How the coronavirus (COVID-19) is affecting the heritage sector

Tom Walters
Our Head of Research, Data & Insight on the surveys that helped us guide our response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has already had a seismic impact on all elements of our lives.

First of all on the people whose health – and that of their families, friends and colleagues – has been affected. And to anyone who has felt anxiety or fear or general discomfort at our worlds closing in due to the government’s advice to stay at home.

"How can we survive this crisis, and indeed possibly thrive in the future?"

The secondary impact is on our sector, as part of the wider economy – in short, how can we survive this crisis, and ensure that our heritage assets and organisations are able to thrive in the future?

Tomorrow (Wednesday 1 April) we will be releasing the details of our Heritage Emergency Fund. It was the result of swift work behind the scenes – and two surveys which have helped us find out more about how applicants, grantees and people across the sector are feeling.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who responded to the surveys and took time to tell us about the impact on your organisation. We received an overwhelming response and your feedback has played a really important role in the design of the Heritage Emergency Fund.

Our survey of heritage organisations

We began to gather anecdotal evidence of the impact on some of the organisations we support as the initial social distancing measures were announced. But it quickly became clear we needed to hear from more of our friends and colleagues in the sector. One of our first reactions to the crisis was therefore to initiate research with grantees and heritage organisations to really understand the impact the virus and the associated measures were having.

The survey opened on Friday 20 March and closed at 5pm on Friday 27 March. On 24 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced compulsory ‘stay at home’ measures for the UK's population.

We sent the survey to 1,424 grantees who had received a grant of over £250,000 within the last 10 years. We also published the link on our website and shared it on social media. 

We received 1,253 replies, of which 479 returned from the email. The replies came from across the UK, cross sector and size of organisation. 

The research took place during a period of rapid change and we received responses throughout the week that it was live. That means that the restrictions in place and support available may have varied for different respondents. This is something to bear in mind as you read the findings, but we believe the responses still provide invaluable insight.      

The key findings:

The impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is UK-wide. We saw that 98% of heritage organisations were impacted within the first three weeks and the remaining 2% expected some impact in the future. There were no significant differences across the country, nor across the sector. 

The financial impact is likely to be high:

  • 91% of respondents said they’ve had to cancel events 
  • 69% are being affected by loss of revenue 
  • 82% of organisations reported high or moderate risk to their long-term viability. That figure rises to 90% of charity, third sector or private organisations.

The impact on organisations in our sector was also clear from the survey responses:

  • 71% expected they would have to close to the public
  • 55% are being affected by lack of available volunteers  
  • 49% are being affected by staff absence 
  • 49% are seeing reduced visitor numbers

The next half year will be crucial to the survival of many of our heritage organisations. If the current situation continues, 37% of organisations who responded told us they can survive for no more than six months, with 11% expecting to keep going for no more than two months.  

"Around a third of charity/third-sector organisations and around a third of community and voluntary groups said they could not exist beyond July."

Around a third of charity/third-sector organisations and around a third of community and voluntary groups said they could not exist beyond July.

What should we be doing?

Many of our respondents weren’t sure if they were eligible to apply for wider government support, which reflects the fact that many policies are only in their early stages of delivery, or indeed were being announced during the period the survey was live.

The majority of respondents wanted greater flexibility for existing projects/grants, 58% wanted replacement funding due to loss of revenue, while 52% wanted emergency funding. 

This feedback has been crucial in recent days as the Heritage Fund took decisions about how best to respond. 

Survey of wildlife and countryside bodies

We also commissioned a parallel survey via Wildlife and Countryside Links, which ran from 20–24 March, so the results relate to the period before the compulsory ‘stay home’ announcement by the Prime Minister. The survey was sent to their 100+ members across the UK and 60 responses came back.

The effect of the crisis was the same as in our first survey – with 98% of organisations affected, and 2% expecting an impact.

Again, the financial and organisational impact is expected to be sharp:

  • 61% are being affected by loss of revenue 
  • 56% are being affected by staff absence 
  • 58% are being affected by lack of available volunteers 

Our next steps

We have used these responses to help us direct our next steps, which we will publish tomorrow. Our expert staff are working together – virtually – to help the sector as much as we can, as we’re sure yours are too. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with any concerns.

"The threat is not just to our sector, but to the wonderful heritage we look after for the next generation."

The crisis is showing that while the heritage sector is tenacious and run by passionate, capable people – it is also part of a delicate ecosystem. The research showed that both small and large organisations face a significant challenge ahead

The threat is not just to our sector, but to the wonderful heritage we look after for the next generation.

We have therefore used the research findings to tailor our emergency funding to the organisations that are at greatest risk.  

We will now also be analysing the detailed survey findings with government departments and our partners in the sector to assess the options for a wider joint response. Finally, the survey also showed us that we need to help ensure that heritage organisations are able to make full use of the significant Treasury and HMRC initiatives already announced.   

Thank you again if you took the time to respond to our call for evidence. 

A sign of hope

A sign of hope is that heritage organisations and their staff, volunteers and fans are sharing collections and ideas online from their homes. While with one rationed walk a day, parks and our outside world have never been so beloved.

Perhaps after the lockdown is over, we will have a chance to celebrate and cherish all that we have missed these past months.

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