As we move towards a ‘new norm’ Anna Nicholl, Director of Strategy and Sector Development at WCVA, reflects on what we’ve learnt as we prepare for different futures after the pandemic.
During May and June, WCVA facilitated people to come together to explore the impact of COVID-19, what possibilities it was opening for the future and implications for the voluntary sector and key stakeholders.
The level of participation reflects the value people found in coming together to share and learn from each other amidst such uncertainty.
People participated from more than 260 organisations right across Wales, from big charities to small informal groups, as well as partners like WLGA, One Voice Wales, Welsh Government, Business in the Community, funders, academics and individuals.
So, what did we learn? We’ve recently published a summary report that sets these out formally, including ideas for next steps. For me, there are three things that stand out.
We can make a bigger difference together
Firstly, the crisis has brought fresh recognition to the difference people can make when they come together voluntarily around shared interests.
The next challenge is to maintain that recognition and encourage the systems and behaviours that enable people to make that difference.
The community response has been essential to many people’s wellbeing. New and informal groups sprung up across the country, including mutual aid groups.
This local community action was able to work at speeds and in ways that other parts of society were not. They often led the way.
Certain things helped those groups get going quickly and make a bigger difference:
- It helped when community infrastructure was already in place – both relationships and physical infrastructure
- Good relationships with local businesses and public bodies
- The huge need and the swift informal response motivated thousands.
However, to sustain motivation and keep everyone safe, appropriate governance and support networks will still be needed.
The crisis also highlighted the huge role that established voluntary organisations play.
Many have been surprised that so many of the services that we rely on day to day – pre-school play groups to care homes and hospices, emergency services to galleries and heritage sites – are delivered by the voluntary sector.
Sadly, it is the threat to their very existence that has reminded us of how valuable they are.
A large part of that threat is financial resilience. This is reflected in the amazing response in public giving as well as government funds.
Unfortunately, we know this won’t be sufficient to plug the financial hole. Organisations are going to have to adjust and the sessions showed some of the ways we can do this.
It isn’t just financial. If our sector is going to continue to contribute so much to society, the way we run our organisations and deliver services will need to become more resilient and more flexible.
The future remains incredibly uncertain. The response to COVID-19 has shown we can do it, but we will need to continue to come together and learn from each other. Membership and infrastructure bodies have a key role to play in enabling that.
The voluntary sector can help create a better future
The second lesson for me is how important it is that the value-driven approaches of our sector are at the heart of discussions – and decisions – on recovery.
There has been a strong call not to ‘go back’ to systems and behaviours that were driving inequality, environmental damage and disempowered communities. We want to take opportunities to create better futures.
Part of this is about voluntary organisations being able to engage and influence government action and priorities. We need government to keep open engagement and stop closed decision-making and top-down approaches that were sometimes a necessary by-product of the emergency response. The crisis has shown how we can all make a bigger difference through collaboration.
There are also opportunities to work together across the silos in our own sector, using our combined assets, to create a better future through recovery. We need to explore that further.
We need to learn from the changes we’ve been forced to make
That takes me to the third point. We have learnt that we can do things differently. It has created a different mindset for future possibilities.
COVID-19 has driven change in the context of great hardships and personal tragedy. This is not an environment anybody wants to continue.
In forcing us to do things differently, however, the crisis has led to different approaches that have sometimes worked well. It has forced us to find solutions in ways which previously felt impossible.
One example is more agile commissioning and data sharing which allowed collaborative responses.
By demonstrating different possibilities, not least the power of voluntary and community action, it has pushed us look more at what we can learn from ongoing initiatives.
For example, how could we learn from ongoing community-led activity that could, if not scale up, scale across Wales?
There are likely to be even bigger challenges ahead – an ongoing health crisis, as well severe economic decline and wider social impacts.
In preparing for this, WCVA wants to work with others to secure the value-led solutions our sector offers, strengthen the role of voluntary and community responses and increase resilience.