Recovery, restoration, adaptation, transformation, new normal – all words we’re now starting to hear as lockdown begins to ease, and whatever we call it, we are now moving through the next phase of this pandemic and looking at the challenges it will bring to the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector here in Suffolk.
Here at Community Action Suffolk (CAS) we have been regularly surveying the sector to understand the needs and challenges it has faced and is adapting to for the future. The most recent suggests nearly half of those responding still face closure within 12 months without additional funding.
Additional funding is in the main, needed for core (behind the scenes) costs such as staff and premises – not a new challenge for our sector – this was a priority long before Covid 19, but is now more important than ever as the sector adapts delivery and experiences greater demand than perhaps ever before.
Key to this is working with partners across the whole system including local authorities, funders and private business sector; and some great examples of this have been seen in Suffolk during the crisis. The Suffolk Collaborative Communities Board, the Suffolk Resilience Forum, and the Home But Not Alone (HBNA) campaign all of which we are proud to be members of, have been instrumental to ensure needs are met, services are provided, and volunteers are able to connect with those requiring support in communities and organisations. The job now is making sure this continues, adapts and grows as we move forward together.
But finance is not the only concern we are hearing from the sector. From our surveys, we identified 3 top challenges – Finance, Volunteering, and Service User accessibility and fear as lockdown eases.
Volunteering in Suffolk during the pandemic has been phenomenal. The HBNA campaign has successfully recruited more than 2000 volunteers and I have lost count of the amount of times I have spoken about the human kindness, neighbourliness and generosity we have all seen over recent months. But fears are now emerging about how we sustain this level of volunteering as lockdown eases. At the start of the crisis, we were concerned for volunteer recruitment and that volunteers would be lost as people started to self-isolate or shield in line with government guidance.
Thankfully, the reverse happened and we saw a huge up-swell in people willing to help others in their community. But we now face another challenge as current volunteers return to work, and potentially become fatigued – they have been very busy and now face the daily commute to work on top of all the other tasks as we resume our ‘normal’ lives. The urgency of need is also likely to become less prominent in people’s minds. That’s not to say it’s not still there, or that people care any less, but going back to work, managing childcare, restarting the school run, and perhaps factoring in that much needed break inevitably means spare time reduces.
Coupled with this, the VCSE sector is also reporting how service users feel as lockdown measures ease. Many will face their own challenges of overcoming the fear of re-joining ‘the outside world’, and should we all start to revert back to face to face meetings and less digital services, we may see some of those harder to reach service users reverting back to being less visible as a result.
Many organisations also report user concern around digital technology or connectivity issues and have stopped accessing services during the crisis. As such, some organisations may see an increase in demand for support. Overall, demand for VCSE sector services has dramatically increased over the last 3 months, they have never been more needed, and at a time when financial pressure has never been harder.
So what do the next 6 months look like for our sector? These challenges are not going away any time soon and in all likelihood there will be more to add to the list, but for me, the people of Suffolk have been incredible during this pandemic and it is the people that have ensured our county continues to thrive. Organisation, business and sector silos and boundaries have been broken down in numerous areas and it is the people within them that have made this happen. Our spirit of collaboration and partnership has grown, the like of which I have not seen in my career so far. This HAS to continue and there is of course still work to do and improvements to make, but if Covid 19 has a legacy for Suffolk, let it be putting the heart of our community and people’s lives at the forefront of everything we all do, just like it has for the last 100 days.
For more information on CAS and the services we provide visit: www.communityactionsuffolk.org.uk
Hannah Reid, Director of Innovation & Business Development