Twenty-one million is not enough: my advice to other charity CEOs

Andrew McCracken - CFNI CEO

Andrew McCracken, CEO of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, offers his opinion on the £21 million charity crisis funds and explains what he would do if the decision was his to make.

It's now two weeks since the UK Chancellor announced £750m of extra funding for frontline charities across the UK and we're hoping to hear shortly what that funding will look like for Northern Ireland. It's been unclear how much of that money will make it over the Irish sea - definitely at least £10m  and possibly up to £21m. The money comes at a time when charities, like businesses, are experiencing huge loss of income - but unlike most businesses, are also experiencing a significant increase in demand for services.

As one of the largest independent funders of charities in Northern Ireland, we at the Community Foundation are used to thinking about how to make sure funding has a meaningful impact; so with that in mind,  here's some thoughts about how that money might be spent, and what I think my fellow charity and social enterprise CEOs should be preparing for.

We need to start by being clear - £21m is not a lot of money. For a sector with an annual income of £723m, the funding proposed is at most 3% of that.

So if we split it evenly between the 6,122 charities who have already registered with the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (which is likely to under represent the total number of charities) it would be £3,430.25 each. Which, if you're, for example, the Cancer Fund for Children, with a reported annual income of £2.3m is not going to go very far.

Even using some kind of 'banded' approach, and even recognising that not every charity will need this money (many are funded by government grants) I can't see a way that this fills the gap.

More money should, of course, be made available - £147 million has already been paid to over 14 thousand small businesses in NI to protect them, and the third sector needs similar support. But lets assume for now the worst case scenario, that this £21m is all there is.

If someone was distributing this money, they would be facing an unenviable scenario where there would not be enough to go around. Which has some consequences; and every charity in Northern Ireland should be getting their thinking caps on about these consequences.

1. Some application and assessment will be required. This is unlikely to be like current support for business where (almost) everyone was eligible for a payment. Instead, charities are going to need to apply; and not all charities will be successful.

2. That means some criteria are going to be required to decide when to say yes, and when to say no. The kinds of criteria I could anticipate might be:

Financial criteria - proving that you need this money and that you are still a viable entity. This might include:

  • demonstrating clearly that you've experience an income loss, and that you can't easily replace that income (from, for example, other funders, or your reserves)
  • demonstrating that your overall charity financials are sound
  • showing that you are taking measures to save money (maybe, including furloughing all possible staff except absolutely necessary core or emergency service delivery, restructuring etc)
  • having some clear cashflow plan for the next few months

Service delivery criteria:

  • It will be important to demonstrate that you are delivering critical support to services to vulnerable people who couldn't otherwise get that support elsewhere

For an example of the kinds of criteria that the Scottish government is applying for a similar scheme, click here

3. This is not going to be quick. Let's assume a fantasy scenario - if a fast, flexible, credible funder was commissioned to do this today (Monday 27th April), and they had it up and running within a week (Monday 4th May - which would require setting up at least - a website, application form, decision making process, assessors, appeal process, and a signed contract from the government) - then, allowing one week for charities and social enterprises to apply; one week for the assessment process; and one week to issue letters of offer, contracts and make payments, it would be the 25th May at the earliest before money was in bank accounts. And that would be damn fast for a scheme that would be handling thousands of applications.

And I know that many charity CEOs will read that and will be already wondering how they are going to survive the next month.

4. Someone is going to have to make decisions. These will be difficult decisions that could mean some charities close. It is extremely important that those decisions do not get dragged into the old sectarianism that still, unfortunately, influences much of NI life. The decision making would need to be open, transparent, and subject to appeal to a non-political body.

So, from one charity CEO to my fellow charity CEOs, my advice would be to start thinking and planning now. Anticipate what kinds of criteria you think the government might set for this funding. Think about what emergency support you need to enable you to continue to make an impact. Ensure you are having the planning meetings, and signing off with your trustees, proposals which will put you in a good place to apply. We deliver crucial services to the most vulnerable, let's be ready to show how we intend to continue to do that.

Andrew McCracken is CEO of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. The Community Foundation is currently operating an emergency fund for charities and social enterprises who are responding to the Coronavirus Crisis - for more information go to

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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