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A pivot between corporate partners and charity members

15 May 2020: In Kind Direct operates at the interface of the corporate world and the charity sector. It has seen first-hand what COVID-19 has meant for both, says its Chief Executive, Rosanne Gray.

“We speak the language of both corporate donors and the 4,000 charities we serve,” says Gray, explaining the extraordinary position in which In Kind Direct finds itself under virus conditions. “We are hearing daily of the many needs from our charities and are fortunate to work directly with hundreds of leading manufacturers and retailers to provide the much-needed products.”

In Kind Direct, a charity whose founding patron is HRH The Prince of Wales, delivers four outcomes in a complex matrix that serves corporates, charities, the environment and communities.

Firstly, it wears a corporate social responsibility (CSR) hat, delivering to corporates (largely manufacturers) a solution to the necessary surplus in manufacture while doing right by society and the planet by avoiding landfill. In Kind Direct, takes that surplus, warehouses it and distributes it to charities working both nationally and overseas. A proportion of its costs are met through a small contributing charge to those accessing goods.

“Coronavirus has brought about a change,” says Gray. “This activity is no longer just about CSR and surplus products. We are now at the heart of business. Corporate partners are manufacturing goods specifically to donate much-needed resources at this time. There is a shift in understanding and a shift in available budget.”

One example of this new ‘manufacturing to meet need’ trend is the one million Andrex toilet rolls Kimberly-Clark has supplied – no shortage of toilet rolls here. It all needs warehousing and it all needs distributing. This is why furloughing is out of the question for this charity and why fresh funding is required to keep the show on the road.

New donors have come on board to support the delivery of essential products which also include arts and crafts materials to relieve stress on vulnerable people in isolation, footballs for children to play with at home.

Corporate partners are also starting to donate towards the cost of what is essentially a sophisticated logistics exercise, all undertaken within a charity structure with some very tight financial controls. During the crisis, companies have donated resources like free warehousing and transportation …something entirely new.

To put the scale of the logistics exercise into perspective, the pallets received by In Kind Direct into its warehouse and overflow locations between January and April 2020 exceeded what it received in the first nine months of 2019. At the end of 2019, the warehouse was working a single shift with three packing benches. It is currently working double shifts on six to achieve double the throughput.

And more products are needed. “We need donors to keep giving, not just during the pandemic, but afterwards too,” says Gray, adding that the charity is meeting vital need. This is not about making a marketing splash, albeit that the CSR outcome is obvious.

The second plank of In Kind Direct’s activity is serving its charity partners. “We have seen a huge increase in demand for goods from charities,” says Gray. “March was our busiest month in our 23-year history.”

The big worry is, however, that when this is all over, what will that community of 4,000 charities In Kind Direct supports look like? Without adequate support and funding designed specifically for serving the vulnerable through a multitude of different funding models, we will lose a key safety net in our communities.

“We think 70% of our charities will be able to adapt,” says Gray confidently, but emphasises there are some fundamental conundrums in the government’s approach to supporting the voluntary sector during the pandemic. For example, how do you access loans when you have no income? How do you repay them? How do you furlough staff when you are the busiest you have ever been?

Clearly, there will be mergers, she predicts, and there will have to be efficiencies. “Innovation will be key,” she says.

In Kind Direct itself has had to innovate and do so quickly to keep up with demand and grow its relationship with its corporate partners. “Due to huge surplus stock in clothing/textile retailing we have created a specific campaign to enable these companies to donate to make way for the new season. We are starting to look for donations from this sector now.”

Internal innovation has also been necessary. “We have had to speed up the automation of our systems,” says Gray. “A total of 400 charities have registered with us in the last month. Also, in the same period, we have received bulk donations on pallets in the same quantity as we would usually get across three months. We have had to automate and we have had to speed up our logistics.”

In Kind Direct has also had to introduce social distancing in its warehouse, it has introduced split shifts, and it has sought agency warehouse staff from the same household so that they can work together at a packing bench. These are things no one thought about previously.

And it is making efficiencies. In Kind Direct has reduced its catalogue and made sure it has a pipeline of the most in-demand products. “If a charity wants toilet roll, they can have it.”

The protection of the environment is the third positive outcome from In Kind Direct’s activities. By redirecting surplus manufactured goods away from landfill and towards charities that can put them to good use, the charity is meeting a very high purpose. It is also delivering very clear metrics to corporates who are measuring and reporting on their impact on the environment. Waste is never something you want to see in any kind of report.

The final deliverable, positive community outcomes, has never been more obvious than under these coronavirus conditions. Through the broad and UK wide network of In Kind Direct, they have been able to support thousands of charities who are working with the vulnerable to access the goods they need. Their products will be supporting everyone from women arriving at domestic violence support projects and being given toiletries and sanitary products, newly settled refugee families being given toothpaste and essential household products, and care packs being provided to those leaving hospital to convalesce in their homes. Given that coronavirus is impacting different communities in different ways, it is important that the broad reach of the charity sector is protected, if possible.

Alongside its core service, In Kind Direct is helping a charitable project initiated by Blue Light Card that needed logistics support to supply goods to 25 NHS Trusts to distribute to staff to thank the NHS for the magnificent job it is doing.

In the final analysis, In Kind Direct operates a complex model for a small charity, fulfilling four vital purposes. The pandemic has stretched its staff, funding and systems to the limit; but it is a clear example of the continuing need for an innovative third sector that will be here to support the rebuilding of our communities in the coming months.