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Charities and sports events – a relationship re-imagined

The damaging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (the “Pandemic”) on the charities sector is well known. Projected losses of up to £4.3bn during the first 12 weeks of lockdown were later compounded by reports in June that charities could expect to miss out on a quarter of their income this year, resulting in a shortfall of £12.4bn across the sector, despite an increase in demand for numerous charities’ services. Alongside the general measures to support businesses such as the Job Retention Scheme, the government’s £750m support package for the charities sector, although a helpful starting point, was primarily geared at providing frontline support to vulnerable people rather than supporting charities’ own operations. In reality, a substantial uplift in financial support is required for the sustainability of the sector.

This article touches on some of the key challenges faced by charities and some possible solutions for the sector to rejuvenate itself, with a particular focus on the sector’s partial interdependence with sports and events, themselves being sectors facing immense challenges.

The key challenges

Little room for manoeuvre

The Pandemic has hugely amplified the challenges charities were already facing. Since the government announced its lockdown measures on 23 March, organisations working within the sector have struggled to adapt to new cultural norms of self-isolation and social distancing. Charities, like many others, are having to plan for the future amid a climate of continuing uncertainty. Charitable organisations have been constrained by the Pandemic in such a way that puts much future planning (in real terms) on hold until there is a significant change in government policy that would allow them to function as they might have previously. The income streams upon which numerous charities rely are often based on organising events to promote and carry out their essential fundraising activities. Charities also rely enormously on third party event-organisers to provide them with the platform for personal or corporate fundraising opportunities such as marathons, half marathons, triathlons, obstacle races, garden festivals and concerts. The postponement and/or cancellation of most of these events during the Pandemic has left the charities sector in unchartered territory, desperately seeking solutions that will sustain it for as long as the Pandemic continues to prevent the hosting of events involving significant mass gatherings – on anything like a pre-Pandemic scale.

The sports industry – a shared struggle

A significant number of charity-led events are sport-focused. The sports industry, similarly reliant on mass gatherings of participants and spectators, has also struggled to function and adapt during the Pandemic. At the time of writing, the government’s guidelines on social distancing still require that gatherings outdoors take place only in groups of up to six people unless they are exclusively from two households or support bubbles, subject to limited exceptions.

The government may continue to introduce certain relaxations that will permit gatherings in a sport participation context, building on the 11 July update relative to team sports (which can now be played in any number where formally organised by a sports club or similar organisation and sports-governing body guidance has been issued). However, there is continued uncertainty as to when the government will allow event planning for gatherings on a mass scale. The government’s pilot programme for large crowds at selected sports events is scheduled to begin on 15 August, albeit two weeks later than originally planned due to concerns over an increase in positive COVID-19 cases. This uncertainty extends to traditional charity and sport focused events involving cycling, running, swimming and so on. Event-organisers remain in a state of limbo, with no clear visibility on a return to normality or revenue streams.

The financial landscape

Amid that uncertainty, many charities and event-organisers cannot realistically afford to plan sports events which involve mass gatherings and particularly given the paucity of their financial resources some five months into the Pandemic. No risks will be taken and spare financial resources will be channelled to those who need it most.

Regulatory issues

Any sports event that goes ahead in 2020 (and very probably 2021) will need to implement strict health and safety requirements compliant with government guidance. From 24 July, it became compulsory for people to wear facemasks in shops and supermarkets (or otherwise face a £100 fine). Depending on the context of the event being organised, event organisers might need to adopt a similar stance for its participants. Standards in terms of behaviour, efficiency and hygiene will become increasingly important; meeting the public’s expectations will be crucial to building and maintaining public trust and confidence in mass charity events. Trustees will need to strike a balance between their legal duty to carry out the charity’s purpose using reasonable care and skill and safeguarding its staff, volunteers, participants and anyone else with whom it engages. Participants will perhaps need to sign waiver forms and declarations that they are displaying no COVID-19 symptoms. Charities are unlikely to have contemplated these types of regulatory considerations in a pre-Pandemic universe and may well need assistance to meet the requisite level of compliance and to minimise liability exposure.

A cultural shift?

There is a concern that the UK’s wider society is becoming used to a Pandemic lifestyle that will not necessarily be easy to change. The government have recognised this in the context of the hospitality sector. For example, throughout August people are being encouraged to return to eating out at restaurants as part of the government’s new ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount scheme. Event organisers and charities will need to ensure their communications instil confidence in prospective participants that all relevant safety precautions will be taken during the applicable event, at a minimum in accordance with the latest government guidance, which is itself ever changing.

Potential solutions

Hundreds of sports events with a charitable causes dimension have been cancelled during the Pandemic, leaving a fundraising black hole for the charities sector. Last year, the London Marathon raised a record-breaking £66.4m for charity. Whilst this year’s event remains scheduled to take place on its revised date of 4 October, it will now only involve elite-level athletes – effectively cancelling the event for 45,000 planned participants, and decimating sponsorship fundraising.

Charities may therefore increasingly be looking at the possibility of organising their own events. However, given the extent of the challenges outlined above, charities will need to think innovatively to generate recurring revenue on a restricted budget. Some potential innovations are explored below.

Embrace social distancing and the restrictions on mass gatherings

The concept of a socially distanced mass participation event may have seemed implausible a few months ago. However, as the impact of the Pandemic endures into the autumn, event-organisers will need to be creative and open-minded, even if it means restricting the total number of participants.

In terms of how this might work in practice, event-organisers could scale down on the administrative requirements by ensuring that certain pre-event formalities and briefings take place online. Participants might be instructed to arrive at pre-allocated registration times to avoid pre-event gatherings and unnecessary waiting periods. Races could transition into time trial formats with staggered starts to prevent gatherings and bottlenecks at various race stages, thus enabling participants to comply with social distancing except where there is overtaking. Events like triathlons could provide bigger transition spaces for participants, who may also be required to keep within certain race-lanes.

Alternatively, charities might consider longer-term ‘series’ type events (as opposed to one-off mass participation sports events), staggering them throughout a day, weekend or across a number of race days to encourage and maintain high numbers of participants. To keep people interested in these longer-term formats, participants could be asked to log their times, scores or other deliverable – with charities aggregating the results, posting some exciting digital content for consumers and unlocking further opportunities for people to donate. Charities may find the administration burden and cost of running events more manageable by grouping together with other charities and/or sharing COVID-19 secured venues and facilities.

Social media and generating engagement

The ‘2.6 Challenge’ was launched at the end of April by mass participation event organisers in response to the Pandemic and helped plug the charity sector’s revenue shortfall. This was a hugely successful initiative in the early stages of the Pandemic and has so far raised over £11.1m, proving once again the UK public’s propensity for supporting an initiative where there is a strong sense of belief in the cause. However, the £10m milestone had already been met by 11 May. Whilst this suggests the novelty might have started to wear off, variations of the 2.6 Challenge format will no doubt continue to evolve.

‘Captain Tom’ raised the unprecedented sum of £32m for NHS charities during April by walking laps of his garden (although with the unfortunate side effect of possibly reducing donations to other charitable causes). Footballer Marcus Rashford activated the power of social media with his campaign to feed schoolchildren so effectively that it prompted a change in government policy.

Social media accelerates a fundraising message like no other tool – there is undoubtedly an opportunity for charities of all sizes (in theory) to exploit the digital space. Where there is a compelling ‘story’ to share, charities can stimulate a public response and fundraising without requiring physical attendance at a mass participation event. As an example, charities (perhaps collectively) might seek to entice popular sportspersons to participate in activities at an advertised date and time, giving users the option to interact by submitting votes or contributing to polls that would influence the nature and type of live content as it happens.

Closing comment

The impact of the Pandemic on many charities is unfortunately existential. Charities have to continue their fundraising initiatives, notwithstanding that the government might yet come forward with additional substantial financial support to deal with the long-term impact. The government’s guidance on dealing with the Pandemic is ever changing, which adds to the difficulties faced by charities in terms of effective event planning. Charities might do well to plan for a future where social distancing is a normality. New event formats, sharing of resources and facilities, extended event windows, virtual events and social media campaigns will all play their part in the new fundraising landscape.

Written by Matthew Knowles

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