As the COVID-19 virus takes hold across the UK, voluntary and community organisations are crucial in making sure that people continue to have the care, support and friendship they need, as well as access to food and other basic supplies.
The threat the virus presents to these organisations is unprecedented. While, of course, attention is currently focused on the spread of the disease and its impact on health, the longer-term consequences of COVID-19 on the social fabric of our society could be deeper and longer-term than we can imagine.
To protect the social fabric of our society and ensure the survival of our voluntary and community infrastructure, provision of speedy and innovative forms of support are now crucial.
We all need to celebrate (and participate in) the everyday acts of neighbourliness that have sprung up over the past few days. For example, Mutual Aid groups are setting up across the country and cadets in Kingston are mobilising as a group to support others affected by COVID-19. We can also learn from past disaster recovery efforts such as the New York cyclists delivering supplies to those in need. This understanding of the huge goodwill from communities and willingness to help one another needs to be embedded in public messaging, so we can all understand how to help one another while taking measures to keep ourselves safe.
Demand for practical and emotional support from voluntary and community organisations will be acute and new tools for matching people’s needs to the available resources will be vital. Oxford Together is one of many examples where small businesses and charities are collaborating locally to support communities. In its first 24 hours, 1500 people joined its campaign and networks like this are at the forefront of what the BBC described as ‘Coronavirus kindness’. GoodGym, a group of runners that combines regular exercise with helping communities, is replacing runs that involve visiting older people in their homes with phone calls, and is working with partners to focus its mission runs on high-impact tasks to support community services.
At the same time, what people need from voluntary and community organisations is shifting rapidly. Groups that might previously have worked in care homes are now being asked not to visit, the same could happen at any time in schools. Shortly there will be a significant need for people to offer support to people in their own homes and potentially to stand in for childcare professionals or care workers should they themselves become unwell. These organisations will need to adapt rapidly.
Magic Me, an intergenerational arts charity based in London, is rising to the challenge of bringing generations together and combating loneliness in the new era of physical distancing. Although its usual workshops and projects are no longer possible, the charity is exploring new ways of working such as developing drawing and writing activities, which school children can begin and older adults can then continue. Magic Me's Cocktails in Care Homes volunteers are also finding ways to stay in touch with the older residents they know.
Funding will be challenging. Nesta is an innovation funder so we back organisations to try new things or scale up ideas that work, rather than paying for core delivery costs. Nonetheless, we have, like many funders, contacted our current grant recipients and assured them we will be flexible and not withhold payments because they’ve been unable to do the work they planned. We know that many organisations do not have the reserves to see them through a sustained period of reduced income, so action like this is crucial in avoiding a decimation of the sector.
Staff working for voluntary and community organisations will be directly affected by the virus. Many people working in these roles will be freelance or on short-term contracts, with a high degree of job insecurity. Lots of organisations in this sector are small and may struggle to maintain staffing levels. Organisations which relied on earned income may be hardest hit. While funders are relaxing the terms of grant agreements, will banks relax credit terms for organisations reliant on charity shop income or small-scale commissions from local authorities, as this income dries up?
The challenges presented by the virus are prompting fresh ideas for innovative solutions across society. There have been calls to implement a universal basic income, to overhaul GCSEs or to embed changes to working patterns permanently. By radically reducing travel and trade, there is evidence the virus has been responsible for a 25% drop in carbon emissions in China (the world’s biggest polluter). Is there potential for this change to be maintained when we emerge from this crisis?
Communities will need to demonstrate resilience and collective care throughout this crisis and in its aftermath. But we should have hope that society will find new (and will rediscover old) ways of working together to draw on our collective humanity. In Italy, for example, people are singing from balconies and making banners to display in their windows to signal their defiance. With the right support from the Government and from those of us in a position to volunteer our time or resources, voluntary and community organisations can help to protect our communities and preserve the connections between us all.