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The new hybrid relationship between buildings & people

Posted on 18/03/2022 by

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Guest blog by Antonia Swinson, CEO of the Ethical Property Foundation

As senior managers the UK Voluntary Sector work to re-shape staff teams in the new post pandemic landscape, Antonia Swinson CEO of leading UK property advice charity the Ethical Property Foundation, asks where does this leave our buildings?

People have always shaped buildings and buildings have shaped people: but today we see a strange new complementary relationship as hybrid working creates new needs and fresh view of what buildings serving the voluntary sector, are actually for.

Every week charities are contacting my charity the Ethical Property Foundation for hybrid working property strategies or simply some help in renegotiating with their landlord. It is a tough environment we are operating in with no prizes for courage. For many non-profit CEOs, just still being in business after 2 years’ pandemic is a huge achievement, but now we are having to be dynamic leaders and property wheeler dealers as well.

So, this Spring, let us look around and survey what our sector now looks like. Yes, our work has finally been re-rated, newly appreciated by policy makers both local and national, for the glue and the spirit with which we have held together local communities and local services. And yet, everywhere, we see fatigue, burn-out, closures, mergers, bankruptcies plus the more silent grind of replacing lost people, lost reserves, lost income. How we use our buildings in the new 2 – 3 years, whether rented or owned, has never been more vitally important in shaping our mission delivery.

The pandemic cruelly exposed the sector’s long-standing lack of interest in bricks and mortar. Who cares about the state of the roof when it’s the state of the world which gets you up in the morning? Yet COVID carried an unlikely silver lining, in that it forced boards of trustees and staff teams to engage proactively in how they use their buildings for the benefit of staff, volunteers and service users – with all the costs and the responsibilities involved. Grant funders too – far too many of whom, have concentrated on funding front line projects, irrespective of the physical working conditions of staff and volunteers – now understand that property is an integral part of mission delivery.

Technology has obviously rapidly shaped our HR decision making, allowing us to work from home effectively, forever, but hard on the heels of lockdowns also came COP26, and our new urgency about climate change. This is now serious, with savage rises now due in our utilities’ bills – promising to be doubled by the war in Ukraine. How sad it will be, if it is the gas bill and not a global pandemic which finally makes yet more charities, already living on deficits for two years, close their doors. How as senior managers, do we learn and grow in such challenging times? How can our property deliver for our cause? Or indeed, do we need a property at all?

What we have of course on our sector’s balance sheet – something which the private sector would kill for - is our sense of community as a sector – our shared willingness to let our voice speak, to collaborate and learn from each other.

So, may I ask that when you put the kettle on for your next coffee, please spend a few minutes filling in the Charity Property Matters Survey 2022 which the Ethical Property Foundation (EPF) has just launched. Titled ‘Adapting Charity Property for a World with COVID’ this research will ensure the sector – as well as policymakers, funders and regulators - learn about the effects of the pandemic on organisations but also how we are planning for the future. This is the only charity-led property research in the UK - run bi-annually since 2012 – and we will publish the results later in the year.

Alternatively, please visit www.propertyhelp.org and click on the home page Survey button.

Please encourage everyone in your networks to complete the survey. Many of us working in the sector are trustees and volunteers, so do please fill in the survey for each.

As we regroup to serve a society now facing up to so much uncertainty, it is important to benchmark where are now and how we move forward to serve our causes and communities.

Antonia Swinson is the CEO of the Ethical Property Foundation www.propertyhelp.org @EPF4Charities