Covid shifts the focus for NHS charities

by Debbie Paterson

20 August 2020


Coronavirus has led NHS charities to move from being predominantly fundraising bodies to ones that receive and distribute donations from a grateful public. But they need support and guidance to fulfil this changing role

Prior to the pandemic, it feels like NHS charities were just ‘there’ – a welcome resource for funding the things that make day to day life a bit better for patients and staff, and sometimes getting involved in big initiatives by running appeals. They attracted attention for the right reasons – people dressing up, selling cakes, running events or at launch celebrations for new services or assets – but not front and centre of management’s attention.

Indeed, one of the perennial issues discussed at the HFMA’s Charitable Funds Special Interest Group is the importance of ensuring that board members as representatives of a corporate trustee understand the responsibilities that brings. This was one of the key changes made to the fifth edition of the HFMA’s Practical guide to NHS charitable funds that was finalised just prior to the pandemic.

Then Covid-19 hit, and NHS bodies were the grateful recipients of gifts of flowers, Easter eggs, food, toiletries, handmade scrubs …. you name it and an NHS body will have received it. Alongside local appeals, NHS Charities Together set up its emergency Covid-19 appeal and things really took off!

As NHS charities’ fundraising staff changed their focus from raising funds to receiving donations and other NHS staff were asked to help out, the HFMA’s Policy and Research Team were asked to develop some guidance on how best to manage the donations, what documentation should be kept and how donated goods should, and could, be distributed. This request resulted in a Checklist for accepting gifts or donations.

We then turned our attention to the other side of this equation – the requirement for all charities to spend the money that they are given. Usually, NHS charities do this through making grants to their associated NHS body and have well developed processes that staff can follow to apply for those grants. But the Covid-19 donations were given to show the nation’s gratitude to the NHS staff working so hard, in such difficult conditions. The usual grant processes did not apply.

Another of the common areas for discussion at the special interest group is how NHS charities can support staff while meeting the statutory requirement for charitable spending to be for the public benefit. Our second briefing provides guidance on Spending NHS charitable funds  

For those interested in how to access, and spend, the money from the NHS Charities Together appeal, we hosted a webinar on 7 May that set out the arrangements that they were putting together to distribute grants from the emergency fund. We will be hosting a follow up webinar on 4 September.

In terms of guidance for those who look after NHS charities’ finances, the Example NHS charities annual report and accounts for 2019/20 has been updated to reflect all of the pre-Covid-19 guidance, as well as the Charity Commission for England and Wales’ guidance on the impact that the pandemic might have on financial reports. We have already concluded that the example accounts for 2020/21 will need a complete re-write to reflect the changes to NHS charities’ sources of income and areas of spend in the year, as well as changes to their usual programme of events.

So, from being just ‘there’, NHS charities are now a key part of dealing with the challenge of the pandemic both at the crisis stage but also going forward as we adjust to the new normal and manage the fallout for those affected by the disease itself or the knock-on effects of lockdown. We expect that this will increase interest in the activities of our special interest group – if you would like to join the group please contact Debbie.Paterson@hfma.org.uk