Why Small Charities were Vital in the Pandemic-Syndemic

by Neil Mehta

6 February 2023

Pandemic and syndemic

With the onset of Covid-19, most people are now familiar with the meaning of the word, ‘pandemic’. However, few have ever heard of the word, ‘syndemic’. This elevates the impact of the pandemic to a whole new level as. Although somewhat distant from its original medical meaning. A syndemic refers to ‘multiple interrelated epidemics happening at the same time’ (Smithsonian Magazine).

This makes absolute sense when you put the pandemic into its wider context. At the heart of the matter, is the coronavirus. However, there were many other related complications. Epidemic in scale if you will. Which many of us are now aware of: social isolation, other non-urgent medical appointments being missed. As well as the economic impact of people losing their livelihoods and being unable to feed themselves. The list goes on…It is well-documented that it had a disproportionately negative impact on already underserved communities. The latter group are often the very beneficiaries that the small charities aim to serve.

It’s not easy being a small charity

It’s never been easy being a small charity. Even before the pandemic came along, they were facing multiple challenges in their operating environment. This meant diverting valuable resources away from the charitable objectives of serving their beneficiaries. So, for a moment, let’s place our small charities at the epicentre of the so-called syndemic.

Luckily for us, a group of researchers from a cohort of organisations (the Universities of Wolverhampton, Sheffield Hallam, the Open University, and the Institute for Voluntary Action) has produced a report entitled ‘The Value of Small in a Big Crisis’. Analysing the critical role of the small charity sector. The report assesses the presumptions made in the original “Value of the Small Report 2018: The First Six Months“. Which concluded that smaller charities are distinct from larger providers of public services and services to the general public because of:

  • the people they serve,
  • the things they do,
  • the ways in which they operate,
  • and the roles they play in both.

The findings reinforce what we already know from our own experience and anecdotal evidence. That is that the smaller charities usually contribute more to society and the economy as a whole. Smaller charities can flex and be more versatile. Indeed, the report concluded that the smaller charities were able to address the crisis in a more tailored way. Leveraging ways that mattered to people and communities facing challenging social issues and financial hardship.

Photo by Howie R on Unsplash

Small Charities: The hero’s in the pandemic

We applaud the fact that smaller charities are referenced as having demonstrated exceptional zeal, flexibility, and expertise. By understanding the issues and responding to changing needs. This really captures the spirit of the small charities sector. The researchers found that many smaller charities “showed up” and “stuck around”. They took advantage of their standing as trusted organisations in regions dealing with complex socio-economic problems to assist vulnerable people when they were most in need.

Smaller organisations concentrated their efforts throughout the crisis on four key areas of need:

  • social isolation and loneliness,
  • information, 
  • food availability,
  • and wellness and mental health.

It was noted that these programmes were customised for diverse demographics and areas that faced challenging socio-economic issues. Smaller charities offered the personal touch, maintaining contact with individuals, inquiring after them and, wherever possible, linking up with them.

The small charities sector were able to go the extra mile and reach those communities not served by mainstream services. They concentrated on populations or geographic regions where trust was particularly crucial: religious or ethnic communities, those suffering from mental illness, underprivileged areas, and asylum seekers. Covid-19 was more likely to harm these groups and people living in these areas in terms of their health, social networks, and economic standing.

The small charities sector’s contribution during the pandemic prevented lives from getting worse around health, mental health and social isolation. They helped ensure that their beneficiaries would be in a better position post-pandemic than would otherwise have been possible without their intervention. Their input was also important at the local level. Maintaining local employment, utilising local supply chains, and obtaining funding for the crisis response that other suppliers couldn’t deliver. They added value through their networks and partnerships. Increased the effectiveness of the public and civil society pandemic response by adapting to address new needs and challenging social issues. Aswell as delivering public health messages to people and communities where they were not getting through.

Only half the story…

Despite all this remarkable work, the crisis brought up three key issues. Firstly, the evolving needs of service users and the community. Which was becoming more severe and diverse with the resounding impact of the epidemic. Secondly, organisational problems came to the forefront. Those related to finances and human resources, such as budget cuts, unpredictable and volatile funding. As well as concerns about staff wellbeing and how to prevent “burnout”. Thirdly, the small charity sector’s ‘personal touch’ is also labour intensive. Maintaining relationships with patrons, volunteers, and vital partnerships established before and throughout the pandemic are known to be particularly challenging.

This study demonstrated the tenacity that small charities have displayed in the face of crises and their ability to pivot at short notice. They were resilient by first being able to absorb the significant effects of the crisis on their work, operations, and those they support. They then rapidly responded to the emerging scenario, making small changes and innovating to try new things.

Where to now after the pandemic?

Here at Givey HQ, we believe that the small charities sector is best placed to lead the transformational shift required to “build back better” after the pandemic. Their demonstrated capacity for revolution is fettered by regional and national governmental policy. Yet, still the smaller charities continue to provide support to those who require it most in our post-pandemic world, in a way that sets them apart from informal aid and governmental programmes.

(Im)measurable value

This study highlights our shared experience that, over this period, the “pound for pound” donations made by the general public make a massive impact on the ground where small charities are involved and the hyper local volunteer-led communities throughout the UK. Givey continues to champion these forgotten 95% of “frontline troops”, heart-led and tirelessly giving of their time, skills and money.

The Givey community donations platform supports such amazing work. Givey’s donors (c100k individuals and growing), 3K+ small charities/local community groups and fundraisers help each other to ensure that the small charities sector can thrive beyond its outstanding work chartered during and post-syndemic.

If you found this article interesting to read, here are some other blog articles that you may enjoy:

Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Charitable Organisations

The Impact of Mental Illness on Stress Levels

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