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The Third Sector Amid a Global Pandemic: a Struggle for Survival or a New Opportunity?

Updated: Aug 29, 2023



The third sector performs vital work supporting vulnerable people and promoting social perspectives and needs. Following the rise of the covid-19 pandemic, the contribution of the third sector is more needed than ever, but many charities and voluntary organisations have struggled to survive.[i] In the UK, a nation-wide campaign was called #NeverMoreNeeded to remind government, funders, donors and to the general public the importance of the voluntary sector especially during a global pandemic.[ii]


A study on the third sector from the University of Birmingham and the University of Stirling, showed that a quarter of third sector organisations lost more than 40% of their income between 2019 and 2020.[iii] Amid this profound crisis, third sector leaders were forced to make rapid changes and adapt their practices to the new, post-covid era.[iv]


As stated by Safia Jama – chief executive of Women’s Inclusive Team, a charity working with Somali women in London, “we had to act quickly, because there was a real concern that we had vulnerable people who were especially vulnerable to Covid-19”.[v] An important aspect of the work of the charity sector is the relationship they built with their clients which had to be maintained throughout the pandemic. To do so, charity organisations had introduced new adaptations of their “normal” events, such as online morning coffee meetings, digital inclusion courses and online crafts events, to fit the covid digital era but the adaptation process was not easy.[vi]


Third Sector organisations faced a number of challenges since the outbreak of the global pandemic. Volunteer members have decreased creating capacity issues and concerns for the long-term survival of the voluntary sector.[vii] Most charities had to move online to continue to work, at least to some extent, throughout the pandemic.[viii] As a result, the staff had to adapt to new working ways and those without the skills and digital knowledge to follow these changes had inevitably fallen behind.


According to the Charity Digital Skills Report 2020, 66% of charities in the UK have delivered all their work remotely, while 27% of third sector organisations had to cancel their services because they didn’t have the necessary digital skills to deliver them online.[ix]


The pandemic has made it clear that if third sector organisations were to survive and continue offering their essential support to societal needs, they had to move online. This had been a struggle for all those who don’t have the necessary skills to adapt to this change but it is also an opportunity for the third sector to enhance their digital competences.[x]


To gasp this opportunity, third sector organisations will need to invest resources towards digital training and make digital transformation a priority in their agendas for the next years.[xi] As stated by Emma Reynolds – head of innovation at the Campaign Against Living Miserable charity, “For us, next year will be about getting our data and digital foundations structurally sound, setting us up for greater success in the year ahead”.[xii] The use of digital technology can help the third sector to strengthen their online presence, increase their web-based support resources and maintain their workforce while encouraging remote, working from home opportunities.[xiii] The digital boost of the covid era has accelerated the move towards digital services in all sectors, including the third sector but it also shred light to the gap between the digital competencies of the third sector in contrast to those of the business sector.[xiv]


This is what the LeaderSEEDS project aims to tackle; the lack of digital competences in the leadership of the third sector. LeaderSEEDS has produced research on the digital competencies of the third sector to identify what the needs of the voluntary sector in order to achieve successful digital transformation in the covid era. To help the leadership of the third sector improve their professional leadership and digital competencies, LeaderSEEDS will produce a Digital Leadership Development Training Programme and a Digital Leadership Centre which will be available to everyone aiming to enhance their digital skills. The Digital Leadership Development Training Programme will be delivered using the microlearning approach, blending short courses, presentations and infographics with interactive games to make the training programme easy and engaging to follow. LeaderSEEDS aims to prepare the leadership of the third sector for the post-covid world; an era that seems to be characterised by a new wave of technological and digital transformations.

[i] Paign et al., “Reflecting on change in the third sector through Covid-19 and beyond”, (University of Birmingham), (2020), https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/tsrc/blog/reflecting-on-change-in-the-third-sector-through-covid-19-and-beyond.aspx. [ii] SCVO, “Never more needed”, (2021), https://scvo.scot/policy/campaigns/never-more-needed. [iii] Third Sector, “A quarter of charities lost at least 40 per cent of their income last year, researchers find”, (2021), https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/quarter-charities-lost-least-40-per-cent-income-last-year-researchers-find/management/article/1733634. [iv] Paign et al., https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/tsrc/blog/reflecting-on-change-in-the-third-sector-through-covid-19-and-beyond.aspx. [v] Burt, “Smaill charities and the post-Covid challenge”, (2021), https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/small-charities-post-covid-challenge/fundraising/article/1722709. [vi] Yarker et al., “The voluntary and community sector and Covid-19: Going to war without ammunition?”, (University of Manchester), (2020), https://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/growth_inclusion/2020/06/the-voluntary-and-community-sector-and-covid-19-going-to-war-without-ammunition/. [vii] Paign et al., https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/tsrc/blog/reflecting-on-change-in-the-third-sector-through-covid-19-and-beyond.aspx. [viii] Clinks, “What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on voluntary sector organisations working in the criminal justice?”, (2020), https://www.clinks.org/community/blog-posts/what-impact-has-covid-19-pandemic-had-voluntary-sector-organisations-working. [ix] McDonagh, “How can we support third sector leaders to maximise the benefits of digital?”, (2021), https://wales.coop/how-can-we-support-third-sector-leaders-to-maximise-the-benefits-of-digital/. [x] Ibid. [xi] Ferrell-Schweppenstedde, “Charities have embraced digital during this crisis”, https://www.cafonline.org/charities/charities-have-embraced-digital-during-this-crisis. [xii] Third Sector, “Zoe Amanr: How charities can build digital sustainability in 2022”, (2021), https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/zoe-amar-charities-build-digital-sustainability-2022/digital/article/1736259. [xiii] Carys et al., “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the thirs sector and the carers in the UK”, (Bangor University), (2021), https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/files/37351258/2021_Impact_of_Covid_.pdf. [xiv] Welsh Parliament Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, “Impact of Covid-19 on the voluntary sector”, (2021), https://senedd.wales/media/d4jh52zz/cr-ld14075-e.pdf.





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