Reflecting and (re)building – some insights from our AGM+

In this blog post, based on a presentation at our AGM+ event on November 19th, VONNE CEO Carol Botten outlines her reflections on the impacts and opportunities for the VCSE sector through the Covid-19 pandemic.

What a year 2020 has been so far. The Covid crisis has challenged us all, as individuals, as a sector and as a society. Although we’re not clear on what the new normal will be and may not know for some time, what is clear is that the implications of the pandemic will be significant and long-term – both for the sector and for society.

We’ve all been on a journey that’s for sure. In the last couple of years, we’ve intended our conferences to enable the sector to look forward and plan; we still want to look forward, and in doing so to collectively reflect on what we’ve learnt and how we can seize upon opportunities to return and rebuild for the good of the communities we serve.

Our journey

It’s fair to say many of us probably set off in our response to the pandemic as if it were a sprint. We probably got some things wrong as we travelled fast through many rapid changes to our working and personal lives.

It soon became apparent though, that this wasn’t a sprint or even a middle-distance race but a marathon, with talk of a new normal and living with Covid. A return to some level of normality over the summer gave us some relief, but then everything began to change again, so I now feel the Covid journey has been like a very long Tour de France.

The road has been long and hard, with numerous mountains to climb and a few intermediary sprints thrown in along the way. We’ve had to peddle fast to keep up. It’s been gruelling and exhausting and we’ve had to show great perseverance and tenacity, especially when we didn’t have much left to give. Some of us have fallen off our bikes and got back on again, and a minority have dropped out of the race.

Many people don’t realise the tour is a team race. Winners only get to the podium because of support, and there are many unsung heroes keeping things moving, much like our staff and volunteers. 

Inequalities and Covid-19

Covid-19 has both shone a light on and exacerbated longstanding inequalities and disadvantage in the North East. This must now be placed front and centre of our region’s future planning and strategy for recovery.

The experience of the pandemic has played out very differently for different groups of people and impacted most harshly on those already facing multiple disadvantage. The well-established link between socio-economic deprivation, ethnic background and ill health has been painfully exposed, and as a region we must seize this moment to holistically address these deep-seated challenges once and for all. 

Relationships

We’ve seen a rapid increase in community cohesion and mobilisation, with neighbours supporting each other, mutual aid groups established and moments of connection though common experience. Many of us have built new partnerships within and beyond the sector as we’ve responded to the needs of communities, and our relationship with volunteers and staff has changed. Teams have had to adapt against a backdrop of less face to face interaction. Learning new ways to support one another and build resilience, in many ways people may feel closer to each other despite being physically further apart.

Our relationship with the state has also changed as in many cases better, more productive relationships have been forged with local authorities as we pulled together in emergency response.  The question now is how can we ensure a new type of relationship with national government – one that truly appreciates our role, our value and our impact?

We’ve seen huge shifts in the way funders, donors and commissioners have been able to support and fund our work – with more flexibility, more trust and relationship-based approaches. How can we build upon this as we move forward, so our relationships are less transactional and more collaborative?

The evolution of adapting

We’ve never experienced such a rapid pace of change, having quickly shifted our delivery models and ways of working to respond to the needs of beneficiaries, in large part through the rapid adoption of digital technologies.

And as beneficial as we’ve found digital delivery and tools to our work practices and engagement with others, digital exclusion sits alongside and exacerbates other inequalities and for many the gap is widening. We need to carefully consider the role of digital alongside our face to face services to ensure that people can access the support they require.

We’ve seen a raft of self-organising mutual aid groups emerge, with a rise in the sharing of staff, resources, knowledge and links to get things done. How can we effectively connect to these new informal groups and build upon this as we move forward?

In our sector, our core mission and purpose is always front of mind, so how do we flex to respond to emerging needs without drifting too far?

As previous recessions have shown, the VCSE sector has a higher degree of resilience than it is often given credit for. We’re used to rapid changes to income sources and fluctuating turnover. We’re good at cutting our cloth when needed. Those organisations that have diversified into trading and enterprise activities have been hard hit by lockdown restrictions, so we need to ensure there is equal access to business support to help them rebuild these models.

Resilience isn’t just about the ability to bounce back but about striving forward to build back better.

Value

The pandemic has shown just how important voluntary and community action is in helping to support people and places facing a crisis. Local government has a new appreciation of the sector: our insight into what’s happening on the ground, our ability to mobilise services, people and volunteers at pace, our networks and our reach into communities.

At a neighbourhood level, communities have had greater exposure to the sector, either through supporting our work or accessing our services. We have a clear opportunity to continue to increase our visibility and reach.

Clearly measuring and articulating our impact is always a challenge and what time have we had to focus on this when delivering at pace? We need to continue to articulate the value of our services and work, but do we and those that fund us also need to place more value on reflecting on and sharing our learning and our impact?

In crisis situations, new systems and ways of working are rapidly established and need constant flex.  Time and resources are tight and the role we each play needs to fit into a wider system of activity.  We need to understand our strengths and limitations and accept that other organisations may be better placed than us. We need to collaborate as we build forward together, rather than competing in increasingly complex and constrained systems of funding and commissioning.

Influence

We’ve all learnt a lot, and our growing insight on where gaps or issues are emerging can influence the decisions and focus of government and other statutory bodies. The emergency isn’t over, and the longer-term impacts are only just beginning to emerge. What happens next must be a wholesale approach to tackle deep-rooted systemic challenges that have led to the inequalities Covid has exposed.

One clear and valuable role for the sector is to increase our efforts in enabling and amplifying voices, especially those seldom heard. We need to stand together and speak with a collective voice for enhanced support for the sector and the necessity of our work to  support our beneficiaries and communities through the continuing health crisis and the longer-term economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.