Policy, Campaigns

Supermarkets can’t save everybody

Imagine telling someone ten years ago that Tesco would go from “yeah, just chuck that horse in, nobody will notice”, to quite possibly saving the actual world?

It’s hard to believe that just under ten years ago, supermarkets were everybody’s local manifestation of corporate evil. They were screwing their suppliers, farmers in particular. They were destroying the High Street, both directly through competition and indirectly by buying up (and just sitting on) prime development plots. Enough people were happy enough with cheap shopping to turn a blind eye though, just about up to the point where we discovered they were lobbing horsemeat into the lasagnes to bump their profits up a bit more.

Fast-forward to just before the COVID-19 crisis, and supermarkets had already turned their images around to an insane degree. With a relentless stream of positive marketing, community focused brand shifts, and real, positive action, over a few years’ supermarkets started to become a central part of communities, rather than the bad guy. Promoting their supplier chains with adverts of happy farmers, only too pleased to be supplying them. Liberal use of the word “market” (but not “super”) on instore signage.  Establishing themselves as the solution to busy modern lives with smaller city centre branches and investing heavily in the infrastructure to make home delivery indispensable to many. And then, supporting local charities. Whether setting up specific funding pots for charities to apply to, allowing regular charity bag-packing, and the familiar “here’s a token, vote for your favourite local charity with it on your way out”.

It’s a turnaround I’ve struggled to articulate without sounding like a lunatic for a while now – but now, in the current crisis, supermarkets’ social stock has risen yet further. When their customers’ panic-buying looked like destroying their crucial supply chains, they took quick action and mitigated the impact before government could intervene. When faced with the likelihood of their stores becoming major vectors for the spread of the Coronavirus they established, and marshalled a series of strict rules around social distancing in stores to keep people as safe as possible. They quickly offered jobs to people that had been laid off elsewhere. And they’ve donated money and food to charities in desperate need of both, around £100m worth so far.

Imagine telling someone ten years ago that Tesco would go from “yeah, just chuck that horse in, nobody will notice”, to quite possibly saving the actual world?

And then look at charities. Over a similar period, charities have been literally slammed for “Tesco-isation” by government ministers. Somehow, and I have no idea how this has happened, charities appear to be at fault for the decline of the high street because “there’s only charity shops in town now”. Chief executive pay is consistently misreported and labelled obscene, reserves are routinely misunderstood but reported on anyway, and the legitimate shortcomings of the few are constantly extrapolated across all 170,000 charities with no attempt to contextualise.

For a long time that’s been a frustration. DSC has tried to counter it with our #EverybodyBenefits campaign, to try and help people to see the huge part that charities play in all of our lives, whether we recognise it or not. And we’ve regularly tried to inform a constant stream of ministers, policy makers and regulators that we’re more than bake-sales and knitting circles (important as they both are).

But for the last few weeks, the collective ignorance in some parts of government about the role charities play in our society is in danger of killing them off entirely.

DSC, with a collection of national charities, infrastructure and membership bodies, and the support of over 300 government ministers, have been lobbying government hard for a Stabilisation Fund to support the charities that are struggling as a result of COVID-19. Thousands of charities have seen their fundraising income dry up overnight, and around half have seen an increase in demand for the services they provide. Half of the charities surveyed by DSC think they’ll be gone within 6 months if there’s no support forthcoming from government.

Those things are scary. But for some, only in a meta, strategic way. Those impacts only mean something if you know what those 170,000 charities do – for individuals, and for society.

Without them

  • Your ill, elderly parents aren’t in a hospice, they’re in your spare room
  • Your children aren’t in a nursery, you’re having to stay home and not work
  • Those teenage kids with real challenges aren’t meeting somewhere safe and getting the support they need
  • After diagnosis, you’re sent home with a leaflet, not put in touch with MacMillan or Diabetes UK or one of the thousands of other health charities doing what the NHS can’t

Multiply that by 180,000 and that’s what we’re in danger of losing – and however much supermarkets do, there’s no way their good deeds can replace what we stand to lose.

With no funding to keep charities going now, they’ll close, and the millions of people they support will suffer.

Rumours are that government could be planning to release a £100m support fund for charities this week, a LONG way short of the £4bn they are set to lose over the next three months. For context £100m works out at around £595.23 each (thanks @howardlake) – and is less than supermarkets are giving to charities in cash and food donations.

It’s possible that we’re on a trajectory where supermarkets eventually replace government and charities to become our community leaders and moral overlords. I hope not, but even if we are heading there, it’s not going to help us right now.

In the shorter term I’m more worried that the highly visible positive contributions by supermarkets, celebrities and other corporates, as well as the specific COVID-19 responses from funders will convince government that enough is already being done. That £100m here, and £14m there, will plug the £4 billion hole in our collective boat. Welcome and amazing as all of these funds are, they’re a drop in the ocean compared to what charities across the country really need right now.

If you can, and you haven’t already, click here, download this template letter and send it to your MP. Even if they’ve already signed up to support us, it makes their cases even stronger. If you’re on social media, follow us @DSC_Charity and tweet/retweet anything you can with the hashtag #EveryDayCounts.