Supporting our communities when they needed it most: how the VCSE sector has navigated the coronavirus pandemic

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Throughout the course of the pandemic many people have been reliant on the voluntary and community sector to provide support. With local authorities stretched, services in higher demand than ever and individuals making use of support in greater numbers than ever before, the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has been a lifeline for many.

However, the sector is not immune from the pressures caused by the pandemic. They themselves have been stretched with demand for services increasing, and with income streams having beeen limited many are now facing significant challenges to survival. 

The same storm but different boats 

The VCSE sector is a varied and vibrant sector, often providing bespoke and specialist support to people in greatest need. Diverse, specialised and adaptable, the sector was quick to respond and able to offer support at the outset of the pandemic. But the sector has also been shown to be vulnerable in the face of tightening finances, reduced volunteer availability and increased demand for services. 

Research carried out by NCVO in March 2021 reported that charities and the voluntary sector have had vastly different experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact of the pandemic being reported across the sector as “uneven and unpredictable”. The research showed that while some organisations have expanded their service offer, others have seen their income shrink drastically, or have found delivering services increasingly difficult due to the restrictions being imposed during the national lockdowns. 

Key findings from the research include: 

  • Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed reported demand on their services increasing, versus just 19% seeing a slowdown. 
  • 35% say their costs have increased in the past year, while for 34% they have decreased. 
  • 46% of organisations have had to use their cash reserves to cope with the impact of covid-19 on their organisations. 
  • 44% of respondents say they could rely on their cash reserves for more than six months, while 9% either have no cash reserves or not enough to last them a month. 

A report by Equally Yours, commissioned by the Funders for Race Equality Alliance in April 2021 highlighted the challenges facing the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector. This sector has historically experienced specific challenges (such as a high number of organisations being eligible to apply for only a small number of available funds). The research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated their financial pressures, but also highlighted other challenges, such as regional inequalities in the availability of funding and support, the precarious position of many smaller charities and voluntary organisations who have not been able to access government support, and the challenges of short-term funding, which makes it difficult to create long term plans.

These sentiments were echoed in a separate report from researchers at Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) which looked at the value of smaller charities in responding to the crisis.

A new-found appreciation for the sector 

The voluntary sector made up a key part of the UK’s economy before the pandemic, not only as businesses and specialists within their fields, but also as part of the wider fabric of the communities in which they operate. Many within the sector would probably argue that they were not valued enough. Their expertise, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenging funding environments, have characterised the sector long before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, collaboration has been essential. In many areas the VCSE sector have been part of the vanguard of support for the most vulnerable in society, helping to organise local responses to the pandemic and fostering community resilience in the process. 

Research published in People, Place and Policy  in November 2020 observes that, at the local level, the pandemic has led to a strengthening of pre-existing ‘complementary’ relationships between the VCSE sector and local authorities, with voluntary organisations finding themselves further embedded in local systems of decision making, co-ordination and service provision. The research suggests that there is a newly visible and increasingly ‘complementary’ local role for previously ‘supplementary’ voluntary and charity-based organisations, responding to the needs of vulnerable members of the community.

Supporting the sector to move forward

Grantfinder is the UK’s leading provider of funding information for the VCSE sector in the UK. During 2020 we provided information on emergency Covid-related funding on our website and also offered all local authorities in the UK a free portal to signpost funding support to small businesses in their communities.

As the country starts focusing on recovery, we have recently launched a new funding portal that helps charities and community groups to find funding. My Funding Central is a simple to use tool, which provides users with regular news updates and tailored funding alerts. Annual subscriptions start at £50 and are free for small organisations, offering an affordable way of searching for available funding and connecting to potential funders. Over 1500 charities are already signed up and benefiting from being signposted to funding they may not have been aware of.

The impact of the voluntary sector is threaded through the wider fabric of our communities. As we come to terms with the social and economic trauma of the pandemic, these organisations will have a significant role to play. Ensuring that the sector is suitably valued and resourced will enable it to play as full a role as possible and help communities on the road to recovery. 


GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services.

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Health Champions – “unlocking the power of communities”

Health Cubes_iStock_000022075266Large

By Heather Cameron

“On the societal level, we must understand that health is not an individual outcome, but arises from social cohesion, community ties, and mutual support.” Dr Gabor Maté

Health inequalities have long been an issue in the UK and despite continuous government commitment to tackling them, they continue to persist.

It is estimated that avoidable illness costs around £60 billion and that 1 in 4 deaths are preventable with the adoption of healthier lifestyles. Calls have therefore been made for radical changes in the approach to public health by improving health and wellbeing outside of the core public health workforce.

This is just the approach of the Community Health Champion model, developed by Altogether Better, which has demonstrated not only the positive impact on health but the social value of such an approach.

What are health champions?

Health Champions are volunteers from all walks of life who are provided with accredited training and support so they can undertake health promotion activities within their communities to reduce health inequalities and improve the health of the local population.

The Community Health Champion role began as a five year Big Lottery Funded programme (Wellbeing 1) in 2008. Over 18,000 Health Champions were recruited, trained and supported between 2008 and 2012, reaching over 105,000 people.

Through a combination of their training and own personal experiences, these volunteers empower and encourage people within their families, communities and workplaces to take up healthy activities, create groups to meet local needs and can signpost people to relevant support and services.

Challenges

While Wellbeing 1 succeeded in reaching many people in need, the programme also raised two specific challenges: in almost all cases, the work being done was invisible to the NHS; and securing ongoing funding to continue the support was difficult.

Peer support was later identified as the most appropriate way of trying to connect communities with health services.

Following this recognition and the success of the original model, further lottery funding was awarded to develop the Champion model and use it to engage champions, communities and health services (Wellbeing 2).

Co-production of health and wellbeing outcomes

The model was applied to health services specifically with the aim of addressing the apparent disconnect between the NHS and community-based services. It helps connect both patients with support in their communities and professional practices with those communities.

Many citizens have volunteered in different ways and in different settings. These include:

  • Practice Health Champions working closely with their General Practice to create new ways for patients to access non-clinical support
  • Youth Health Champions where children and young people are recruited, trained and supported to help young people more actively engage with and influence their own and their community’s health
  • Pregnancy and early years Health Champions who are interested in giving children a better start
  • Health Champions working within a specialist, hospital-based NHS service
  • Senior Health Champions who engage with older people, offering a complimentary approach to more formal programmes

Community-based health improvement initiatives such as this could help to strengthen community-professional partnerships and cross-collaboration among health, social and other services. And this in turn could lead to a reduction in health inequalities.

Positive outcomes

According to a recent evaluation of the Health Champions programme, Wellbeing 2 has resulted in a range of benefits:

  • 86% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme reported increased levels of confidence and well-being;
  • 87% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme acquired significant new knowledge related to health and well-being;
  • 98% of champions and 99% of participants in the programme reported increased involvement in social activities and social groups;
  • 95% of practice staff involved with the programme would recommend it and wish to continue.

Other benefits included reduced social isolation, increased levels of exercise/healthy eating and feeling physically better. One champion reported “this has helped me more than any medication might.”

Success stories  include the work of a cycle champion who has improved her own health and wellbeing, encouraged over 70 other people to improve theirs through taking up cycling, provided cycle training to over 50 people in 6 community groups and provided specific detailed help to 5 people.

Other successes have involved volunteers setting up football training, providing support to women with mental health issues, providing advice and support to ethnic minorities and providing advice on healthy eating.

In terms of monetary value, an  analysis of the social return on investment (SROI) of a series of Altogether Better project beneficiaries found a positive SROI of between £0.79 and £112.42 for every pound invested, highlighting the potential value of these initiatives to funders.

Final thoughts

At a time of increasing demands on health services and with the relentless squeeze on public sector resources, perhaps the move towards greater community empowerment and collaboration across sectors is the right one. After all, as I’m sure we’d all agree, prevention is better than cure.


If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s earlier post on social prescribing

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

 

 

Social prescribing – just what the doctor ordered?

blue toned, focus point on metal part of stethoscope

By Heather Cameron

It is widely acknowledged that wider social, economic and environmental factors have a significant influence on health and wellbeing. According to recent research only 20% of health outcomes are attributable to clinical care and the quality of care while socioeconomic factors account for 40%.

With increasing pressures on GPs and lengthy waiting times a real issue for many, particularly those with mental health conditions, social prescribing could represent a real way forward.

The government clearly recognised the importance of social prescribing in its new deal for GPs announced earlier this year, which made a commitment to make social prescribing a normal part of the job.

In response to a recent Ask-a-Researcher request for information on different approaches in social prescribing and evidence of what works in the UK, it was interesting to find that despite the recognition of potential value, there has been little evaluation of social prescribing schemes to date.

Much of the material found focused on specific interventions and small-scale pilots and discussion around implementation. A new review of community referral schemes published by University College London (UCL) is therefore a welcome addition to the evidence base as it provides definitions, models and notable examples of social prescribing schemes and assesses the means by which and the extent to which these schemes have been evaluated.

So what is social prescribing?

Social prescribing means linking patients with non-medical treatment, whether it is social or physical, within their community.

A number of schemes already exist and have included a variety of prescribed activities such as arts and creative activities, physical activity, learning and volunteering opportunities, self-care and support with finance, benefits, housing and employment.

Often these schemes are delivered by voluntary, community and faith sector organisations with detailed knowledge of local communities and how best to meet the needs of certain groups.

Social and economic benefits

Despite a lack of robust evidence, our investigation uncovered a number of documents looking at the social prescribing model and the outcomes it can lead to. Positive outcomes repeatedly highlighted include:

  • improved health and wellbeing;
  • reduced demand on hospital resources;
  • cost savings; and
  • reduced social isolation.

According to the UCL report, the benefits have been particularly pronounced for marginalised groups such as mental health service-users and older adults at risk of social isolation.

A recent evaluation of the social and economic impact of the Rotherham Social Prescribing Pilot found that after 3-4 months, 83% of patients had experienced positive change in at least one outcome area. These outcomes included improved mental and physical health, feeling less lonely and socially isolated, becoming more independent, and accessing a wider range of welfare benefit entitlements.

The evaluation also reported that there were reductions in patients’ use of hospital services, including reductions of up to a fifth in the number of outpatient stays, accident and emergency attendances and outpatient appointments. The return on investment for the NHS was 50 pence for each pound invested.

Similarly, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has recently argued that empowering patients improves their health outcomes and could save money by supporting them to manage their condition themselves.

IPPR suggests that if empowering care models such as social prescribing were adopted much more widely throughout the NHS we would have a system that focused on the social determinants of health not just the symptoms, providing people with personalised and integrated care, that focused on capabilities not just needs, and that strengthened people’s relationships with one another.

Partnership working

With a continued policy focus on integrated services and increased personalisation, social prescribing would seem to make sense. In addition to providing a means to alternative support, it could also be instrumental in strengthening community-professional partnerships and cross-collaboration among health, social and other services.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) recently examined good practice in collaboration between local authorities, housing associations and the health sector, with Doncaster Social Prescribing highlighted as an example of successful partnership working. Of the 200 referrals made through this project, only 3 were known to local authority and health and wellbeing officers, showing that the work of social prescribing identified individuals who had otherwise slipped through the net.

And with the prospect of an ageing population and the health challenges this brings, a growing number of people could benefit from community-based support.

As Chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette, notes “social prescribing is an idea whose time has come”.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s earlier post on the health and wellbeing benefits of investing in public art.

Why local authorities should support community organisations delivering local services

3d Community puzzle

by Stephen Lochore

I recently posted about how local authorities can support their communities, and in particular local community groups, at a time when their ability to directly deliver local services is diminishing.  My post touched on the danger of assuming that local groups will be able to step-in to deliver services.  Research into issues such as community resilience, community development and co-production suggests a number of concerns about the role of voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) in delivering local public services. Continue reading