Screenshot of Teams meeting talking about coronavirus community response

How we can build on the community response to coronavirus

Published: 01/06/20 | Categories: Author: Jess Blair

Jess Blair reports back on the second in our series of COVID-19 events which focussed on building on the community response to the pandemic, and volunteering.

Thursday 21 May saw the second in WCVA’s ‘Preparing for Different Futures’ events series, which aims to facilitate a conversation with the voluntary sector about the issues facing it due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The breakdown of their session on financial resilience can be found here.

This online event looked at how to build on the community response to Covid-19 and discussed the issues around volunteering.

Over 100 delegates joined the session, which was Chaired by Emily Forbes, Chief Officer of Barry Town Council and organised in partnership with WLGA.

To begin we welcomed three contributors to each offer a different perspective on their experiences of how the Coronavirus crisis has affected volunteering; with one from a town council perspective, another from a voluntary association and one from a local authority.

These speakers were:

  • Councillor Mike Theodoulou, Pembrey and Burry Port Town Council and Vice Chair for One Voice Wales,
  • Sue Leonard, Chief Officer, Pembrokeshire Association of Voluntary Services
  • Owen Wilce, Community and Partnership Development Lead, Monmouthshire County Council

Offering some context to the discussion they highlighted some key issues, such as the key role of new informal volunteering groups, often working on a very local level across Wales. Owen Wilce commented on this saying that ‘communities have challenged the norm’.

Informal volunteers

What is significant about new voluntary/ mutual aid groups across Wales is that they have often come from nowhere and have developed very quickly in response to an urgent situation.

Councillor Theodolou confirmed this saying ‘There are rugby clubs, football clubs…individuals, businesses all responding to the crisis. This isn’t volunteering in the conventional way. It’s a community response and that’s a major difference’.

Volunteer involving organisations

For organisations that have traditionally relied on regular volunteers many are facing a dilemma in that they are currently pausing lots of activity and in addition that many of their volunteers are currently shielding.

One participant in particular highlighted this, saying ‘We have fully closed and a lot of our volunteers would be considered vulnerable. In the heritage sector in particular, we’re going to have to diversify our volunteer base quickly and bring in volunteers from new sources.’

Others on this topic highlighted the need to protect volunteers and encouraged decision makers to develop guidance on this in order to better support the sector. For example, guidance would be useful on how to best protect volunteers as we move to a recovery phase, especially those who are in the shielding categories.

The technological challenge was also highlighted in the discussion, with organisations grappling to support their regular volunteers to volunteer from home. One organisation said they had received a grant for technology to get three volunteers set up from home.

A long term change

Organisations are currently moving from short term crisis management in response to the Coronavirus pandemic to working out how they operate in a long-term changed landscape.

The role of training was highlighted as crucial for both new and existing volunteers  as they  continue to  help their communities,  adapting to working in new ways and   with sensitive understanding of the cultures and needs of  people they support,  including those from different faith or BME communities.

Another key element that decision makers could take forward is the collaboration seen between the voluntary sector, local authorities and businesses. This, one participant argued, could be the basis of a town partnership with collaboration across different sectors key to supporting communities through what is likely to be a prolonged period of financial upheaval.

How to move forward

Looking to make recommendations for what decision makers, voluntary organisations and WCVA can do to better equip the sector for the future, participants made a number of suggestions. Training for mutual aid groups and better guidance from Welsh Government on how organisations can support and safeguard volunteers naturally flowed from the discussion.

The big question facing the sector is how to harness the community response which has changed and challenged the way the voluntary sector in Wales works.

For example, what will happen to mutual aid groups as people gradually return to work? How can groups be better supported and guided without additional layers of bureaucracy?

A participant in the discussion summed this up, saying ‘A huge amount of street level volunteers have got involved. These are not formal groups. Decision makers and funders need to recognise that. People don’t want to be bogged down in bureaucracy. We may need to change the way we think about the third sector in its traditional sense’.

Another added, ‘Communities need to be able to make their own decisions and have access to funding that they can use to benefit people living in their communities.  Town & Community Councils and elected members, community groups/associations/networks and local businesses all have a role to play in this’.

The future of the voluntary sector in Wales has been fundamentally changed by this crisis, both in the way it has had to address unprecedented challenges, and in the unprecedented levels of support from within local communities.

This session reflected these challenges and opportunities and raised questions which will form the basis of how the voluntary sector adapts for the long term.

Our next session will focus on ho we influence policy, legislation and wider decision-making. It will take place Thursday 4 June at 4pm. For more details and to sign up click here.