Between July and September 2020, BVSC undertook a ‘State of the Sector’ survey across the full breadth of the voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise (VCFSE) sectors in Birmingham. The aim was to understand the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on local voluntary groups and their beneficiaries. The results make clear the crucial role played by local community organisations in supporting citizens in the face of Covid-19 – but raise concerns about their future sustainability.

Unlike many other crises faced by the voluntary sector, Covid-19 has had a direct impact on virtually every organisation’s ability to carry out its day to day activities. Research from Sheffield Hallam University (2020) identified a three-dimensional crisis facing charities: restricted resource availability; diminished operational capacity; and rapidly rising demand. How have these combined pressures played out across Birmingham’s voluntary sector landscape?

Who Contributed?

In addition to intelligence gathered via the C19 Support Brum Partnership – a network of 35 leading local charities providing support in each of Birmingham’s ten districts and across key thematic areas such as food, housing, mental health, disabilities, carers, domestic abuse and bereavement –  and via several concurrent BVSC Research initiatives, 133 direct State of the Sector responses were received from organisations all across the city, making for a robust and representative sample. Whilst responses included those from organisations working at citywide, regional and national level, the majority were from small neighbourhood community organisations operating with fewer than 12 staff and a turnover of less than £100K per annum.

The range of service areas represented was similarly comprehensive. Respondents included organisations working in the fields of Children Young People and Families; Health and Wellbeing; Advocacy, Advice, Guidance and Information; Community and Neighbourhood Development; Older People and Active Ageing; Education, Work and Training; Youth Services; Community Centres, Venues and Workspaces; Counselling Services; and Employment Support.

Key Findings

The most striking finding from the survey is one that will have been obvious to anyone who observed Birmingham’s immediate response to the first wave of the pandemic: namely, the incredible way in which volunteers, community groups, and local charities stepped forward alongside local public sector partners to create a ‘bulwark of care’ between Birmingham’s local communities and the advancing virus. From food deliveries to welfare calls; from rough sleeper housing to bereavement counselling; from mental health guidance to emergency medicine deliveries – voluntary sector groups were at the heart of every part of the city’s response to the crisis, and many adapted their services comprehensively and at speed in order to do what was necessary.

Whilst most funders were admirably flexible in terms of enabling groups to utilise their funding in appropriate ways, we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the crisis has reshaped the landscape of local community and voluntary action. 89% of the respondents reported that they had significantly changed their delivery to meet the emerging need in their communities or amongst their service users – often with no additional funding, and in the face of considerable organisational challenges. Over 65% of respondents said that they had expanded their services during the lockdown period to meet rising demand.

Impact on Community Organisations

Given the pivotal role the voluntary sector has played in supporting the vulnerable, the findings here are sobering. 25% of respondents were unsure as to whether their organisation could survive the pandemic, and 20% have already made – or are planning to make – redundancies in this financial year. Over 56% of respondents say that their income has reduced as a direct result of Covid-19; and 33% expect that their income will continue to fall over the remainder of 2020-2021.

Nonetheless, other findings speak to the resilience and robustness of many groups. Whilst a majority of organisations saw their services decline as a consequence of lockdown and other Covid-19 measures, just over 37% managed to increase their services. In the circumstances, this is still an extraordinary achievement, although one that must be viewed with caution: these results reflect the impact of the ‘first wave’ of the crisis, and don’t yet take into account the cumulative impact of a longer-than-anticipated crisis, and a second lockdown.

Funding Patterns

There was considerable concern voiced by respondents about the way in which funding has shifted in the wake of the crisis; in particular, funding which has been directed in the short term to the response. Of particular concern is the ongoing ability of smaller voluntary groups to access appropriate funding. Whilst the majority of government Covid-19 support schemes have been accessed by the sector (albeit in some cases in very low numbers), 37% of respondents stated that they had had to access other non-government sources because they were ineligible for any of the existing government support schemes. Typically these organisations were small, voluntary and without regular core-funding – i.e. funded primarily by donations and occasional grants. Of the VCOs who had attempted to secure funding from other non-governmental sources, 33% were not successful. There was also a plea that funding was structured to be more accessible to smaller groups, and more flexible in terms of use.


Much has – rightly - been made nationally of the incredible response of volunteers and mutual aid groups during the crisis, with an estimation that 1 in 5 individuals were involved in some kind of volunteering activity at the peak of the crisis.

Nonetheless, there are challenges to note here also. Whilst 44% of Birmingham organisations reported that they had gained volunteers, more still – 55.75% - reported a decrease. The figures can be explained in part by the fact that whilst many ‘new’ volunteers stepped forward (including people who were furloughed from their work) many others had to step back (including those who had to start ‘shielding’). For example, at one key point during the initial weeks of the crisis, food banks saw a ‘blip’ in volunteer input as many older people had to retreat, and younger people stepped in to bridge the gap. What remains to be seen is the long-term impact of Covid-19 on volunteering patterns. Will new volunteers continue, and will those who had to step back return? BVSC Research Associate Angela Ellis-Paine of the Third Sector Research Centre observes that the need to monitor this is “particularly pertinent in the current crisis, which is both widespread and long term”.

The Challenge of Keeping Communities Connected

The research results indicate a strong awareness of the existing and emerging needs of communities across Birmingham. Respondents highlighted mental health, domestic violence, health and well-being, food and poverty and social isolation (amongst others) as being exacerbated by the closure of community venues and the lack of face to face support as a result of ongoing social distancing restrictions.

A key area of focus from respondents was in the area of digital inclusion. Many noted inadequate support for those individuals who were unable to access on-line support during the peak of the crisis (for example, the deaf community and those with other disabilities or learning difficulties). It is clear that more needs to be done to bridge the digital divide – both in terms of supporting citizens, and also in terms of working with organisations that lack the requisite IT infrastructure.

What the Sector Needs Now

When respondents were asked what would help their organisations survive the coming months and years, the most frequently cited support requirements included: finding new sources of funding; fundraising approaches; changing delivery models; identifying new contract and grant opportunities; how to continue remote/home working; how to change working arrangements within premises; developing new services not previously delivered; negotiating changes to existing contracts/funded projects; effective use of digital, social media, and IT; reporting social value; developing cross-sector strategic relationships and refocusing services on specific groups hit hardest by Covid-19.

Reflecting on the findings, BVSC’s chief executive Brian Carr observed:

“These findings provide us with a clear and succinct representation of the strength of local community and voluntary groups in supporting their local communities, as well as some specific indications of the support they need to remain viable, and some sobering indications of their potential vulnerabilities in the wake of the pandemic.

Covid-19 was met with the resilience and robustness of our local sector, but we mustn’t be complacent, nor feel that such resilience is a given – or that it can last in the face of ongoing challenges, covid-related or otherwise. We must collectively value, support, and advocate for the voluntary action we have all benefited from.

In Birmingham, the strategic partnership approach taken by Birmingham City Council in engaging with the city’s voluntary sector was welcome, and a key factor in the sector’s successful pandemic response. This enlightened partnership working must continue, and we look forward to engaging a wider range of partners in increasingly coordinated cross-sector efforts, coupled with concrete work with funders to bring more resources into our local community groups.

If there’s a single message from the State of the Sector report, it’s this: although it has come into its own during this crisis, the voluntary sector is for life - not just for coronavirus.”

Read the full report