How has the pandemic affected the local voluntary sector? In a three part series, Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Citizens Advice Portsmouth’s Chief Officer, Sandy O’Neill to find out how the pandemic and lockdown has affected the charity, which works with Portsmouth residents on a range of issues by offering advice, advocacy and support. In part two, Sandy explains the challenges ahead for the charity and the importance of being part of a national body. Read part one here.
[Editor’s note: this interview took place before the introduction of the second lockdown, during which Citizens Advice Portsmouth’s office is closed. Please see the website for up to date details on how to contact the team by telephone and email.]
Paris: How confident do you feel about your organization’s future through and after the pandemic? What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?
Sandy: It’s easy to think, ‘we’ve had a lot of funding recently, and things are looking good at the moment’, but we weren’t without our challenges prior to COVID. All charities are facing funding challenges and we know that local authority money was dwindling. I should imagine the impact of COVID means there’s going to be even less local authority money. I’m not over-anxious about the challenges, but I acknowledge there are going to be challenges.
In order to keep giving the service we want to give, we must be mindful of keeping our business development team on the job, keep looking for grants, keep looking for innovative ways of raising funds. We started looking into fundraising recently, so we have quite diverse funding streams. We’re not wholly reliant on any particular one, which helps. I think diversifying funds at the moment is a good thing.
We want to first of all, make sure we can keep giving the services needed, to make sure we keep our teams and their jobs as well, we’re not the worst hit charity. I think we’ve come out of this so far fairly unscathed, but we’re not sitting on our laurels either. We know there are challenges ahead.
Have you had any parts of the community do fundraising events for you off their own backs?
We never really do get that community support. And I think that there’s several reasons for that. First of all, a lot of people think we’re part of the local authority, I don’t know where that stems from. We’ve been around since World War Two, we popped up as it were, in kiosks in the streets to help people who lost their houses through bombing and didn’t understand the rations.
I feel because I’ve always worked quite closely with the local authority, we were mainly funded by them, people thought we weren’t independent. But we are only a charity and the other thing is [people] think we’re a national organisation, [but] we’re actually not. We are a member of an organisation, but each member is a small independent charity. Being part of the national membership [means] we have to meet certain quality standards.
We’re constantly trying to get the message out there, [of] what it is we do, how important it is and how it changes lives. We [have] people on our lines every week who are suicidal, and their contact with us is the difference between still being here and not being here. It is that critical service that we give, but we just can’t get that message across.
How do those misunderstandings affect the organization?
There are many advantages. People trust Citizens Advice, and they should: to be a member of Citizens Advice, you have to really do well, you can’t just give any old advice, you have to meet quality standards. You have to have someone in place who checks all the advice that’s given to make sure it’s legally correct [and] it’s the best that can be given; that we’ve done holistic interviews, we’ve identified all the problems.
We jump through hoops to make sure our clients get the very best advice and that’s incredibly important because anyone can stand up and say, ‘we’re an advice-giving charity’, but actually [incorrect] advice can really harm people. If it’s not correct, it can cause huge detriment, [people] can lose thousands and thousands of pounds by being told the wrong thing about a benefit claim and so that’s incredibly important. I certainly wouldn’t want to run any advice charity that didn’t belong to a national membership that had those quality standards, that’s vital. It’s great to have the support of a network and it also gives you access to some larger funds, albeit they’re filtered down.
The disadvantages are people don’t see that you’re a small independent charity. People don’t realise you are Portsmouth-based, you’re there for the Portsmouth people. There’s an assumption of what Citizens Advice is, but we’re all slightly different, in Portsmouth we haven’t been funded by the City Council [for a long time].
As we move forward and things get harder for local authorities, [access to reliable advice is] going to be really critical. The advice [from Citizens Advice Portsmouth], it’s this good because we belong to this national body. So there are advantages and disadvantages.
What we’ve managed to do is provide every single area of advice, you don’t just get generalist advice with us, you get advocacy, court representation, casework. We can take somebody from the very beginning of an issue and take them right to the very end and see it right through to court if it’s needed. Last year alone, we wrote off two and a half million pounds worth of debt in Portsmouth for our clients and we do that consistently year on year.
If you are looking for help in regards to finances, benefits, mental health or other issues, click here to see the services that Citizens Advice Portsmouth deliver.
For more information on the current opening hours for Citizens Advice Portsmouth, see the website or call the Helpline on 023 9400 6600.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.
S&C is managed and operated by a small team who work on a voluntary and freelance basis to run our website, social media and engage with local residents and communities.
If you want to find out more about the challenges facing local independent news: visit the #SaveIndependentNews campaign website, get involved with S&C, donate, and help us spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.
And if you want to know more about us, click here.