Reflections on how 19 of the place-based projects Renaisi works with have responded to COVID-19 by Lily O’Flynn and Lizzie Oxborrow.

Renaisi is an evaluation and/or learning partner for 19 different projects or partnerships through three place-based programmes:

  1. Place Based Social Action funded by Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and the National Lottery Community Fund;
  2. Power to Change’s Empowering Places programme; and
  3. Local Trust’s Measuring Change evaluation support for three Big Local areas.

Across the three programmes, local knowledge and networks allowed the place projects to respond quickly to community and individual needs when the crisis began.

Rapid and localised responses

Organisations and partnerships were able to identify those who needed immediate support, such as food, medicine and shelter and match volunteers to emergency food and pharmaceutical requests, setting up rotas to cover phone lines and providing pastoral support for those at the frontline.

The pandemic has surfaced digital exclusion as an issue. In response, Big Local areas have provided isolated individuals with tablets and Zoom licences to enable them to connect with others virtually.

Once immediate and urgent needs were met social gatherings were adapted. Pub quizzes, social suppers, virtual open mic nights, daily community chats, Bollywood dance sessions and ideas gathering through community organising have all gone online, giving local people an accessible way to engage when they can’t meet face to face.

Photo courtesy of @LocalTrust

In filling a vacuum of other sources of support, many of the place projects have had to solve issues themselves and we’re seeing technical and leadership skills being developed, and connections being made with people previously unknown to the organisations such as through faith groups, refugee organisations, and via newly formed mutual aid groups.
However, at the same time as reaching new people through creative solutions, we’re hearing concerns about those who aren’t being reached and are becoming more detached; people who used to engage who can’t because they don’t have access to/or don’t use technology, or because they haven’t had the face-to-face incentive to stay engaged.

Fitting in to the wider system

Collaborating across a place has become increasingly important.

Existing relationships with local businesses have allowed place projects to call on them for the provision of things like meals for vulnerable people, access to spaces that can be repurposed and vehicles for deliveries. Renaisi’s own partnerships have allowed us to rapidly develop a food delivery service for the parts of London we deliver employment services. Working with a network of charities and social enterprises we now deliver food packs and hot meals to over 200 customers per week.

Some place projects had strong existing relationships with local authorities which have helped with coordinating and scaling services. In Wigan, Abram Ward Community Cooperative is the lead on the Council’s public-sector reform and coordinating the local response. In Hackney the Volunteer Centre are the local authority nominated volunteer hub; coordinating volunteers from the Council, the CCG and mutual aid groups. And in other areas, organisations and partnerships are collaborating on activities like volunteer vetting and DBS checks (Bristol); working with local authority staff deployed at ward level (Bradford and Coventry), and brokering relationships with the voluntary sector to provide advice on safeguarding and protecting volunteers (Hartlepool).

Some of the organisations and partnerships are working closely with VCSE organisations with specific expertise such as supporting mental health needs through a local Mind in Watchet and supporting digital inclusion through Hartlepower CIO in Hartlepool.

The infrastructure and networks built up through the programmes the places are part of have paid off during the crisis. Suddenly, being well networked locally and well regarded by local people is a huge asset. Power has shifted away from the bigger institutions that local people don’t have connections with, and towards smaller, more rooted, local organisations and groups.

What does this mean for place programmes?

Those distributing money and coordinating efforts for place programmes should consider:

  • Increasing isolation appears to be the biggest risk in communities – solutions to tackling this should be prioritised.
  • Creative ideas for working for with volunteers and capitalising on the momentum and positive will of people to get involved locally could be transformational for local communities.
  • Streamlining of support using collaborations, networks and referral systems is likely to remain vital – funding for staff posts and core costs to sustain these connections will strengthen local sectors.
  • Relationships with local authorities and other public-sector bodies have necessarily strengthened but it’s not a given that these ways of working will be retained, approaches to the mutual benefit of both the public and voluntary sector will be important to consider.

There is much to learn from the responses to covid-19 and we will continue to share the insight we gather as the 19 places begin to reset and recover from the pandemic.