Rethinking and rebuilding the voluntary sector post-pandemic

By Andrew Hogg

From crisis comes opportunity. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on the voluntary sector, but it has also given us an opportunity to rebuild for the better.

With this in mind, the speakers attending the recent  ‘Rethink Rebuild’ webinar gave their thoughts on how the voluntary sector can move forward to face the challenges and inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 and to create a more equitable society.

COVID-19 has highlighted key systemic inequalities at the heart of our economic system. A recent report from Imperial College London has shown that ethnic minority groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. When age and sociodemographic factors are accounted for, people from these communities are almost twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white peers.

Kaneez Shaid, Head of Community Engagement at Rethink Mental Illness, highlighted the direct impact the pandemic has had on people with mental health issues, such as the erosion of support frameworks and statutory services, loss of communal spaces and increased demands for accommodation. NPC have linked COVID-19 with a rise in domestic violence cases, with increased demand for services and donations from voluntary sector organisations, alongside a reduction of charity fundraising efforts:

In many communities it has been the not-for-dividends sector that has provided cohesion, that has provided people with food, with economic viability, access to vaccines, and social infrastructure stopping people falling through the net…the question for me becomes how we make this more visible politically. – Lord Victor Adebowale, current Chair of the NHS Confederation

Seth Reynolds, Principal Consultant for Systems Change at NPC, argued that the pandemic has created a ‘liminal space’ wherein we can pause and reflect on the systemic drivers and fundamental patterns of behaviour that created the inequalities the pandemic has laid bare.

This is a chance to fundamentally and systemically change the way our economy works for the better. There is no going back to normal, so how can the sector provide leadership to face the new challenges going forward?

Collaborative and system leadership

A recurring theme during the webinar was the need for a collaborative leadership approach to accommodate systemic change. Lord Adebowale talked about the need for system leadership, the adoption of which would enable voluntary sector organisations to align their missions and operations towards a common goal. This would set sector-wide objectives and generate a cooperative atmosphere whilst facilitating conditions within which others can make progress toward social change. This means leading beyond the boundaries of one’s own organisational needs to achieve aggregate, cross-sector outcomes.

This would involve understanding the interdependence of the voluntary sector, and decision-making that may go against the immediate concerns of the organisation to achieve collective outcomes. It also entails the acceptance of diversity as not only a good in and of itself, but as Lord Adebowale observed, as an “essential, economical, and operational good”, to include a broad remit of local, grassroots organisations.

A collaborative approach to leadership would also make best use of resources and help align funding to where it is needed. Juliet Mountain, the Director of Shaw Trust, argued that a competitive funding environment means that charities tend towards mission drift and invariably must follow the funding, rather than the needs of those who use their services. She argued that shared intelligence, not just of hard data but of expertise, resources, tools, and decision making, would enable lower capacity groups to easily access and understand generated data. This would enable the triangulation of funding and a coordinated decision-making process – what Lord Adebowale called “process matching intention”.

Power with, not power over

Collaborative and system leadership would also entail a shift towards localism – services either co-produced or fully produced by the communities who receive them – and relationships based on trust, power sharing and diversity. Kaneez Shaid talked of devolving hierarchical relationships between charities and local communities and creating new structures of shared power and co-production, such as integrated care systems and place-based activities embedded into local communities. Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds of NPC similarly argued for local partners and grassroots organisations to be embedded into social recovery plans to co-create structures that are built and maintained by the people using them.

Power sharing can go further than this. Even small, day-to-day changes can help to address power imbalances, such as adapting a more inclusive vocabulary when it comes to working partnerships. Both Kaneez Shaid and Juliet Mountain argued that a shift in language can facilitate a more cooperative mindset and be more inclusive of smaller, grassroots organisations. For instance, using ‘participant’ instead of ‘client’ or ‘colleague’ instead of ‘co-worker’ would create a more inclusive taxonomy and equitable relational partnerships. This in turn would engender collective decision-making and create added value for participants.   

Grant-making

One of the few things to directly result from COVID-19 that has been openly welcomed across the voluntary sector is the increased access to unrestricted funding. In November 2020 over 150 funders made a pledge towards flexible grant-making and trust-based relationships with charities.

Many participants in the webinar who shared their opinions in breakout rooms after the talks also agreed that the temporary suspension of funding restrictions and flexible approaches to grant-making during the pandemic had been hugely beneficial and at times necessary to keep smaller charities open.

Flexible grant making could also involve simplifying and standardising application processes, such as what is asked for from the grantee or the technical vocabulary used in the application. This would mean charities would not have to spend more time than necessary filling out forms and could use templates to increase their application output.

However, as Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds noted, to continue to understand the value of flexible funding and to know where future funding should be allocated, proportionate impact measurement is needed. It is important for funders to be able to keep demand light and proportional whilst having access to a funding feedback loop.

Concluding thoughts

This webinar revealed some key sticking points: cross-sector collaboration, system leadership, and the adoption of new models of power sharing that encourage localism, co-production, shared system analysis, and collective decision-making are needed to dynamically respond to funding needs. Similarly, the collective utilization of resources would allow for greater triangulation of funding and level the playing field for smaller, grassroots groups.

Organisations must come back from the pandemic with a renewed emphasis on community engagement, decentralised and devolved forms of organisation, and embrace the mentality of ‘power with, not power over’. Organisational models and processes, such as affiliate frameworks and decentralised partnerships, should be adopted to encourage power-sharing and to create structures with genuine value to the people using them.

Grant-making has trended towards flexible funding and trust-based arrangements, which is undoubtedly a good thing and grant-makers should continue to provide flexible and unrestricted funds. However, suitable impact measurement is needed to properly determine allocation and value, and that those who need funding the most will get it.

Simply put, we cannot go back to normal. The pandemic has exposed the deep systemic vulnerabilities at the heart of our economic model, and the voluntary sector must adapt to address these vulnerabilities and create a more equitable society.


Further reading: more on the voluntary sector on The Knowledge Exchange blog

The benefits of third sector research for policy and practice engagement

By Bonnie Thomson

Policy determines almost every aspect of our lives. It dictates the social, ecological and economic conditions around us and acts as the backbone to a functioning society.

For policy to be fair and reflective of everyone’s needs, it should have a solid grounding in evidence. Voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector research can have a huge part to play in evidence-based policy development. Organisations in this sector tend to be embedded in the communities they serve and operate on a “values-driven” basis, making them ideal candidates to represent those from all facets of society who may not otherwise be represented in the policy sphere.

Using third sector research to influence policy and practice was the focus of a recent Policy Scotland webinar, where guests from across the sector shared insights and experiences of harnessing their third sector research projects as vehicles for policy engagement.

Developing projects with policy in mind

Dr Hannah Tweed of Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland commenced her presentation by emphasising the importance of allowing real life experience to guide policy. Her project, which focused on experiences of self-directed support in Scotland, was co-produced with peer researchers who utilised their lived experience of social care to direct the design of the study – including which areas to focus on and how best to phrase questions.

Hannah went on to discuss how the team sought to involve local authorities and third sector partners working in social care in the development stage of the project. In doing so they benefitted from practical expertise on how to distribute surveys and conduct interviews in the most accessible formats. This helped to reduce barriers to participation and ensure a wider range of responses.

Engaging governing bodies early on in the project was also a reliable way of garnering interest which could be useful for policy influence down the line. Third sector partners offered invaluable local knowledge and contacts which may not have been reached without the power of word-of-mouth. Additionally, by invoking this level of cross-sectoral input in the project, the team were able to amplify the magnitude of the research, making as many people aware as possible.

Communications and dissemination

A steady stream of communications was also cited as key to policy impact and engagement. Robbie Calvert of the Royal Town Planning Institute discussed this in relation to his 20 minute neighbourhoods research.

Reports, news releases, policy briefs and social media posts were just some of the project outputs that Robbie highlighted as being crucial to gaining and maintaining traction around his research. Timing was a key element for disseminating research outputs, as this piece of work began to take shape around the time of the 2019 general election. Seizing an opportunity, Robbie and his team lobbied with party spokespersons and researchers across the political spectrum, delivering regular consultations and briefs. The end result was that almost every political party featured 20-minute neighbourhoods or a similar idea in their manifestos, which gave a strong sense of added value for the concept.

Both Hannah and Robbie discussed the merits of a succinct set of recommendations, covering large and small issues, in gaining the attention of policy makers. Hannah explained that policy recommendations at the small scale should not be forgotten as they can act as useful, simple outcomes to meet and complement the larger, national changes. Recommendations should be robust, showing consideration for practicalities and cost implications, whilst also painting a clear picture of “where next” for policy, practice and future research avenues.

Knowing your stakeholders

Dr Sarah Weakley of Policy Scotland rounded off the webinar by highlighting the importance of well-defined stakeholders in achieving policy influence. She began by describing how best to position a piece of research within the policy landscape. This involves working out which policy actors are key players in the area, what kind of work they have been known to engage with in the past, and, crucially, what new perspectives can be offered. Taking the example of poverty, she explained:

“We know about poverty, it has been with us forever, there’s nothing new about it. What can be added are some of the new solutions that your research might point to.”

Knowing the policy space was noted by all three speakers as being key to achieving influence. Sarah followed this up by acknowledging that the range of policy stakeholders is far wider than just central government. Some examples of other lesser-considered policy actors include:

  • think tanks;
  • community planning partnerships;
  • other third sector organisations; and
  • universities.

Establishing a network of groups and individuals who are doing work either directly or tangentially in a similar field and forging connections was a message echoed by all speakers. Sarah summarised this most succinctly by stating that policy making is based on relationships. Knowing not just the kind of work being done in an area, but also the people working in and around the area, is essential for exerting influence.

A key piece of advice offered was to not be afraid of reaching out to those in the sphere. Policy makers are usually looking for expertise in a broader sense, rather than a very narrow specialism on one specific topic – meaning research can be beneficial in policy areas which may seem digressive at first glance. Moreover, cuts to local authority departments over the years mean that there has been a decline in in-house research capacity. As such, there can often be more enthusiasm for external engagement. On this note, Sarah explained that local authority engagement can also influence practice on a grander scale if you can find the “right” person, making a further case for the necessity of networking.

Final thoughts

This webinar provided invaluable information on how to use third sector research to influence policy and practice. Each speaker gave practical advice on designing a far-reaching research project, disseminating outputs to the right people at the right time, and understanding the policy landscape – all contextualised neatly within their own research.

Evidence-based policy making is integral to building an equitable society that functions effectively for everyone. Third sector organisations conducting novel and meaningful research are well-placed to contribute to this and have the tools to enact real policy change. The guidance from this session could be a useful starting point for organisations looking to maximise their social impact and alter the policy landscape for the better.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on the third sector and policy making

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Multi-agency partnerships and the transformation of domestic abuse support

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

Domestic abuse has been rising up the political agenda in the past few years. 2019 saw the appointment of the UK’s first Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and last month, the updated Domestic Abuse Bill was introduced to the UK Parliament (expecting to see Royal Assent in April 2021). But domestic abuse is still a widespread and endemic problem across the UK, with figures suggesting incidents across all areas of the country and across multiple demographic groups.

Often people who experience domestic abuse are difficult to identify and can struggle to engage directly with domestic violence support services. However, there is a growing recognition that knowledge sharing, and partnership working between statutory services, like housing or health teams, is vital to identifying and supporting victims and survivors in a timely and effective way.

Increasingly, the criminal justice system, health sector, social housing providers, charities, and local government have been attempting to work together to ensure that they are all able to respond effectively and provide the necessary support to domestic abuse victims and survivors.

The impact of lockdown

The most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that an estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (1.6 million women and 757,000 men). Research published by the London School of Economics (LSE) after the first lockdown found that in London domestic abuse calls to the police increased by 11.4% on average, compared with the same weeks in 2019. The increase was, in a large part, due to an increase in calls from third parties not directly witnessing the incident, including neighbours or family members.

Similarly a report from Women’s Aid found that those delivering services needed to grapple not only with increased demand for support, but also with the challenge of delivering effective support in a different way as many services were only able to be accessed virtually.

Coordinated community responses transforming support for survivors

Organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the roles they can play in supporting people who experience domestic abuse and in the early identification of people at risk. Research also suggests that if someone is experiencing abuse, there is a high likelihood that they will also be experiencing other “needs”, which may cause them to come into contact with multiple services at once. Co-ordinating the response between services encourages organisations to share information to ensure consistency of care and experience; it can also help identify any gaps in support and allow for appropriate signposting and places the onus on the organisations, rather than on the person experiencing abuse.

Coordinated community response (CCR) approaches encompass the broadest possible response to domestic abuse; CCR addresses prevention, early intervention, dealing with crisis, risk fluctuation, and long-term recovery and safety, working with a wide range of services, pathways, agencies, and systems.

The fundamental premise of the CCR is that no single agency or individual can see the complete picture of the life of a family or individual within that family, but all may have insights and can provide interventions that are crucial to their safety and wellbeing. The CCR enables a whole system response to the whole person. It shifts responsibility for safety away from individual survivors to the community and services existing to support them.

The CCR is made up of 12 components: survivor voice; intersectionality; shared objective; structure and governance; strategy and leadership; specialist services; representation; resources; co-ordination; training; data; policies and processes. Taking a CCR approach provides communities with method for coordinating a response to domestic abuse. It places survivors at the heart of decision making and is an approach many frontline services can and do take when designing and implementing support services for people who have experienced domestic abuse.

Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

A pilot roll out for wrap around housing support

The Whole Housing Approach (WHA) to domestic abuse was first conceptualised in 2018 by the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) in collaboration with the National Housing and Domestic Abuse Policy and Practice Group This approach aims: “to improve the housing options and outcomes for people experiencing domestic abuse so that they can achieve stable housing, live safely and overcome their experiences of abuse.”

The approach enhances how people who have experienced domestic abuse have control over their own lives, considers what they want to achieve and change, and offers interventions based on this. The key principles of the WHA are outlined as: safety; inclusivity; empowerment; accountability; and prevention, with 12 additional key components which make up the practical application of WHA programmes.

The initial WHA pilot project was delivered in three areas from October 2018 to the end of March 2020. Six specialist domestic abuse organisations, as well as a civil society organisation, have been working with 10 local authority areas, including in London, Stockton and Cambridgeshire to establish comprehensive and consistent housing practices and deliver a WHA.

A whole housing approach toolkit has been published which contains more information on the pilots, evaluations and analysis of the programme. The toolkit includes a dedicated section for each of the twelve components of the WHA. Each section can be read as a standalone toolkit that outlines key initiatives to help survivors achieve safety and stable housing. It offers practical guidance and resources to local areas to deliver a consistent WHA to domestic abuse.

Image Via DAHA

Final thoughts

While the landscape of domestic violence support is varied and is delivered in different ways by different agencies, there is a growing understanding of the practical steps which should be taken to ensure that partnership working and effective coordinated responses between services are offered to survivors of domestic abuse. It is clear that there is an appetite among those who work within frontline services to improve the availability of support. The ultimate aim of a coordinated response and a wraparound service to survivors of domestic abuse is achievable if current best practice and effective pilot schemes can be built upon, with additional funding and wider roll outs.


If you enjoyed this article you might like to read:

Domestic violence during quarantine: the hidden crime of lockdown

Safeguarding in social isolation: how social care teams are adapting to the new normal

A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

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Addressing the causes of in-work poverty

Image from Flickr user MoB68, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user MoB68, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License

By Donna Gardiner

This week is Living Wage Week and the issue of workers struggling to make ends meet has been in the news again. Back on 23rd September 2014, I attended an event held by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) on the changing nature of work and in-work poverty in the UK, with a specific focus on Glasgow.

Over 100 delegates from across the public, private and voluntary sectors came together to learn about the latest research findings, take part in round table discussions and contribute to a panel debate on how to address the causes of in-work poverty. Speakers included experts on poverty from the Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council, Ipsos MORI, the Employment Research Institute at Napier University and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health.

The day began with a presentation by Jill Morton, from the Communities and Analytical Services division of the Scottish Government. Jill provided an overview of the Scottish Government’s policy commitments to tackle poverty, and highlighted recent statistics regarding the incidence of poverty in Scotland.

She reported that, in Scotland in 2012/13 (the most recent data available), 16% of people, and one in five children, were living in poverty.

Jill noted that whilst employment was the best route out of poverty, it was no longer a safeguard against poverty as over half of all working age adults in poverty in Scotland were from households in which at least one person was in employment. Six in ten children in poverty were also from working households. Jill concluded that for poverty to decline, lower income households must have access to quality and sustainable employment.

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Big challenges – and rewards – for Big Data in the third sector

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Stephen Lochore

‘Big data’ is big news! Along with its close relative ‘open data’, it’s part of the latest thinking about how managing information can help bring about better services. The rough idea is to use new technology and approaches to understand, analyse, link and where possible share large complex datasets to generate new insights and improve decisions.

In 2012, the UK government identified big data as one of eight ‘great technologies’ that support science and business, and since then has invested in a range of big data initiatives through the UK Research Councils. This includes the ESRC’s Big Data Network, whose current phase involves establishing four academic research centres to make data from local government and business more accessible.

In Scotland, an industry-led data lab, backed by public funding, is due to open late in 2014 to develop new data science capabilities.

Most of the focus has been on private sector innovation, higher education research capabilities and public sector datasets. Little has been said about the third or voluntary sector, which is surprising:

  • Third sector organisations provide a wide range of services – policymakers need to understand the sector’s structure and capabilities;
  • Many third sector organisations gather information that could help improve the design and delivery of services – they work directly with local communities including vulnerable groups who can be reluctant to engage in formal consultations.

Fortunately, there are a few initiatives which are looking at these issues.

On Monday 13 October I went to the first of a series of workshops organised by Scottish Universities Insight Institute into the opportunities and challenges of using data for Scotland’s third sector organisations.

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De-mystifying social enterprise

social saturday 13 september 2014

by Alex Thomas

Tomorrow marks the first Social Saturday (#socialsaturday), a day to celebrate and buy from social enterprises in the UK. Social enterprises are a growing social and economic force with approximately 70,000 operating in the UK contributing £18.5 billion to the economy according to government data. However, despite this presence and impact less than 5 in 10 people know what a social enterprise is and less than one in ten has purchased from on in the last 12 months (according to a recent article by article by Brooks Newmark, Minister for Civil Society). Continue reading