How retail co-ops have supported charities during the Covid-19 crisis

Society funds have been put to work to help communities deal with coronavirus

Covid-19 has presented a double challenge for charities across the UK: they have to meet the needs of more people in their communities, while suffering a 48% drop in voluntary income.

According to a survey carried out at the end of March by the Institute of Fundraising, 52% of charities expect to reduce services with a third wiped off from their total income. Around 83% of charities responding to the survey said that access to emergency grant funding was key to their sustainability.

Over the course of the crisis co-operative retailers have been providing immediate financial support for good causes, groups and charities helping communities deal with the impact of the pandemic.

Central England Co-operative repurposed its Community Dividend Fund to support local causes. The Community Dividend Fund is one of the main member benefits, bringing together the two things that matter to members: their dividend and their communities. Every year members attending the society’s AGM vote to guarantee that at least one per cent of the society’s trading profit is reinvested in local communities. The Community Dividend Fund is one of the main member benefits.

Grants from the fund are normally handed out four times a year to a wide range of organisations. However, during the next four months, the society will be handing out the grants on a monthly basis to support those suffering financial hardship due to the pandemic and others looking to step in to help those affected.

Allocated grants can range from £100 to £5,000 and are available to full members of Central England in the West Midlands, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.

Society secretary Jim Watts said: “In response to the current crisis, we have made some changes to our Community Dividend Fund scheme to provide immediate financial support for local good causes, community groups and charities who are responding to some of the most worrying impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“Many charities and organisations are suffering financial hardship due to the pandemic – incomes have fallen, demand has risen. 

“In particular, we know that providing the basics including food has become a challenge for many people. Isolation and lack of access to normal services means that mental health and wellbeing is a growing concern. 

“We particularly welcome applications from organisations that are meeting needs in these areas.

“Community Dividend Fund grants showcase how being a member and shopping at your local Central England Co-op store allows us as a Society to continue to invest and fund vital projects in the area – especially during uncertain times like these.”

The Co-op Group also stepped in to support local voluntary groups fighting to survive the pandemic. The retailer’s Local Community Fund provided an
interim payment to support local causes during the pandemic – these are the causes which benefit when members swipe their membership card in store (5% reward for members and a1% donation to local causes when members purchase own brand products and services).

During Easter, the Group cancelled its planned TV ad campaign and instead donated the airtime to charity to fight hunger, celebrating “local heroes” and promoting the work of FareShare. It also enabled members and customers to donate money to FareShare at tills or via text, money that boosted the £1.5m of food pledged by the co-op.

In May, Group CEO Steve Murrells kick-started a Co-op Members Fund, which will be channelled into foodbanks, a funeral hardship fund and front-line community causes. Mr Murrells is donating 20% of his salary over a three-month period into the newly created Co-op Members’ Coronavirus Fund, through which members can donate their unspent existing member rewards, totalling over £30m, into these areas.

Mr Murrells said at the time: “Millions of people are suffering financial hardship at the moment and so it felt right for me to offer to take this pay cut and directly support causes which are very important to me and close to my heart.

“One per cent of what our members spend already goes to local causes and now if they wish they can donate their 5 per cent personal rewards to help lessen the impact the emergency is having on millions of our fellow citizens.”

Matt Atkinson, the Group’s chief membership officer, said the new fund would enable members who want to support others to contribute in their own way.

To further support communities, the Group launched Co-operate, an online community centre to lessen the impact of the lockdown on people’s mental health. The platform connects vulnerable people to local and national support initiatives, as well as volunteers who are willing to run vitual events such as exercise classes, music groups, or arts & craf classes for others.

Similar measures were taken by the Channel Islands Co-op, who encouraged its members to ‘meet their neighbours’. The co-op launched the Meet Your Neighbour initiative in partnership with Andium Homes, Jersey Post and parish halls to help tackle loneliness within its communities. “We knew there would be islanders alone during this crisis, who were not able to get out and shop, or take part in the community groups they were used to. We encouraged our customers to ask their neighbours if they needed anything from our stores, or just to say ‘hello’ to make sure they were okay,” says a spokeswoman.

The society also helped the local Jersey Salvation Army and the Guernsey Welfare Service by donating tinned and dried goods to both charities. In addition, Salvation Army received hundreds of books from the co-op, which they gave to local families.

Larger Channel Islands Co-op stores have food donation bins, which were kept these running throughout the pandemic, to enable customers to donate food to smaller charities.

The society also decided to open its stores early for dedicated healthcare workers and launched initiatives with the autistic community to enable those with autism to shop stress-free in its stores in spite of the high volumes of customers.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations predicts the UK voluntary sector will shrink post Covid-19. With charity job losses, reduction in services and closures on the horizon, the support of co-op retailers could help some of these voluntary organisations stay afloat.

At East of England Co-op, helping community groups to continue to provide essential services has been part of the society’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. In April, the co-op launched a Community Cares Fund, to support groups and services in-need across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Alongside this, the society set up a system that enabled members to  donate a share of the dividend they receive from the society to the fund. This year’s total dividend to be shared with members is £2.1m, which represents over 40% of the society’s profits for the last financial year. 

To kick-start the fund, East of England pledged to donate over £150,000. This followed another £75,000 donation made in April, which was shared among local food banks, Age UK and Community Foundations for Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

Through the fund, East of England has allocated £45,000 to support the creation of safe environments and provide mental health support for children and young people impacted by domestic abuse across the region. The funds will be distributed by the Suffolk Community Foundation, in partnership with Essex and Norfolk Community Foundations, to local refuges and organisations supporting young people impacted by domestic abuse and violence.

Smaller donations were also made to support Felixstowe Area Community Transport Service (FACTS), a non-profit organisation that provides transport to the elderly and disabled and the Karalius Foundation, an independent hub in Essex that delivers high-quality education to disengaged pupils, to enable them to purchase essential hygiene packs.

On 29 June the retailer hosted an online Summer Foodbank Summit, during which it announced it would be making a further donation of £22,500 to food banks across Norfolk. The money will be shared among 24 food banks to support local families in food poverty after facing unprecedented demand for their services during lockdown. This follows a £55,000 donation to the food banks in April, under an emergency package of support launched to help local community groups and services across the region through the COVID-19 pandemic.

East of England’s support comes at a time when food bank charities are
experiencing a growing demand for emergency food parcels. The Trussell Trust, a charity supporting 1,200 food bank centres across the country, has reported an 89% increase while theIndependent Food Aid Network (Ifan) has also recorded a 175% rise in demand during April 2020, year on year.

East of England Co-op joint chief executive, Niall O’Keeffe, said: “The last few months have been incredibly challenging for food banks across the country and in our region. 

“This crisis has created an unprecedented situation and placed enormous strain on food banks as they try to cope with an intense, prolonged period of surge in demand against a backdrop of huge logistical challenges.

“As a local community retailer, we want to do as much as possible to
support these amazing groups, whose dedication and commitment never
wavers and ensures that vulnerable members of our community can put food on their table and not go without.

“The need for food banks is predicted to continue rising due to the adverse economic impact of the pandemic, and there will be many more challenges ahead. We’re in this for the long haul and plan further support for food banks in the coming months, it’s crucial that we help them build resilience.”

With research by the Institute of Fundraising showing that charities are on average having to plan for a 24% loss to their total income for the year ahead, the support the co-operative retailers could prove to be a silver lining.