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COVID-19 guidance for charities

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is forcing many charities to change how they usually operate. The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is working to share and provide guidance to assist charities where possible as they navigate their way through this unprecedented health emergency. Please click on the issue you are interested in to see the Commission's guidance.

1. How do I get support to pay my staff?

2. Funding and finance

3. Guidance for charities facing financial difficulties due to COVID-19

4. Trading subsidiaries in financial difficulties

5 Safeguarding

6. Data Protection

7. Annual reporting

8. Charity registration, including expressions of intent

9.Can we change our charity’s purposes (sometimes known as objects) so we can provide support during the pandemic?

10. Advice regarding charity meetings

11. Reporting serious incidents, including any impacts on your charity as a result of the pandemic

12. Accounting matters

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1. How do I get support to pay my charity staff?

The government has announced that organisations, including charities, will get support to help them pay wages.

Through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, employers will be able to contact HMRC for a grant to cover 80% of an employee’s salary for at least three months where they cannot work. This will be up to a maximum of £2,500 a month, plus the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on that wage. Employers can use this scheme anytime during this period and payments will be back dated to 1 March 2020.

The scheme is open to any employer that had created and started a PAYE payroll scheme on 28 February 2020, including small or large, charitable or non-profit organisations.

Guidance on the scheme published by HM Revenue & Customs confirms that furloughed employees are able to take part in volunteer work, providing this does not provide services to or generate revenue for their employers. 

It means that furloughed employees would be able to volunteer in their communities to help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic, subject to the current movement restrictions. But they could not work free of charge for their own charities. 

The government has said that people must generally stay at home, but they are allowed to go out to help vulnerable people. Please see here for advice on volunteering

2. Funding and finance

The Commission understands that funding for the charity sector is even more critical than normal, and that many charities may be concerned for their immediate and long term future. The advice below may be of some assistance during what is a very anxious and difficult time.

Employees

Information is available on the Gov UK website on areas including statutory sick pay and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme mentioned above.

VAT payments

HMRC have issued guidance on the deferral of VAT payments. Under the scheme, if you’re a UK VAT registered business and have a VAT payment due between 20 March 2020 and 30 June 2020, you have the option to defer the payment until a later date or pay the VAT due as normal. The deferral will apply from 20 March 2020 until 30 June 2020.

If you’re in temporary financial distress because of COVID-19 more help is available from HMRC’s Time to Pay scheme. All businesses and self-employed people in financial distress, and with outstanding tax liabilities, may be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through HMRC’s Time To Pay scheme. These arrangements are agreed on a case-by-case basis and are tailored to individual circumstances and liabilities.

Charitable Rates Relief

While most charities can avail of charitable rates relief, there are a number of activities that do not attract any exemption from a charity’s rates liability. The government has announced a Hardship Relief fund for those affected in February and March and who wish to apply for assistance towards their rates bill.

The Hardship Rate Relief scheme is available for non-domestic ratepayers who have been affected by exceptional circumstances. 

However, at any time a ratepayer is experiencing any difficulty in paying a business rate bill, they are encouraged to contact Land and Property Services (LPS) at the earliest possible opportunity, as in most cases payment arrangements can be put in place to assist. Please note: Following the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 March 2020 about additional measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, Land & Property Services offices and phone lines will be closed from Tuesday 24 March until Wednesday 15 April. The closure will be kept under regular review and the dates will change in line with further Government announcements. Further information on service updates will be available on the LPS website.

Hardship Rate relief is only available on rates that are due – therefore, it will not be possible to claim it for April, May and June 2020 (however no rates will be due for this period).  However, if your business has been affected during February and March 2020, you can apply. Please click here for more details.

Can we keep fundraising?

Yes, at this time of crisis, charities still need to raise money. We understand that charity incomes have dropped as demand for services may be increasing. What is key is that fundraising continues to be carried out in a way that is respectful and follows the Code of Fundraising Practice

You are also encouraged to keep up-to-date with official information provided by the government that may affect your fundraising activity. For example the Government’s guidance on social distancing means all person-to-person fundraising should stop if it has not done so already. These restrictions mean that it would not be possible to carry out fundraising on the street, door-to-door, or through private site collections. These measures are in place to protect the public at large, as well as your own staff and volunteers. 

If you have recently had to cancel a fundraising event, you may need to refund donations. Whether or not you need to will depend on the conditions under which the donation was made. For example, if money was donated on the condition that the fundraiser completes a marathon, donors should be asked if they are happy for funds to go to your organisation anyway, or if they want a refund. If there was no condition attached, for example the fundraising was carried out alongside someone’s marathon effort but without a condition of completion, then refunds may not need to be made.

If you have been working with third-party fundraising organisations on activities or campaigns that have now been cancelled, you should review your contracts and agreements as soon as possible to be clear about where you stand.

If the donations have already reached your charity, you may need permission from the Commission to issue a refund. You can find out more in section 2.3 of the Code of Fundraising Practice.

More advice on Fundraising and the Covid-19 virus is available on the Fundraising Regulators website.

Using cash reserves

We understand that many charities are very concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 emergency on their financial position.

As a first step charity trustees should consider what short, medium and longer term priorities, the charity already has and see if they need to amend their financial planning. Are there certain projects or activities that can be stopped or delayed in order to focus on essential spending at this time?

Cash reserves are funds that your charity has which is available to spend at the discretion of the charity trustees. They are unrestricted and are generally intended for future unexpected need or to pursue an opportunity in line with the charity’s purposes. Cash reserves can be spent to help cope with unexpected events like the current Covid-19 emergency.

Your charity may also have funds which the charity trustees decided to earmark for a particular purpose, you may be able to re-prioritise these.

Normally you would keep a certain level of reserves, however you need to do what’s best for your charity at this time.

Can we use restricted funds to help our charity through this crisis?

Restricted funds are those funds that the charity trustees are obliged to spend in a specific way or for a specific purpose as set out in a funding letter of offer or services contract, specified by grant maker, donor or in an appeal document. These particular purposes are narrower than the charity’s purposes. For example, you may have had a fundraising appeal which restricts funds to a specific purpose, or if you have a permanent endowment, it may have restrictions on selling it to release funds. Or again a funder may have restricted the use for which funds or a grant was given.

If there are restrictions, in some instances there may be ways to amend these restrictions, but accessing or releasing restricted funds should only be considered if other options such as reserves are not possible. The Commission encourages you to also carefully consider the wider and longer term impacts of making such a decision on your financial resilience and donor relationships. You should seek professional advice on this if you can. The Commission will be as helpful as possible, and offer what guidance we can.

Sometimes restricted funds comprise donations from many donors and in this situation it is unlikely to be practical to contact them all to ask permission to use the funds differently. Where the charity trustees consider it appropriate in the circumstances, they may wish to think about using their normal methods of communication such as newsletters or their website to inform those donors that they are proposing an alternative use for those funds providing no objections are raised within a set period of time. This would potentially be a pragmatic approach that could be used at this time and which the Commission would respond to proportionately where necessary.

If the restricted fund has been created by a single donation and it is not possible to contact the original donor or funder to discuss alternative use then you should not use those restricted funds as there is no means of the charity trustees addressing the trust that the original donor placed in the charity.

We encourage charities that are looking at options for using restricted funds to help them in the current situation to be sure that the funds are definitely restricted and not designated as the two are quite different.

  • Restricted funds occur where a third party has placed a restriction on the use of the fund.
  • Designated funds are where the charity trustees have chosen to set aside some of the unrestricted funds of the charity for a specific use – for example a repair fund to ensure there is money available to keep a building in good condition.

If charity trustees are in doubt, they should consider the paperwork that they have to support the restriction. Auditors and independent examiners to charities may also be able to assist with some of this as they will have had an interest in ensuring the funds are correctly described in the charity’s accounts and so may have copies of supporting documentation on their files.

All decisions on financial matters should normally be taken collectively, and significant decisions and action points noted in writing. You will find more guidance in the Commission’s Developing a reserves policy guidance.

Emergency funding and support

Below are some sources of funding and support for the charity sector at this time.

NICVA regularly updates information about sources of funding as they become available, this information is available at their COVID-19 funding and  fundraising page.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak also announced (on 8 April 2020) that charities in Northern Ireland are to get over £10million as part of a government support package, to ensure they can continue their vital work during the Coronavirus outbreak.

£370 million of the funding will support small, local charities working with vulnerable people. In England, this support will be provided through organisations like the National Lottery Communities Fund, with £60 million of the funding allocated through the Barnett formula to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland:

  • £30 million for the Scottish Government
  • £20 million for Welsh Government
  • £10 million for the Northern Ireland Executive

The UK government will also provide £360 million directly to charities providing essential services and supporting vulnerable people, as the health emergency continues. Up to £200 million of those grants will support hospices with the rest going to organisations like St Johns’ Ambulance and the Citizens Advice Bureau as well as charities supporting vulnerable children, victims of domestic abuse, or disabled people.

You can read the Chancellor’s announcement on economic support for the charity sector in full here: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/chancellor-of-the-exchequer-rishi-sunak-on-economic-support-for-the-charity-sector.

  • The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland

The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) has opened a fund for charitable groups supporting older people and dealing with emerging issues from Coronavirus. 

The fund offers grants of £1,000, however, it also considers applications for up to £2,500 of emergency funding to community organisations working with older people (aged 50 and over) to help them to deliver support around emerging issues relating to the virus. They are aiming for a speedy turnaround with successful groups receiving funding within a week.

Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey MLA, has also announced that the department is providing £200,000 match funding to the CFNI Coronavirus Community Fund.

Announcing the funding, the Minister said: “My Department is proud to see the proactive approach being taken by our colleagues in the Voluntary and Community Sector and I commend CFNI on their very quick response to the emerging crisis. This £400,000 fund will help to ease pressure for some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Groups wishing to apply for funding please click here. If you would like to contribute to the fund, you can make your donation here or contact shealy@communityfoundationni.org 

  • The Charities Aid Foundation

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) had launched an emergency fund for small charities and organisations as they battle the effects of the coronavirus. The CAF Coronavirus Emergency Fund offered one-time grants of up to £10,000 to small charities, organisations and social enterprises that are struggling to survive.

However, due to high demand, they have had to pause accepting new applications. They hope to grow the fund and reopen it to new applications as and when they have additional money which they can grant to organisations.

For more information click here.

  • Halifax Foundation Northern Ireland

An independent grant-making trust, the Foundation works to support charities within Northern Ireland, enabling people who are disadvantaged or with additional needs, to participate actively in their communities.

The Halifax Foundation Northern Ireland has issued a statement on their website, to highlight that they understand that Coronavirus will present a number of challenges to the charities which they support throughout Northern Ireland over the coming weeks and months. 

If your charity is affected by the Coronavirus outbreak and you receive grant funding from the Foundation:

  • They will be reasonable if you need to request budget changes to ensure your projects can continue.
  • They will consider any project extension requests sympathetically.
  • If you think you will struggle to meet your end of project evaluation deadline please get in touch with the Foundation to request an extension.

You can read the full statement on their website here:

  • The National Lottery Community Fund

The National Lottery Community Fund is the largest community funder in the UK. Each year they distribute millions of pounds of The National Lottery’s good causes money to community groups and charitable projects around the country. The Fund has published a statement outlining their funding approach in response to the pandemic. It includes the following information:

“We have now made two additional decisions. Firstly, all the funding decisions we make for the next six months (up to £300m of National Lottery funding) will be devoted to addressing the current crisis. In addition, we will accelerate the cash part of this funding as much as we can, so that we can get money to where it needs to be. This is not new money, but it will be faster money and we know that we must act quickly and with confidence.

“In deciding how to implement this approach we have to make some tough choices about how we get that money out quickly to those communities and organisations that need it most. We will do our best to be fair and true to our principles and to you.

“To reach those groups best placed to support their communities at this vital time, we will prioritise the following faster payments for existing grant holders and applicants using the following criteria:

  • Activities specifically geared to supporting communities through this crisis
  • Helping organisations overcome any liquidity issues caused by COVID-19.

“We are doing this because we know it is critical right now to work harder as a funder to get cash out of the door and hope that by acting quickly we can help organisations at the fore-front of the current crisis, when support is needed most.

“Should we get through this initial tranche of support with some funding left or circumstances change, we will move to set new priorities. We know that this means some groups will not be able to access our funding over the coming months and we will endeavour to return to our broader support as soon as we can.”

You can read the full statement, by the Fund’s CEO Dawn Austwick, here.

  • The National Lottery Heritage Fund

The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) has established a £50m emergency fund to support heritage projects in crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

NLHF’s past and current grantees, or those still under contract from previous grants, can apply for grants of between £3,000 and £50,000.

The cash for the fund will be diverted from planned new grants, with all new grant applications halted with immediate effect.

Awards for projects that had already received development funding would continue to be made throughout the crisis on the existing competitive basis.

  • Other grantmakers

More than 70 grantmakers have signed a statement promising to support charities during the Coronavirus emergency, stating they will be understanding of difficulties and flexible on reporting requirements and how funding is used. The list is available of signatories is available here.

3. Guidance for charities facing financial difficulties due to COVID-19

During the current COVID-19 emergency, charity trustees are having to cope with serious financial challenges that will have a major effect on their charities and those who depend on them. Many charities are facing the double challenge of a sudden fall in income with an increase in demand for their services.

This guidance is designed for charity trustees, especially of smaller charities, who may not have access to professional financial advice. It sets out some practical steps charity trustees can take to manage their charity through these financial difficulties and, if necessary, plan for the uncomfortable possibility that your charity may not survive this crisis. You will find information on:

  • assessing your charity’s current financial situation
  • identifying when your charity is at risk of running out of funds
  • developing a recovery plan
  • charity trustee liability
  • what to do if your charity cannot continue to operate because of the impact of COVID-19

Download Guidance for charities facing financial difficulties due to COVID-19 PDF (245.3 KB)

4. Trading subsidiaries in financial difficulties

We are aware that in the current circumstances many charities’ trading subsidiaries may be finding it difficult to operate and be facing financial difficulties.

As with other businesses, support for trading subsidiaries may be available from government or other sources – see UK government information for businesses and employers, which includes companies and Community Interest Companies.

The UK Government has announced plans to change insolvency laws to allow companies ‘breathing space from creditors enforcing their debts for a period of time whilst they seek a rescue or restructure’.

The UK Government will also temporarily suspend wrongful trading provisions to ‘give company directors greater confidence to use their best endeavours to continue to trade during this pandemic emergency, without the threat of personal liability should the company ultimately fall into insolvency’.

Legislation to introduce these changes will be introduced in the UK Parliament soon.

In any case, as a charity trustee you have a duty to put the interests of your charity first. If a trading subsidiary of your charity is likely to be operating at a loss for a sustained period of time then you need to decide what actions are in the interest of the charity. 

The reason for setting up a trading subsidiary is usually to generate funds for the charity and to protect the charity’s assets. Where the charity is supporting the trading subsidiary and not receiving any of the benefits you could be putting charitable assets at risk.

You need to consider the situation, taking into account the whole picture, including the immediate and longer term implications for the charity and its operating model. 

For example, it might be in the charity’s interest to provide short term support to help a trading subsidiary to be mothballed so that it can be reopened when things change to provide long term support for the charity. 

You should make sure to record your consideration and all decisions made so that it is clear why you have taken a particular course of action in the interests of the charity.

5. Safeguarding

This pandemic is already giving rise to that spirit of charity and community that brings people together, and we appreciate and value that people will want to help others during the challenges we are all facing. But now more than ever it is critical to ensure that charities protect and safeguard their beneficiaries, volunteers and staff.

If your charity does not normally deal with vulnerable beneficiaries, you may not have a safeguarding policy or have established practices designed to protect staff, volunteers and those that you are helping. Whether you have an existing policy or not, your responsibilities for ensuring that safeguarding procedures are applied consistently remain and are of particular importance during this crucial time.

Some practical considerations for charities are below.

  • Making sure that your existing safeguarding policies and procedures are properly communicated and adhered to at all times
  • Where your charity does not normally work with vulnerable beneficiaries you could consider aligning your charity with another charity which has more experience and proper procedures in place to manage the services and support that you are now trying to help with
  • If you cannot align with another charity, you must ensure that you develop a proper procedure for dealing with vulnerable beneficiaries and this must immediately be communicated to and understood by all charity trustees, staff and volunteers

This is particularly relevant for those directly helping communities or vulnerable members of society who have been or are continuing to self-isolate.

6. Data Protection

During this time many charities may need to share information quickly or adapt the way they work. Data protection will not stop you doing that but it’s important to be proportionate. If something feels excessive from the public’s point of view, then it probably is. The Information Commissioner's Office has released new data protection guidance to help organisations remain compliant with data requirements. Ensure your data protection officers are up-to-date with this guidance.

7. Annual reporting

At the present time, and until otherwise advised, no charity will be penalised for missing its annual reporting deadline. This means that no charity will be marked as in default on the register of charities if they fail to meet their annual reporting deadline.

We would ask if charities find themselves in this position, they contact the Commission as soon as possible via email to admin@charitycommissionni.org.uk to keep us updated on their situation. You will not receive an acknowledgement to this email but your correspondence will be noted for our records.

Please find below guidance for independent examiners during the COVID-19 pandemic or in a time of national emergency.

Download Guidance on Independent Examination during Covid PDF (478.9 KB)

 

8. Charity registration, including expressions of intent

Applications for charity registration will continue as normal, however, there may be delays in responding to your correspondence, or making a final decision on your application.

If you are concerned that you will not meet your submission deadline you should contact the Commission as soon as possible via registration@charitycommissionni.org.uk to seek an extension. Remember to include the name of the charity and the reason for the extension request and importantly print or save a copy of your application if you have already started to complete it.

If applicants require more time to submit further information to support an application which has already been submitted the Commission will also treat these requests pragmatically.

Expressions of intent

It is compulsory for all organisations which are charitable and operating in Northern Ireland to ensure that the Commission knows that they are operating here, so they can be called forward to apply for charity registration. This applies even if the organisation has not been previously recognised as a charity for tax purposes, for example, having an HMRC tax number. If your organisation is not already on the Combined list published on the Commission’s website, then you must fill in an Expression of intent form (external link). This will allow you to provide your details to the Commission, enabling you to be called forward to apply for charity registration in due course.

When you are submitting an Expression of Intent form (EOI) you will receive an automated message, acknowledging that your information is being provided to the Commission. At the present time, email receipts will not be issued but you do not have to do anything further until you hear from the Commission. The Commission is in the process of building its register by calling forward organisations to register as resources allow. It may be sometime before you are contacted by the Commission to apply for charity registration.

When filling in the EOI form you will have the opportunity to provide details of any special circumstances which you believe may require your organisation to be prioritised for registration over others. Any EOI with special circumstances will be considered by Commission staff, so there is no need to contact the Commission to draw them to our attention. If the special circumstances arise from the COVID-19 emergency, please mark this clearly on the EOI and provide details. These EOIs will be prioritised by the Commission for consideration.

9. Changing your charity’s purposes (sometimes known as objects) so you can provide support during the pandemic

Naturally, lots of charities are considering whether they can help the effort to tackle COVID-19 and its severe impact on people right across the country. You should first consider the terms of your charity’s existing charitable purposes (sometimes known as objects). These are set out in your governing document.

Purposes that might already allow you to offer support include:

  • the relief of poverty
  • the relief of need hardship or distress
  • the relief of the elderly
  • the advancement of education or advancement in life of young people
  • the advancement of health

Trustees of charities with other purposes may also be able to adapt and respond to COVID-19 either directly or indirectly. For example, a charity with a purpose to advance religion may be able to offer support as part of its pastoral work. An arts charity might help relieve isolation through its online work. Your charity may also have a general purpose that allows you to act for any charitable purposes, or a purpose that allows you to support the general benefit of a local area.

In considering what you can do under your existing purposes you will need to check whether your purposes have restrictions, for example, to benefit a particular local area or class of beneficiaries.

If your existing purposes do not allow you to help, you may be able to amend your governing document to change them. But consider carefully:

  • whether there are other charities that may be better placed to respond than yours.
  • the wider and longer-term impacts if you use your charity’s money for purposes other than those for which it was raised. Your existing beneficiaries - whose needs may be less pressing but no less deserving - may also lose out

If you want to change your charitable purposes, you should check to see whether your trustees have the powers to amend them, for example using an express power in your governing document. If not, you may need permission from us.

Any changes proposed should be reasonable, consistent with what your charity does, and not undermine your existing purposes. We will prioritise requests required urgently because of COVID-19.

See further information, see our guidance on changing your charity’s governing document.

10. Advice regarding charity meetings

This advice covers both general meetings and meetings of charity trustees.

Some charities will have meetings planned, or required through the conditions of their governing document, over the coming weeks that will either have to be postponed or to be held virtually rather than in person.

Where meetings are postponed, it is recommended that a note is kept documenting the reason why the meeting has been postponed, but the Commission will be pragmatic and reasonable and will not take any regulatory action where meetings are postponed as a result of these circumstances.

Where a meeting is held virtually to safeguard the health of trustees, this should be recorded in the minutes and the Commission will accept this as a valid meeting, as long as it is quorate.

Can I cancel or postpone my charity’s AGM or other key meetings?

Charity trustees who cannot hold an annual general meeting (AGM) in compliance with their Articles of Association must ensure that the decision is recorded by the charity.

Any record of such decisions should record that the decision was taken in response to the current health advice, and that plans to hold the AGM will be implemented as soon as reasonably possible after government advice on holding meetings changes.

Can I use video, teleconferencing and the internet in place of face-to-face meetings?

In keeping with the government’s current advice it will be very difficult for charities to hold face-to-face meetings. Some charities have clauses in their governing documents that allow them to meet virtually or to use telephone facilities. If your charity does not have this clause we would recommend that charity trustees check their governing document and see if they have the power to amend their governing document to facilitate changes as to how or when meetings are held.

Where your charity does not have the power to amend your governing document in this way or if your governing document prohibits the charity from meeting virtually and you decide to hold meetings over the phone or using digital solutions, you should record this decision and note that you have done this to demonstrate good governance of your charity and in keeping with the government’s advice. The Commission will accept decisions recorded in this way.

11 Serious incident reports

The Commission understands that many charities may be affected by the current COVID-19 situation.

Should charity trustees decide they are temporarily closing their charity to manage this situation then there is no requirement to issue a serious incident report to the Commission. Charities should continue to issue serious incident reports for all other matters where appropriate.

12. Accounting Matters

The Charities SORP Making Body has issued guidance on practical accounting matters which you may find useful. This advice can be found here: www.charitysorp.org