Community infrastructure

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought people and organisations together in new and exciting ways. We've seen new community support groups, waves of new volunteers, collaboration between the private sector and charities and the public sector coordinating and connecting local action.

With all this new activity, coordination and collaboration are essential to avoid overlap, duplication, and the risk of people falling through the gaps. This page brings together what grantholders, and the wider sector, are doing to coordinate responses to the crisis, and some analysis of what this might mean for the future.

How is the community and voluntary sector responding?

Supporting the VCS at national level

Across the UK, national third sector umbrella bodies including the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA), National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), and Welsh Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) have all provided useful information and guidance on their websites.

They're supporting members in a range of ways, including researching their financial concerns and support needs; and encouraging charities to register on national portals, to make it easier for people to find the help they need. WCVA helped 30 voluntary organisations to source personal protective equipment (PPE) through Welsh Government supply chains.

Coordinating local responses

Using existing local infrastructure and networks to identify and support those most in need is more effective than setting up new, competing mechanisms. Local infrastructure bodies like Councils for Voluntary Service (CVS) are playing an important role in coordinating crisis support. Many have taken the lead on both recruiting and managing the huge numbers of new volunteers. They're also helping newly-formed organisations with advice, expertise and practical support.

  • Using local knowledge to coordinate and direct help to where it’s needed. In East London, William Morris Big Local has helped train and support new volunteers in mutual aid groups and coordinate activity to ensure that volunteers are helping where they are most needed.
    ​​​​​​​One Walsall is working with partners to create a support network in each of the town’s four localities. Their website gives details of what's available, signposting residents to relevant support.
    Newark and Sherwood CVS have also created online information and support, including good practice guidance on recruiting new volunteers. They have also collated information on local groups and services, including a directory of shops making deliveries, and have supported new groups, like Parish Councils, to set up services.
  • Supporting new groups through training and sharing capacity. Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL) has linked up with the newly-formed group Your Scholes and is carrying out DBS checks and training volunteers on their behalf.

Encouraging and empowering community-led responses

Collaboration across sectors

We're seeing many examples of organisations coming together across sectors, and in new partnerships, to provide a joined-up response to the crisis.

  • Working with the public sector. ​​​​​​​In Stoke-on-Trent, VAST supports the local VCS and has partnered with the local authority and other charities on a website to coordinate new volunteers, who have come forward in their hundreds.
    Community Action Derby is working closely with the City Council, local NHS and housing provider and others, including the Covid-19 mutual aid group. They are coordinating the local volunteer response and set up a helpline.
  • Businesses benefiting the community. Working with local businesses can be a way to harness resources and infrastructure to support the local economy and community. In Cardiff, Glenwood Church provides social clubs and activities. During the crisis, they’ve joined with a local independent coffee shop, Little Man to provide meals for key workers and vulnerable members of their community. They're also working with staff from a local high school to support Cardiff food bank, which would have had to reduce its opening hours due to a reduction in the usual number of volunteers because of self-isolation.
    In Edinburgh, People Know How have worked with a range of private and other partners to get computers and internet connections to people who need them. Edinburgh University and Change Recruitment Group donated a total of 91 computers, which Venture Scotland transported to People Know How. Edinburgh Palette, a local venue, provided space to use for refurbishing them. By 28 April, 32 people have been given computers, with a further 28 in the pipeline.
  • Funders pooling resources. Funders are also keen to find opportunities for collaboration – three-quarters are interested in pooling resources, or bringing their processes together.
    In Northern Ireland, we’ve worked with Belfast Charitable Society, Halifax Foundation for Northern Ireland, Ulster Community Investment Trust Ltd and Ulster University to provide laptops to young people who need them so they can study at home.
    The Alliance of London Funders has brought over 250 funders together, showing their commitment to flexibility and maintaining current financial commitments. ​​​​​​​

Collating data and evidence

Accurate information and data can help ensure that help gets to the people who need it.

  • New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) has created a data set of indicators that show the places currently most affected by Covid-19, and those that have underlying factors which may place them at greater risk. It also includes data on charity density, which reveals gaps in local capacity. They are inviting others to extend this data set, including looking at demand data from charities.
  • The Red Cross is developing a Covid-19 vulnerability index, to inform the provision of support so that it gets to people who are most in need.
  • Black Thrive, a cross-sector partnership working to reduce the inequality and injustices experienced by black people in mental health services, is working with other south London organisations to answer the Government call for evidence on how Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting people of colour.

Our learning about local collaboration and coordination

Collaborate for shared goals

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on communities across the UK. At the same time it has spurred many people and organisations to work together, often for the first time. We’ve seen organisations putting mission first and letting go of power. We call this ‘generous leadership’ and we've seen an increase in the number of organisations working in this way.

  • Firs and Bromford Neighbours Together is a Big Local community organisation in Birmingham. They've worked with three other organisations to create a network of volunteers across the estate and have seen an increase in the number of volunteers in their area since their helpline was set up.
  • Welcome to Our Woods has worked closely with community youth service partners in the Rhondda, including local councillors and Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). The group has three named individuals to contact if a community member needs urgent support.
    They’ve worked with local businesses with surplus food to distribute it via the local food bank and they’ve encouraged other organisations to use their building as and when needed. They work with others to identify people who don’t have a phone and are buying handsets to lend, which can be returned and used by the partnership after the pandemic.
  • Three hospices in Birmingham and Solihull (St Mary’s Hospice, John Taylor Hospice and Marie Curie West Midlands) have formed a partnership and created a new helpline. Hospices of Birmingham and Solihull (HOBS), is staffed by a team of specialist nurses providing expert support for local people and their families. They can arrange advice, community support or admittance to one of the three hospices.
  • In London, the food redistribution charities FareShare, City Harvest and the Felix Project have formed the London Food Alliance to provide a more targeted response with each charity leading in a designated London borough.

Build on what already works well

Being aware of existing expertise and resources in our communities helps avoid duplication and overlap. Existing VCS groups, organisations and networks know their communities well, and small grassroots organisations are much more likely to know and have the trust of minority communities than large or generalist charities.

We need to be open to new ways of working, recognising that new approaches and solutions are needed in these unprecedented times. This is likely to be especially important for digital capabilities and connections.

We encourage grantholders to continue co-producing activities and services with the people they support. Big Local is holding weekly online drop-in sessions where local residents can come together to talk about the current situation and find out what others are doing to respond.

HeadStart Kent is continuing its young people’s co-production and engagement groups, using virtual tools to keep participants connected into the programme. It took a while to ensure new consent forms were filled in and returned, but this will ensure that the group continues working both virtually and face-to-face once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Looking to the future

We believe that people understand what’s needed in their communities better than anyone, so we welcome the huge grassroots mobilisation. VCS organisations may be able to learn from these hyper-local groups about engaging quickly and directly with people. They may become partners in the future, helping to widen the reach of existing charities.

While informal grassroots groups may be quick and flexible, they may not have the knowledge or infrastructure to ensure the safety of their volunteers and the people they support. Community-led responses will need support to succeed in the medium to long-term, including advice, information and access to training and specialist knowledge.

Many CVSs have taken on responsibility for coordination and capacity-building locally, but we know that not all areas have this infrastructure, and that it can differ in scope and scale. We also know that many local infrastructure groups are struggling with reduced income.

Strong local partnerships and networks are a key strength in supporting communities through this crisis. Where existing relationships and connections are already in place, it’s been easier to coordinate support in response to the crisis.

In Yardley, Birmingham, an existing network of VCS stakeholders and statutory services is staying connected to ensure those at greatest need are receiving support, and that, where possible, they support each other’s activity in a safe way. HeadStart partnerships have found that they are able to build on the trusted relationships they had already established locally, to ensure young people get the support they need.

If organisations and groups can continue to recognise and build on each other’s strengths, maintain a dialogue, learn from each other and link up as best they can, this moment could become an opportunity to create a lasting legacy of joined-up working for the good of communities.

What we need to consider next is how the positive outcomes that have come out of this crisis – a growing sense of community spirit, and a drive to work together for a common good - can continue in the future, both in the medium-term response to the crisis, and in the long-term approach to its aftermath.

We’re making sense of what we’re seeing and hearing from our grantholders at pace, so there’ll be things we’ve missed, haven’t noticed yet or, perhaps, misinterpreted.

We welcome comments or challenge, so that we can continuously improve and develop, and make this work practical and useful.

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This page was last updated: 12 May 2020.