COVID-19 Impacts on Henry Smith Charity Grant Holders: Survey Results

Charities delivering frontline social support to those hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis were remarkably resilient during the first wave of the crisis but warned that the combination of more severe increases in demand and funding uncertainty would pose huge challenges into 2021. 

Late last summer, 149 Henry Smith Charity grant holders responded to a survey asking them about the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on their organisation and beneficiaries, their financial circumstances and how they were adapting their services to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

The short report available here details the results. In summary, grant holders told us that: 

  1. Demand for services would increase severely from September 2020. Increases in demand would be more acute than in the first months of the pandemic 
  2. They were operationally resilient and would continue to provide vital services 
  3. Many were focused on providing emergency services for their local communities 
  4. Digital exclusion was a significant issue for many people they support 
  5. Most were financially resilient (in the short term) 
  6. They had secured emergency funding from government or other sources 
  7. They were deeply concerned about medium-term funding (from Spring 2021 onwards) 


We conducted the survey in order to identify grant holders eligible to apply for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's Community Match Challenge Fund (CMC). The CMC provided emergency funding for charities in England supporting people most severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. 

We distributed an additional £4m in funding through the CMC programme  to existing grant holders in our Improving Lives and Strengthening Communities grants programmes. This aligned with our COVID-19 strategy to offer maximum flexibility and support to our grant holders while maintaining our responsive grant making programmes at full capacity. 

We invited 200 Improving Lives and Strengthening Communities grant holders to complete the survey, selecting those supporting people disproportionately impacted (e.g. BAME Communities) and cross-referencing with the English Index of Multiple Deprivation and the Red Cross COVID-19 Vulnerability Index. 

Reflections on Key Findings

We were encouraged and impressed by our grant holders' operational resilience, adaptability and responsiveness to local community needs. Almost no grant holders reported suspending referrals, closing waiting lists or ending services. 

Numerous grant holders reallocated staff and funds to local crisis responses, becoming community hubs and coordinating emergency services. The response below was typical.   

"Our money/debt project has three paid staff who couldn't carry out their usual jobs. They were offered the option of either being furloughed or remodelling our money/debt project as a food bank. They all agreed. Within days we had raised funds through public donations and turned our waiting room into a food hub." 

Partnership working came to the fore, with community-based organisations in particular maximising limited resources by collaborating with like-minded voluntary sector organisations as well as local authorities and other statutory services.  

They were also very alive to the issue of digital exclusion which has been particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Several responded with new equipment and services promoting digital literacy.

"We found ourselves dealing with digital exclusion, something we had not experienced. Our response was to apply for equipment through other charitable schemes and to donate items so people could make universal credit claims and pay bills online and allow their children to access school activities".

Our grant holders' short-term financial resilience (see income projections below) can be explained in part by their relatively low exposure to losses from earned income, fundraising events or other public donations and in part by their various successes securing emergency funding.  

revised income projections

The overall picture notwithstanding, there was a sense of grant holders bracing themselves for the worst yet to come. Some were at high financial risk, with 20 expecting to use more than half of their reserves or lacking any reserves. Those facing the biggest drops in income were (on average) grant holders supporting BAME Communities. 

Many noted emergency funds were restricted and/or time-limited and were concerned about reductions in government and other funding in 2021, particularly given the projected escalation of demand for their services. Several highlighted June-September as when funding issues could be critical.

Our Response in 2021

In November 2020, we started making CMC grants worth £4m to 53 of our grant holders. These grants provide funding until the end of 2021. 

Our response also involved sharing information with other funders to help support their grant making efforts while drawing on evidence from the ACF COVID-19 hub to inform our approach, for example a webinar on COVID-19 and racial disparity. We are now auditing our grant making using a racial equity audit tool introduced to us by members of the Funders for Race Equality Alliance.   

In 2021, we will also make £1m in emergency COVID-19 grants to grant holders in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We have just completed a similar survey of grant holders and are now inviting respondents to apply. In addition, we are increasing the budget for Improving Lives and Strengthening Communities. 

Finally, with regard to our expectations of grant holders we will be sensitive to the fact that they anticipate negative impacts on grant outputs and outcomes and so we, like them, will adapt. 


We are keen to learn more so if you would like to discuss these findings or share your own please contact James Tulloch, Learning and Evaluation Manager at The Henry Smith Charity.

About The Henry Smith Charity

The Henry Smith Charity is an independent grant making trust. We are amongst the largest independent grant makers in the UK, distributing over £35 million in 2019. We aim to use our resources to help people and communities at a time of need and to bring about positive change.