While VONNE’s AGM and conference looked slightly different to usual this year, for all the obvious reasons, our AGM+ provided a moment for the North East VCSE sector to come together, giving attendees from across the region a chance to pause and reflect with colleagues on the issues facing their organisations.
In this post, our Deputy CEO Anne Fry explains what was revealed in the event's discussions, which took place In small groups looking at what challenges and opportunities have presented themselves, and what the sector’s key asks for the future are – of policymakers, funders, VONNE and each other.
We heard that despite the importance of core funding being more apparent this year, the lack of it, combined with the short-termism of a great deal of the funding available, is leading to increased uncertainty and trepidation for the future as the sector faces increased demand – with predictions of further increases to come.
The role digital has played this year cannot be overstated. We heard again about the issues being experienced by many around digital poverty and the ‘digital divide’ experienced by older people, children and young people, people with disabilities and those for whom English isn’t their first language.
The welfare of staff is an area of huge concern to many. Some staff are close to breaking point, energy levels are waning and there’s a feeling that no one is untouched by the current situation. Similarly, volunteers are tired and the question was raised, 'How do you keep momentum when services keep opening and closing and volunteer availability fluctuates?'
There are challenges for the sector when trying to think about longer term strategy and getting beyond Covid-19 to the root causes of health inequalities.
We heard an important message for all of us within the sector and for policy makers and funders – we need to avoid normalising or romanticising the crisis response. The fact that community groups have responded to emergency situations brilliantly doesn’t capture the importance of preventative work. An immediate response is critical but the longer term work is equally vital.
However, it was recognised that 2020 also brought opportunities, opportunities for the VCSE sector to show itself and what it can do. The current situation has brought issues to the fore which the sector has known about for a long time, but it’s also brought to light the value of the sector, although in the words of one attendee it’s: “Sad it takes something like this to happen before we are taken seriously.” The new or renewed interest in volunteering is also a great opportunity to get more people involved in our work and raises questions about how we capture and develop this interest.
The increased partnership working and collaborations that have taken place this year have enabled us to share knowledge and experience; we need to capture this and make sure it doesn’t disappear. There’s been a perceived change in attitude from stakeholders and perhaps the sector having a louder voice with decision makers.
Despite the challenges, the situation this year has given people permission to do things differently, presented opportunities to change the way we deliver services, and upskill our workforces. There have been benefits to remote working ranging from cost saving, better participation at meetings, and an increase in organisations providing workplace wellbeing programmes.
Key asks from the VCSE sector of policymakers revolve around trust. Trust us in the sector to know our communities. Understand that the same model doesn’t work across different communities and recognise the impact that the withdrawal of statutory services has caused in terms of increased demand on our sector. Accept the impact funding cuts have had on the level of demand on the sector and the importance of core funding to us.
“Trust us and trust communities - appreciate that life is messy.”
We need policymakers to listen to communities and include smaller organisations and community support mechanisms. Recognise our value, our work and the resources that we need to do it. We saw this year the benefits of good working relationships between local authorities and the VCSE sector and the important role of infrastructure organisations.
Nationally, attendees wanted the value of health and social care workers recognised, and for policy to focus on prevention rather than crisis management. There was also a call to hold decision makers to account for the fact some older people and people with disabilities were asked to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders at the height of the pandemic.
For funders, attendees stressed the importance of long-term investment that allows for collaboration and sustainability as well as preventative support. We heard calls for funders to be more collaborative and to move away from outcomes to concentrate on quality. Recognise that impacts take time and may be hard to measure. We also heard positive stories:
“…the majority of funders have been remarkable in their flexibility – it’s been heartening and created positive relationships. “
For each other, we heard pleas for people working in the sector to continue to share information and learning, to talk to each other and collaborate. In recognition of the extreme challenges this year has brought, calls to check in on each other and be honest if as an individual you’re struggling. To support each other and be mindful of the need for self-care.
Lastly, we heard the importance of acknowledging the situation many people have found themselves in this year is not normal, or acceptable. Working the sector, being aware and presented with the devastating impacts of Covid-19, we need to feel able to express our moral outrage at the situation around us.
“We need to assert our values and practice. Lots of people are talking about community, co-production and volunteering, but we’ve been doing this for a long time.”
For those who were unable to attend the event, our CEO Carol has outlined her takeaways for the sector in a previous post.