National Lottery Community Fund supporting Plunkett Foundation in 2020
Whilst currently it seems hard to think back to a time pre-Covid, the reality for the community-owned business sector was that they started 2020 in a relatively buoyant position. A host of new community shops and pubs had opened in 2019, adding to an already blossoming network of such assets that promote inclusivity and social benefit, and reduce the risk of isolation. There were also many more communities exploring community-ownership of woodlands, libraries, community hubs and multiple other facilities that would secure local services for local benefit.
I work for the Plunkett Foundation, a UK charity offering access to expert advice and support to community businesses, social enterprises, and community cooperatives in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In more “normal” times we are able to work with individual projects one-to-one / face-to-face through an incredible network of self-employed advisers located across the country. When lockdown started in March 2020 it meant that we had to pivot, amend our services and offer support remotely via online means. Given the unknown situation we all faced we wanted to make sure that groups still had access to any advice and support they needed at that time. This is where the support of the National Lottery Community Fund was so important to us, it provided Plunkett Foundation with the funding we needed to make our “offer” more flexible in order to respond to the needs of community business.
Like many charities, our own income was affected as a result of the pandemic and the funding we received from the National Lottery Community Fund not only helped to maintain our staff team but also increased our support budget at a time when there was greater demand than ever. In 2020 we received a 53% increase on enquiries and requests for support, compared to previous years. The increased demand was predominantly coming from those businesses and enterprises that had been forced to close, but Plunkett also made sure that we also remained available to help those new and developing groups such as the White Hart Inn, St Dogmaels or Ravenbridge Stores that might otherwise have felt isolated as a result of the pandemic. For these new groups it seemed a lot of support had dried up for their projects, funding had been diverted to Covid-response activities, support providers were focussing to support established organisations and we recognised that we had a responsibility to keep our support services accessible to all.
In the early days of the pandemic we did our best to interpret and communicate the latest rules that were applicable to community businesses, taking into account the differences in approach across the UK nations. The groups in touch were also asking for help to manage short term cashflow, or mitigating the loss if income for an indefinite period. The volunteers at the heart of these projects, as members of steering groups or management committees needed support to uphold good governance and remain complaint with society or company legislation. For groups such as Holne Community Shop and Tearoom, it was simply about reassurance and understanding any implications that Covid may have on their operations. We sought to provide regular updates on whatever support or funding was being made available, from Government, the devolved administrations and local authorities. We did not want community businesses to feel that they were alone, and further more Plunkett would do all we could to help.
What has been amazing throughout the pandemic however, has been seeing how these enterprises were responding and adapting to the situation. Despite facing a seemingly endlessly growing list of rules and requirements, these businesses found ways to change their offer and make sure that staff and volunteers remained safe. Their sheer determination and commitment to serve their community was impressive. The Plunkett Facebook pages for Community Shops and Community Pubs, became a hive of peer learning and support. Thanks to the support of National Lottery Community Fund we also set a number of facilitated zoom calls for different types of enterprise, to make sure everyone felt connected and could hear how others were responding.
Small rural community shops were replicating services more commonly associated with the larger supermarkets – home delivery and online ordering was offered in many areas. Community pubs, that have now faced restrictions or lockdowns for nearly a year were doing takeaway services, as well as supporting local retailers through access to their catering suppliers for those rare lockdown commodities such as flour, pasta and other dry goods. In fact the community-owned Warwick Bridge Corn Mill also sped up their distribution of flour, in response to the great pandemic bake-off that appeared to take hold. There were some great examples of village halls, closed due to the restrictions becoming food distribution hubs like the Calstock Essential Supply Point or offering storage space for other businesses locally. Innovation was flourishing and truly epitomised how these businesses support every resident in their local area.
The last 12 months will rightly be remembered for all the struggles that have been endured, but there are also some wonderful stories of community resilience that we can learn from. We are proud to say that Plunkett supported 308 individual groups and businesses in 2020 and 38 of these were supported thanks to the funding received from the National Lottery Community Fund. As we progress to a time beyond Covid, we firmly believe that this is an opportunity for a rural renaissance and a recognition of the impact of local action. To that end, Plunkett launched our Rural Vision at the end of 2020 which reflects on the learning of this moment and looks to a greener, more connected and sustainable future for community businesses.
Head of Community Business, Plunkett Foundation
Chris joined the Plunkett Foundation in June 2018 & leads the frontline delivery team, who provide direct support to communities & businesses. Chris previously spent a decade working in the rural community development sector; at Gloucestershire Rural Community Council & South Gloucestershire Council.