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Coronavirus pandemic poses unprecedented challenges for charities

Charities showing initiative with greater online focus and fundraising events at home

There are very few of us who haven’t felt at least a tremor from the economic earthquake caused by the pandemic but it has had a disproportionate effect on Ireland’s large and vibrant charity sector. While many of us bemoaned the disappointing but necessary cancellation of concerts, matches and parties due to public-health guidelines, charities had to think quickly when their face-to-face efforts to fundraise were no longer a runner. And the devastating financial impact of this is compounded by a cruel irony – the Covid-19 crisis has meant their services are more in demand than ever.

Unsurprisingly, Christmas, always a critical time when it comes to fundraising, takes on an added significance this year. People may be infused with the spirit of giving but will it be enough for charities to recoup the losses that Covid has wrought?

Children’s charity Barnardos is just one example of a charity that had to “turn everything on its head”, says Mary Gamble, director of fundraising and retail.

“We are an organisation that delivers services to children face to face whether it’s in centres or in schools or in their homes,” she says. “In March, everything changed and we knew we had to keep feeding those children – not feeding them just wasn’t an option.”


Barnardos workers began doing food drops, bringing food parcels and hot meals to the doorsteps of families in need. Gamble says this was also a means of “keeping eyes” on the children they work with, while still maintaining a social distance.

A stressful time for everyone, Gamble says she “didn’t sleep a wink for the first two weeks” as the financial and practical difficulties of the lockdown became apparent.

“I had staff ringing me up to say that they didn’t have food in the cupboards to give to children,” she recalls. “People were panic-buying in shops. We would usually get food from FoodCloud or from supermarkets who would give us surplus stock but there was none. We had no money coming in at all.”

Like every other charity, their carefully-crafted calendar of activities for the year went out the window and their nine charity shops, typically a "huge source of income", were forced to cease trading. "We had to think quickly and move the work online. We started making the most of our Facebook pages and trying to get the word out, as well as using radio ads."

An emergency appeal resulted in “an amazing response” from the general public, Gamble says. “We really tapped into that idea of the whole country coming together and really looking out for the most vulnerable people in our communities.”


For Down Syndrome Ireland, "it all went belly-up," says Mark O'Doherty, head of fundraising and retail.

“We were just about to have our fifth annual Purple Run in the Phoenix Park as part of the celebrations for World Down Syndrome Day. We cancelled it even before lockdown. People with Down Syndrome are more vulnerable so we couldn’t have them gathering together in large numbers,” he says.

The hope was that everything would be back to “normal” in a few months but as time wore on O’Doherty says it became clear that this would not be the case. The vital services they provide to children and families were forced to go virtual as the pandemic rumbled on.

Like Barnardos, the steady stream of income from their network of charity shops dried up as restrictions meant they all had to shut their doors. But Down Syndrome Ireland was fortunate that it could quickly adapt to the new paradigm of giving. O’Doherty says they are lucky to have a good website and a strong donation page.

For a charity that receives 85 per cent of its income through fundraising, however, these are worrying times. O’Doherty says despite the generosity of their donors, income is down close to 40 per cent for 2020.

He hopes that innovative pandemic-friendly online events will serve to replace at least some of this. The charity recently launched its 21-day challenge, an online fitness initiative asking people to walk, run, cycle or swim 100km in 21 days.

“Our ambassador [Irish rugby star] Conor Murray has been championing this and we have had hundreds signing up, so that’s really promising,” O’Doherty says.

“In terms of our community fundraising, like people doing pub quizzes or shaving their heads, they haven’t all been cancelled. They’ve simply gone online and that is strong and growing,” he says, but soberly adds that he doesn’t know if big earners such as bucket collections and bag packing “will ever come back”.


In spite of the crisis – and perhaps partly because of it – Focus Ireland has had "tremendous support" from the public, as well as their long-standing supporters and donors, chief executive Pat Dennigan says. "They've really stood by us and helped in a huge way."

This has been crucial for the homeless charity, which experienced a staggering 40 per cent increase in requests for help during the early stages of lockdown.

“People are told to self-isolate and to quarantine, and homeless people can’t do that. That generated a level of anxiety and fear among our clients and has posed a huge challenge for our staff throughout the lockdown,” Dennigan says.

Focus Ireland not only had to pivot to offering people support virtually and over the phone, they also had to rethink their fundraising events to take account of the new Covid environment. Their landmark annual fundraising event, the Shine a Light “sleep-out” night, looked very different when it took place in October.

“In previous years there would be a mix of hosted events, such as in the Iveagh Gardens and the Law Society and Spike Island, but because of the restrictions we had to change those to a ‘hold your own event’. People slept out in their gardens or wherever they could.”

Despite the necessary changes, the event was an astounding success. “We had a target for 2020 of raising €1.3 million and to date we have raised over €1.8 million,” Dennigan says. “It was a phenomenal response.”

Barnardos’ Gamble agrees. “We are most worried about how the recession is going to impact charities and fundraising next year, just as demand for services rises.

“Trying to plan in a pandemic is really difficult, so 2021 is really concerning from a financial perspective for us.”

Dennigan shares concern for the future as the Covid-induced recession begins to bite. About 40 per cent of Focus Ireland’s fundraising happens in the final weeks of the year. “From a homeless perspective, there’s a real resonance around homelessness around Christmas time,” Dennigan says. “We have been very successful so far and very innovative but we have a challenge ahead of us to raise money between now and Christmas because we will really need those resources come the new year.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times