Are there limits to the role that charities should play in tackling the cost of living crisis?

Richard, our chief executive, discusses how Sense is making an impact on the cost of living crisis for the people we support and the role that the charity sector should play.

Covid-19 exposed deep poverty and fault lines within our welfare system. The cost of living crisis now threatens the security for society’s poorest and most excluded communities. They are bracing themselves for even more challenging times as we approach winter.

Inevitably, the conversation has evolved into what response charities should take to the cost of living crisis, given the limitation of government-led assistance and the under-funding of social care services.

Since we launched our own emergency grant programme in conjunction with Turn2us the summer, several charities interested in setting up similar emergency grant schemes have approached us. We have now allocated 1,000 grants under our programme, so it’s a good opportunity to reflect on lessons learned.

For decades, charities have often proudly filled the gaps left by government. We are more entrepreneurial and flexible in identifying unmet need and being able to respond to that need appropriately.

We have an inbuilt comparative advantage in meeting the social and personal needs of marginalised groups that are not adequately met by either government nor the private or public sector.

We’re already part of the safety net

It is true that we should take care when discussing the role of charities in delivering programmes of support.  We need to consider what services should be provided by the government, what services should be funded by government, and how services can be improved.

However, many charities already play a fundamental role in providing or supplementing public services. We are also painfully aware that the welfare state is not as comprehensive as it should be, and that our social care services are underfunded, and unable to fully meet needs.

More and more often, we are playing a greater role in helping people to make ends meet. So, charities are already an integral part of the UK social safety net.

Charities should not be relied on to prop up the welfare system, but, at the same time, an emergency is engulfing our country and it’s disproportionally affecting the individuals we support.  There should always be a role for charities to provide new forms of support to meet specific challenges even when government is not addressing those needs sufficiently.

For example, we have seen how charities stepped in to start food banks across the country. This example illustrates that providing an emergency grant scheme does not mean that charities will automatically drift into new service areas or depart from planned corporate strategies.

Sense has a responsibility to ensure that no one is left behind so our grant programme, targeted at the individuals and families we support, is fully aligned with our mission.

Grant schemes shouldn’t become the new normal

We know that charity-led grant schemes are not long-term or sustainable solutions.  They shouldn’t become the ‘new normal’. But they have become a necessity given the situation facing the country.

An emergency grant won’t change social conditions, but they are lifesaving vehicles that can be used until those conditions change. We have seen at first hand the difference they have made to disabled households struggling to pay their energy bills, fix equipment, such as wheelchairs, or simply put food on the table.

We’re not shying away from campaigning for change

We are using charitable resources to provide grants and to fill the gaps left by government but, at the same time, we have been really careful not to end up with an excuse for government not to fulfil its duties.

We have consistently reminded government that it is their responsibility to act and tackle the systemic issues. We have argued that we need a welfare system that lets people pay for their essentials and energy bills. We will continue to campaign for systemic changes to the welfare system.

More investment is needed to ensure that the system offers vital protection for the poorest and most excluded. We need an effective safety net, including restoring benefits to a level that people can live on, and more targeted cost of living grants from government that are tailored to those in greatest need. We will continue to make the case for properly funded social care services.

We need to empower people with first-hand experience

It is also important that we empower people with first-hand experience of the cost of living crisis to influence debate, drive change and shape policy discussions. The sector has a proud record of campaigning for social change and advocating for individuals and communities.

We have set up an emergency grant but at the same time, we have supported disabled people and their families to speak out on poverty and the impact of the cost of living crisis on them. We also chose to work with Turn2us as they carry out a benefit’s check to ensure that grant recipients are receiving all the support that might be available.

This is a really challenging environment for charities. But the right response is for charities to step up. That might involve producing more tailored information and advice to the individuals and families we support, signposting people to benefits calculators to make sure they are getting the support they are entitled to, or campaigning for more targeted support from government.

Or it could mean offering cost of living grants to individuals in dire need of support, just as we are. We are not here to subsidise the state. But we do exist to try out different approaches and solutions to better protect the people we support. Acting as a cost of living charity, albeit for a temporary period, is very much part of the solution.