Building brand, reputation and trust in the third sector

The COVID-19 pandemic and the UK lockdown has hit charities and their clients hard. An example is Sadaka, a Reading-based charity for the homeless, of which I am Chair. Sadaka provides hot meals, toiletries, clothes and books, on a weekly basis. Sadaka’s hot meals are considered the best in town by our service users.

For service users, food insecurity worsened as the pandemic took hold, while food charities were forced to re-group, re-think and adapt their services. With three million people reported going hungry in the first three weeks of the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown (Food Foundation, 11 April 2020), the numbers of the food insecure rocketed. We have found that, without really being aware, our charity has grown a profile, a “brand image”, and with very loyal volunteers that has materially helped our ability to get through the challenges. 

The first challenge was that closure of all Reading’s public buildings from 17 March 2020 seriously impacted Sadaka’s regular sit-down meal service, as it depended on access to rented local authority premises. Further, for personal health reasons, some Sadaka volunteers stepped away from the frontline. Consequently, Sadaka has had to make major adaptations to its food service and mode of delivery, with fewer resources. Over the weeks of the lockdown, what emerged is our ability to draw on hitherto unknown levels of resilience in the face of this “Black Swan” event. We were able to switch to a takeaway service held outside a local authority community centre, we implemented social distancing (including marking up 2-metre gaps on the public pavement), as well as use of basic PPE. We’ve also developed plans to move to delivery only, and have implemented GDPR-compliant data gathering for this purpose. While some members of the public have questioned what we do, it is clear that our standing is such that the local authority is happy to let us get on with our work, which indicates a level of recognition not apparent before the pandemic. And, our service users can rest assured that we will always be there for them; come rain, shine or COVID.

That recognition has impacted other aspects of the current crisis: Sadaka has always provided hot fresh meals offering additive-free balanced nutrition, recognising that many of its service users were malnourished, with weakened immune systems. This means greater susceptibility and risk of serious outcomes from a SARS CoV2 virus infection. Following the lockdown, the local council housed 69 rough sleepers and provided them with cooked meals; however it emerged that the composition of such was not satisfactory to service users and to maintain health. We were able to make representations to the local authority which resulted in it reviewing its food provision from a nutritional perspective. 

Sadaka has had to review its 2020 plans, to increase its fundraising efforts due to the financial impact of the growing numbers of those who are suffering from food insecurity. We have been able to win new pandemic-specific funds which now allow us to support a greater proportion of those on the food insecurity spectrum than was possible before. While we know that more funds have become available anyway, it is clear that something about our growing reputation is having a significant influence over donors’ funding decisions.

We are grateful that the growing number of our service users appreciate the service we provide, aware of the challenges faced by the charity. Anecdotal evidence indicates that continuing the service is having some positive impact on their mental health. A homeless person Sadaka serves, when asked what would be most helpful for them during the COVID crisis, replied, “it is the charity’s humanity that I most value”.

Winning pandemic-specific funds has made it possible for Sadaka to sustain its service through the crisis and to work with other charities, business and government, which are collaborating as never before to provide for the increased numbers of the most vulnerable. Sadaka’s priorities are to re-build for a post-pandemic future and grow its profile (and brand recognition) which is committed to serving the vulnerable, while maintaining volunteer engagement, safety and trust.


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