Converting crisis responses to COVID-19 into sustainable community-led action
Lily O-Flynn Senior Project Manager for place-based evaluations shares her thoughts on how place-based programmes can capitalise on COVID inspired community action for the long term.
The amazing response to Covid-19 has shown what communities can achieve in a crisis. As people return to work and some form of normality, voluntary sector organisations are left with the task of continuing to address acute need, as well as looking to the future without the level of support they have received recently.
Renaisi is an evaluation and/or learning partner for 19 different community-led projects or partnerships through three place-based funding programmes – Place Based Social Action, Empowering Places and Local Trust’s Measuring Change. We have seen first-hand the rise in local people wanting to offer their help (whether through volunteering, fundraising or their expertise).
The question now is, not how to sustain that response but how it can be converted into long-term community action.
Accessible and inclusive social action
We know many voluntary sector organisations are re-thinking their volunteer offer to retain those that have been mobilised through crisis, as well as to address issues such as growing isolation. Some have developed ‘befriending’ or ‘Good Neighbour’ schemes, enabling local people to help their neighbours to enjoy a better quality of life and formalising volunteer buddy systems.
Anecdotally we have heard that volunteers that stepped forward during the crisis period come from a more affluent socio-economic backgrounds than the people they are supporting. The organisations we are working with are keen to widen the demographic and ensure that their routes to engagement are accessible to more people. Some are turning to faith-based organisations to reach new people. Others are switching to digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp rather than trying to introduce new technology like Zoom, which has the potential to alienate people who don’t use it for work.
Championing local voices
Unlike a crisis response, where many people were assigned tasks (such as delivering food to neighbours), community action often starts from the position of asking ‘what do you want to change’? Many of the organisations we are working with are beginning that process by stopping delivery to reflect, listen and consult the community before considering next steps.
Examples of this include launching engagement campaigns to get local people enthused about social action, such as ‘CommUNITY is not just for pandemics‘ led by Grapevine in Coventry, or getting people involved in designing services to address issues that are most pertinent to them as the PBSA Partnership has done through Community Organising in Halifax.
By stepping back and listening to the needs of the community, these organisations are changing their role from leader of the response to enabler of social action. Capitalising on the recent investment of local people in their community, they’re now supporting those people to build the confidence to influence the change they want to see.
Cross sector collaboration
Community organisations are working hard with local people to adapt to a ‘new normal’, as well as to maintain the support networks that towns, villages, wards and boroughs built in crisis. Every sector of society has a role to play in converting the response.
Danny Kruger MP was asked by the Prime Minister to review the voluntary sector’s role in the UK’s plans for recovery. His call for proposals from the sector to empower and strengthen communities for the long term has seen a deluge of responses, including:
- Our own support for more clarity in the Social Value Act to lock wealth into communities with local procurement.
- Carnegie Trust’s six propositions for ‘Building Back for the Better’ including ‘the future can be local (as well as global)’;
- A Better Way have put together a two-page summary of what government can do to support better community connections; and
- The newly formed All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods is committed to developing practical policy solutions that help build community confidence and capacity, delivering improved social and economic outcomes.
Each proposition acknowledges recent efforts and argues for a place-based approach to build on the strengths of local areas with the support of government
Local authorities will need to work differently as they emerge from the crisis even further stretched than they were in March 2020.
Innovative practice and mutually beneficial working between local authorities and the voluntary sector is becoming more common and is encouraging more inclusive economies. Examples include advocating for community asset ownership of land earmarked for development, nominating buildings to become ‘assets of community value’ or applying for ‘community asset transfer’ – as the PBSA partnership did with a Book Shop in Watchet.
Established by Southwark Council, the Southwark Local Access Partnership is a partnership between local and national organisations based in the borough – and coordinated by Renaisi. Over a 10-year period it will use a blend of different types of finance from Access and Big Society Capital to tackle inequality and boost the social economy.
With the introduction of localised lockdowns and continuing uncertainty about a second wave of the pandemic, flexibility from funders around timeframes, plans, spend and reporting as well as support for core costs will give those delivering activities the space they need to react to change and be proactive about the future.
Funders can help by continuing to fund infrastructure organisations and ‘community anchors’ as they have done so brilliantly throughout the crisis. Taking inspiration from Empowering Places, they can support local wealth building by seeding business ideas, supporting local supply chains and creating opportunities for local people. An excellent example of this is the Ethical Recruitment Agency in Grimsby, a community business that was incubated and supported by Centre4 in Grimsby.
Covid-19 triggered a short-term crisis response that has shown people communities are strong and problems can be tackled fast. By combining that energy and cross-sector collaboration with inclusive approaches that give local people a voice we can unite communities around ingrained issues and achieve longer term change.