also the lead body for volunteering in England.

2. Key points

3. The role of voluntary organisations in relation to public services

3.1 Voluntary organisations and volunteers play a crucial role in the public service ‘ecosystem. A significant number of voluntary organisations are funded by public bodies to deliver services across a range of areas from health and early years to criminal justice. Income from central and local government accounts for almost a third (31%) of total income equating to £15.8 billion.[1] Many organisations deliver essential services using voluntary income raised through, for example, fundraising or trading activities. For example, Macmillan has a long history of funding specialist cancer nurses in the NHS. Voluntary organisations and informal community groups also do a great deal of preventative work ‘upstream’ to improve wellbeing and reduce pressure on services. There is a significant advocacy role played by the voluntary sector to support individuals to access services, as well as to influence the design of services from the beginning to better meet the needs and aspirations of those who use them.

3.2 While the sector is varied, there are number of common factors that characterise voluntary organisations.

3.3 These characteristics have meant that voluntary organisations have been ideally placed to respond to the pandemic and will continue to be essential to public service delivery. Demand for public services and support is likely to increase as a result of coronavirus, particularly for marginalised groups and communities. This crisis has demonstrated the importance of services that are person-centred[2], agile and connected to the community. The voluntary sector in all its forms has a vital role in designing and delivering services for a society living with and recovering from the pandemic.

4. The role of volunteers in relation to public services

4.1 Voluntary action has long been a feature of public service delivery. Services funded mainly through voluntary income, such as the RNLI coast guard, rely heavily on volunteer engagement. But volunteers are also engaged by contracted voluntary organisations and by public organisations, such as police forces and hospitals.[3]

4.2 Volunteers are defined by distinct characteristics[4], which bring value to services and people who use them:

4.3 There are significant benefits to engaging formal and informal volunteers to support public service delivery, but strategic design and investment is needed to ensure volunteer engagement is sustainable and effective for a post-covid world. Our research shows that those volunteering for public service organisations are more likely to feel like their volunteering is too much like paid work.[5] 81% of volunteers give their time locally[6], and rates of formal volunteering are lower in disadvantaged communities, raising concerns about inequality in service provision[7]. Decisions about whether and how to engage volunteers in public service delivery should focus on impact and equality for people using services as well as build on the evidence base for what creates a good volunteer experience[8]. Engaging with volunteers, voluntary organisations, staff and unions as well as those who represent people who use services, is vital to ensure a mutually beneficial arrangement. Volunteering should be the subject of long-term, proactive planning and investment, rather than seen as a purely cost-cutting measure or a reaction to a crisis.

5. Adapting and responding to coronavirus

5.1 While some organisations have been unable to adapt their service models in line with social distancing requirements, we have seen organisations rapidly adapting their existing services or developing new forms of support to meet emerging need.

5.2 A broad spectrum of organisations have reported that they have shifted to deliver as much as they can online and telephonically, including but not limited to support for women and girls at risk from violence, counselling support for children and young people, statutory advocacy services, fostering agencies, employment support and sexual health advice. Many have navigated the complexity of safeguarding whilst providing remote services. Where a service could not be moved online, they have endeavoured to maintain some form of contact with the people they support. This has been more challenging for some organisations than others across the sector. Organisations with existing digital infrastructure, or the reserves to invest in it, were better prepared to make this shift. A recent survey found that as a result of the crisis 61% of charities are offering more online services, but 21% cancelled services because they don’t have the skills or technology to deliver them, and 15% cancelled services because their users do not have the skills or resources to engage[9].

5.3 Some organisations have developed new services to meet emerging needs or have redeployed their resources to support communities. Our Frontline’ has been set up by a coalition of organisations including Shout, Mind, Hospice, Samaritans and The Royal Foundation to support the mental health of frontline workers during the crisis. We have seen community transport organisations, youth centres and drop-in centres for homeless centres pivot to support communities to access food during the crisis. One small charity in Norfolk which runs day services for people with learning difficulties began delivering pre-prepared meals and check ins during delivery, after its premises were closed. A drug and alcohol charity based in Yorkshire has continued to deliver some face-to-face services under social distancing rules and have moved some groups, clubs and activities online. They have deployed staff internally to their crisis service due to increase in demand and have redeployed some staff to the Salvation Army to assist with tackling food poverty. Organisations like Disability Sheffield, a disabled person led organisation, focused their efforts on supporting disabled people employing personal assistants, responding quickly to an urgent need for advice and guidance.

5.4 Several organisations have changed the way they work with communities, staff and volunteers. The Mary Ann Evans Hospice have increased the capacity of their community support, enabling more people to stay at home at end of life. An organisation working with people who experience multiple disadvantage has enabled those recovering from addiction to pick up prescriptions weekly rather than daily. Organisations that already worked in person-centred ways, locating decision making power as close to the person needing support as possible, have found it easier to respond quickly during the crisis.

5.5 Voluntary organisations have been managing increasing demand and the need to adapt their delivery models, whilst facing significant financial strain and uncertainty. A survey carried out by NCVO, Charity Finance Group and the Institute of Fundraising found that 24% of charities responding reported a significant increase in demand for services since the pandemic, while on average receiving 29% less income.[10] While income from contracts has been more stable than income from fundraising and trading activities, these organisations may not have received extra funding to meet the additional costs of complying with public health guidance, investing in technology, or meet rising demand.


5.6 While some voluntary organisations experienced a drop-off in volunteer engagement, particularly those with older volunteers, we have also seen widespread volunteer engagement and neighbourliness in response to the virus. The NHS Volunteer Responder scheme attracted 750,000 registrants in a matter of days. Mutual Aid Groups formed across the country, and now number in the thousands. Local councils for voluntary service, such as BANES 3SG and Henbury and Bentry Community Council, have taken a central role in coordinating the grassroots response to the crisis in partnership with local councils. 95% of council CEOs say contribution of community groups to coronavirus response has been significant[11]. Volunteers and citizens across the country have engaged with a wide variety of activities, such as shopping for neighbours, supporting local charities, and delivering medication.

5.7 During the crisis a range of challenges arose relating to digital technology, local and national coordination, the interaction between formal, established voluntary infrastructure and more spontaneous engagement, and the oversight and management of volunteers[12]. The Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership has provided vital oversight and coordination to address some of these challenges and meet unmet need, recognising that voluntary action is not evenly distributed across the country. Partnership working and coordination with the voluntary sector will be vital to ensure a sustainable and effective approach to volunteering in the future.

6. Funding and commissioning

6.1 With vast cuts to public services over the past 10 years, many organisations delivering services have seen their core work defunded particularly if their work was preventative or non-statutory.[13] Voluntary organisations delivering services for government have been hampered by commissioning and procurement practices. Many contracts are chronically underfunded and have very small margins[14], driven by procurement-led practice, budget cuts and a focus on price-based competition. Authorities do not always understand the service they are procuring and so don’t fully account for the true cost of delivery.[15] A significant number of organisations subsidise the contract value with voluntary income to cover these unmet costs and improve quality, and in recent years several charities have handed back loss-making contracts.[16] Commissioning and procurement practice is variable, but we hear reports of some authorities focusing solely on price over social value[17] and quality. The constant re-tendering to push down the cost of a contract creates a race to the bottom and instability for voluntary organisations, ultimately having a negative impact on the people they serve.

6.2 Over the past 10 years we have seen a push towards the use of contracts over grants, larger aggregated contracts, as well as over reliance on payment-by-results (PbR) arrangements[18]. This has created significant barriers for voluntary organisations, especially small and medium sized organisations.[19] PbR can oversimplify the complexity of people’s lives and the systems they operate in, making it difficult for providers to flex and learn to meet the needs of the people they serve[20]. Furthermore, many voluntary organisations can’t shoulder the financial risk of PBR contracts.[21]  Contracting authorities should consider alternatives to PBR contracts and consider use of grant payments where appropriate[22].

6.3 Organisations with existing collaborative arrangements with authorities have been better able to respond to the crisis quickly. For example, in Plymouth a group of voluntary organisations deliver an alliance contract in partnership with local authority commissioners[23]. These organisations work collectively to provide seamless support to those with complex needs. Having a contract which is long term and without specified outcomes, has allowed the alliance to work in a flexible and agile way before and during the pandemic.

6.4 Since the coronavirus pandemic we have seen the emergence of less onerous and restrictive contracting practice from authorities when working with voluntary organisations, which we would like to continue beyond the crisis. Supported by procurement guidance from Cabinet Office[24], our members have reported relaxation of KPIs and milestones, additional funding to cover additional costs, less onerous procurement processes, advance payment and average payment if they cannot deliver due to coronavirus.

6.5 This experience is not universal. Some authorities have failed to communicate with providers, increased scrutiny, terminated contracts where providers cannot deliver due to coronavirus or not covered costs of meeting public health guidance. Flexibility appears to be more common at a local authority level, compared to central government departments and bodies. Even organisations that are experiencing an improvement in the way they work with authorities are concerned about the following issues:

6.6 Moving into the recovery phase, it is vital that design and delivery of public services:

7. Collaboration, partnership and integration

7.1 Voluntary organisations often work across a range of different services and holistically around a person. They frequently help people to navigate a complex web of services and provide the glue or connections within and between them.

7.2 While some voluntary organisations have reported challenges of remote multiagency working, several of our members have reported increased collaboration with the public sector, and in particular local government, since the coronavirus outbreak. In many cases this has been facilitated by reduced bureaucracy and the urgent need to achieve a shared goal. In addition to flexibility with regards to contractual obligations, voluntary organisations report less risk averse approaches from public sector partners, and more frequent and supportive communication. A rapid review from the MEAM coalition highlighted greater collaboration with the voluntary sector as one of the most noticeable and positive shifts, and one that should be maintained for the future.[25] Voluntary organisations cite the importance of good individual relationships with commissioners in responding to the crisis, which indicates the importance of staff across sectors having the time and autonomy to build relationships with partners. 

7.3 Existing local systems and relationships have been a critical factor in organisations’ ability to respond quickly and collaborative to the crisis. These systems have provided structure, lines of communication and the building blocks for new and rapidly changing supply chains. Local Trust have noted that local authorities have acted as “coordinators rather than directors”, working on an equal footing with community organisations.[26] Locality have highlighted the role of community organisations in emerging local systems.[27] Fuelled by a collective purpose, these systems have been stronger where connections already existed, such as Knowle West Alliance, a group of community organisations and residents. Areas with a strong and well- connected voluntary sector, supported by Councils for Voluntary Service, have been better able to connect both with community efforts and the work of local authorities and Local Resilience Forums. Many areas don’t have this level of support due to lack of investment in local voluntary infrastructure over the past ten years. Sustained investment is needed in local systems, including both local government and voluntary infrastructure, to aid collaborative approaches to public services during recovery.

8. Inequalities

8.1 While many voluntary organisations have adapted some of their services to the crisis, there are grave concerns across the sector about levels of unmet need which will become more apparent as lockdown eases. Organisations that have increased online delivery report being able to reach people who would not otherwise engage, such as those who may be geographically isolated. However, digital exclusion is a serious concern with many service users either not being able to afford digital devices, or not having the confidence and literacy to use them.

8.2 During the pandemic organisations have worked to provide accessible advice and information to deaf and disabled people as well as those who do not have English as a first language. Members of the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Alliance[28], a collection of voluntary organisations working with health system partners to improve health inequalities, have advocated for those who are disproportionally impacted by the crisis. Organisations such as Equally Ours, representing equalities and rights organisations, quickly analysed the impact of the crisis on marginalised groups, highlighting a range of equalities and human rights issues with regards to public service provision including loss of statutory duties and protections.[29]

8.3 Individuals and communities experiencing marginalisation and the impact of structural inequalities appear to be significantly more likely to be affected by and to die from the virus, including those from BAME backgrounds[30], and disabled people[31]. A lack of centralised data collection and analyses on the potential for disparities in the impact of the crisis on differing groups has significantly hampered efforts to design and target resources and respond effectively to the virus. Marginalised groups and communities are also more likely to be disproportionately affected by the social and economic impact of the coronavirus response, such as unemployment or reduction in social care support.

8.4 Many inequalities exacerbated and highlighted by the pandemic, are historic. Life expectancy and broader health inequalities have increased in the last decade, and clear links are made between this and cuts to public services and reductions in community and voluntary sector resources[32]. There is significant variation in the impact of the pandemic across the country, as a result of intersecting social, economic and health inequalities in certain local and regional areas.[33] This complexity suggests the need for improved balance between national and local or regional policy making, and the importance of considering structural inequality in service design.

8.5 Voluntary organisations that are ‘of’ marginalised communities and are best placed to advocate for and support these communities are facing significant financial hardship or closure as a result of the crisis, following historical underfunding[34]. A recent survey by Ubele has highlighted the impact of the crisis on BAME-led organisations, which are often small and had low levels of reserves before the pandemic.[35] Strategic investment in and engagement with organisations led by marginalised groups and communities will be vital to ensure future design of public services tackles inequalities.



[1] Sub-sectors receiving large amounts of government income include social services (£5bn), health (£2.1bn), international development (£1.8bn) and culture and recreation (£1.2bn). Government income makes up 49% of the total income for organisations working in employment and training, 45% of total income for those working in social services, and 43% for playgroups and nurseries, and organisations working in law and advocacy. In 2016/17, government income made up 66% of the total income of specialist criminal justice organisations and 51% of non-specialist organisations.


[2] There is no one definition of ‘person-centred’ support, but there are key characteristics including support that is tailored to individual needs, strengths and goals, collaborative working around the person, and supporting people to make decisions about and be involved in their own support.

[3] Approximately 39,000 people volunteer directly in police services, in roles such as special constables, police support volunteers, and Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) volunteers. At least 78,000 people volunteer regularly in acute hospitals across England.

[4] S.J. Ellis and R. Jackson, From the top down: The executive role in successful volunteer involvement (2010)



[7] Body, A., Holman, K., Hogg, E. (2017) To Bridge the Gap? Voluntary Action in Primary Schools. Voluntary Sector Review, 8 (3), pp. 251-271.







[14] The median surplus (income minus total costs) on service agreements or contracts as a percentage of income from these is -3.5% (compared to -0.5% in 2018). 



[17] Research by National Voices demonstrates that use of social value in health commissioning in very low, with only 13% of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) clearly showing that they are actively committed to pursuing social value in their procurement and commissioning decisions.


[19] A survey conducted by Locality found that 80% of voluntary sector respondents reported that larger contracts had reduced or were set to reduce their opportunities to provide services, and 81% said that larger contracts had diminished or were set to diminish both the range and quality of local services.

[20] Lowe, T. (2013), New development: The paradox of outcomes—the more we measure, the less we understand. Public Money and Management, 33(3), pp. 213-216.








[28] The Health and Wellbeing Alliance includes organisations that represent groups including but not limited to BAME communities, the LGBT community, homeless people and those in the criminal justice system, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, disabled people and people with long term conditions.