Foreword

As we started 2021, our third national lockdown dawned and a long winter set in. With the success of the vaccine rollout and the easing of most restrictions in the summer, a level of confidence – even normality - began to build. We talked of recuperation, of a societal re-awakening, and our aspirations for the future.

But as we start 2022, once again, we’re in the grip of uncertainty. Our fragile foundations shaken by a new variant, more resistant to the vaccine, and highly transmissible. Whether by government direction or self-initiation, we find ourselves turning inwards.

Throughout the pandemic, many have considered it an opportunity to renew our communities, focus on meaningful relationships, and change our individual and collective direction.

As we approach the second anniversary of the pandemic, a deep exhaustion weakens our enthusiasm for yet more change.

Somewhere between the breaking points of the pandemic and our desperation for normality, a new practicality is emerging. And remember, we’re better equipped to deal with new variants and waves of infection than at any point during the pandemic.

We’re able to pivot our organisations quicker, adapt our services, and refocus campaigns. We can be less fearful about the days ahead.

As our interim chief executive Sarah Vibert talked about in last year's Road Ahead report, our sector’s capacity for hope continues. We believe through our choices, we can make communities and the world around us a freer, fairer, more just place to live.

Through unequal sacrifice and pain, the way we give – whether it’s our time, money, or our livelihoods – is an expression of our best selves and collective endeavour.

Some may question the usefulness of predictions, like those shared in this report. Who can plan for the years ahead when we struggle to keep our plans for next week?

For most of our members, the challenge of keeping the lights on – of running, adapting, and growing organisations – is urgent and pressing.

Not for their own sake, but rather to keep doors open for those they serve. We’ll need to draw on new reserves of strength for the year ahead.

In producing our analysis, we hope to help those working and volunteering in the voluntary sector and our communities make informed decisions about their future. We are not powerless.

We still have agency and choices to make. Our analysis is here to help you make the best decisions possible.

Attempts to divide us

The so-called culture wars are where issues of 'identity, values and culture' are used to divide the public for political gain.

Though few of these topics are new, the use of the term rose in 2021 and charities have been on the front line – if not, that much, on the dividing line – of questions about their positions, legitimacy, and actions.

The public is far more united than often portrayed – especially on issues like racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and refugees. But where divides do exist, charities have a vital role to play in closing the gap.

Embedded in communities – whether geographic, demographic, or identity-focused – charities are trusted sources of information and insight. Deep conversations, something charities, volunteers and campaigners are good at, can help change people’s minds significantly.

Where charities choose to engage, they should feel confident. If they focus on their charitable objectives, carefully consider the issues and implications, and take their members with them, the Charity Commission will be on their side.

But beware: not every area of disagreement is part of a culture war – and sometimes we do need to figure things out together.

But where the attempt is to divide, entirely in bad faith, then our role should be to name what is happening and question who is likely to gain.

Shifting conversations on climate

Climate change has come to be at the forefront of discussions in the sector and wider society as COP26 demonstrated. Discussions have gone from how much of a threat climate change is to question whether our current commitments to climate change are fit for purpose.

The government has made net-zero a legal requirement. However, scientists say that we need to go much faster if we are to prevent enormous and irreversible damage to our planet.

In addition, by 2030, we must achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These global goals affect the UK too and we have only got eight more years to make progress.

Campaigners and activists have played a vital role in securing legally binding commitments on climate change – globally and in the UK.

As charities and social enterprises, our role is likely to change too as we cut our own carbon emissions, work with others to adapt and innovate and step in to help communities respond to the impacts from changing weather patterns.

We need a major upskilling of our sector to help achieve net zero and we must start now.

Rebalancing our society

Socio-economic inequalities in the UK underpin many of the problems we see in society. We see this within families, across communities, and between local authorities.

While the economic picture has green shoots – especially with low unemployment, stronger growth, and bigger government spending power – rising inflation will mean higher household bills, disproportionately affecting those already on lower incomes and in precarious jobs.

Though the pandemic has worsened existing inequality, it has opened paths for change.

The rapid digitalisation of services – charitable, business and government – has made things more accessible and created new opportunities.

A renewed focus on local devolution – especially if coupled with an emphasis on community organising – has the potential to shift power, both to and across communities.

Action on climate change can also address multiple inequalities. Retrofitting homes will help achieve net-zero. They will be needed predominately in poorer parts of the UK that need investment, will reduce household bills, and offer those communities new, skilled jobs. This is what a green levelling up can look like.

Strengthening our ties to those nearby

Having spent two years largely restricted to our immediate geographical areas, it is unsurprising that our collective attention turns to our communities.

The government’s levelling up agenda may be inspired by changing electoral geography but it can inspire the public’s appetite for localism and build on the community action we saw through the pandemic.

If tackling inequality is the aim, then charities and volunteers should be front and centre. Charities have long been local, with 70% of the voluntary sector being small groups of local citizens coming together to change where they live.

Communities understand that it is places, spaces and opportunities that create togetherness, spark ideas, and foster pride in where we live.

As well as roads and high-speed broadband – both needed for thriving towns and cities – we need investment in our social infrastructure.

In the same way that our relationships turn a house into a home, so strong social fabric turns a set of buildings into a community. Without it, that new road will only be seen as a route out.

How we live our lives

We now look ahead to the third year of living under this global pandemic. We know the toll has been heavy and disproportionate, with so much loss experienced. As we ‘learn to live with the virus’, we’ll need to accept a new level of constant uncertainty.

As it becomes clearer that vaccines alone may not be enough to protect us all, adapting our lives around the virus may mean regular changes of restrictions and repeated calls for volunteers to vaccinate the country.

It may also mean more volatile swings in demand for the services of charities and continuous changes to how we deliver services and channel our resources.

Throughout this report, we consider how covid-19 will change our attitudes, behaviours, and expectations., Particularly in terms of work, our local communities, how we spend our free time, how we contribute, and the way we see the world around us.

But these will be formed from differing realities – from optimism, anger, frustration, even despair. If we want to build a fairer, more just society then we need a vision that matches these emotions and provides a realistic route to achieving it.

2022 may be easier, freer, and more open. Though it might feel like it, the start of 2022 is not the same as January 2021. Remember how far we’ve come, what we’ve achieved, and how the voluntary sector has offered dignity, purpose, and hope.

Alex Farrow

Head of networks and influencing