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Anya Martin

Research and Insight Manager

Respond, recover, reset: What the voluntary sector can learn from the past two years

Anya Martin

Research and Insight Manager

Today we celebrate the launch of the final report of the Respond, recover, reset project (grant number ES/V007610/1). The project explores the impact of Covid-19 on voluntary, community and social enterprise sector organisations.

Led by a team at Nottingham Trent and Sheffield Hallam Universities, with support from NCVO, the project aimed to provide insights into the pandemic’s effect on the sector. It has provided real-time data on the sector throughout the past 18 months and published a series of “lessons-learned” reports.

Responding to the crisis

For many organisations, the first lockdown in March 2020 came as a shock. However, the voluntary sector responded to the crisis by making quick decisions. Services were delivered with unclear or no guidance. Organisations faced challenges accessing personal protective equipment (PPE), and implementing new processes. Some charities created new services, or adapted existing ones, to ensure they could still reach their beneficiaries and clients.

The importance of adaptability and innovation in response to the crisis was one of the central features of our interviews. Below we explore some of the recurring themes of the report.

What are the key ingredients for organisational resilience?

Supportive and communicative funders

A range of emergency funding sources were created by government and grant-giving organisations. Charities that were able to access this financial relief were generally very positive about it, while those whose activities did not meet the funders’ requirements struggled to obtain funding.

Support was not limited to an increase in funding: organisations also reported that their funders allowed them to re-purpose grants to meet changing service delivery needs. Contracts were extended, or targets were relaxed.

The importance of communicative relationships with funders was highlighted repeatedly, and flexible approaches from funders were regularly cited by those who had a positive experience.

Good external relationships and collaboration

In an uncertain environment, many organisations turned to other similar organisations for collaboration: building new referral networks, co-ordinating multi-agency work, and communicating learning.

Organisations were often very positive about new relationships  built during the pandemic. On the other hand, those who struggled to access networks, forums or partnership arrangements often described confusion, gaps in provision or practical difficulties knowing who to speak to. Using pre-existing networks more proactively and reaching out beyond the usual stakeholders was a key learning area.

Supporting staff wellbeing

This is an important area for voluntary organisations. The Covid-19 crisis was a time of great personal difficulty for many employees, and this was often accompanied by increasing demands in the workplace. Many interviewees expressed concerns that organisations did not always address staff wellbeing adequately, and recommended a greater focus on understanding, accessibility and flexibility for staff and volunteers who may need it.

Access to the right digital technology

This was an incredibly important theme. Some organisations found that the pandemic was a catalyst for  plans to digitise and improve working practices. The growth in online service delivery offered an opportunity to experiment with new services, many of which have continued. Moving meetings online meant cost savings in transportation and physical space. Some organisations  faced difficulties in accessing or using appropriate equipment or software, and they tended to report much greater challenges. But the shift to digital services must also be balanced with consideration of the needs of client groups who may not always be able to access them.

Time and capacity to think through challenges

Lastly, decision-makers reported that during the early stages of the pandemic , taking a step back from immediate demands to get thinking space was extremely important. Infrastructure organisations reported that attendance at leader networks increased at the beginning of the pandemic, and these were important places for people to share experience and reflect collaboratively on how to respond. In contrast, leaders who reported struggling during the pandemic said they often felt isolated and disconnected from others, as well as unable to find time to reflect.

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