Back in Spring 2020 when Covid-19 first hit representatives from groups involved in delivering emergency support from each of the 14 City wards were invited to participate in the Ward Cluster Network (WCN) by the City Council. The network created a gateway for communication, collaboration, learning and support. It initially met weekly online, and these meetings were supplemented by emailed updates.
As part of a wider community group recovery plan, CCVS were asked to interview members from each of the 14 City ward groups in the WCN, together with other contributing groups or individuals identified by the ward participants. The intention was to capture the key lessons that could influence any future emergency response but also to build on the positives such as increased community spirit and partnerships to support communities moving forward into a recovery phase. CCVS undertook structured online interviews with 30 participants from 26 organisations. Most of the interviews took place in June 2021. The initial report was drafted in July 2021
This report has been a while coming as partners have grappled with new and ongoing issues. Whilst both CCVS and the City Council have learnt from this research we wanted to release it more widely as a contribution to the understanding of how the voluntary sector played a vital role in helping communities throughout the pandemic. There is a lot for us to learn, a lot to build on, and a lot that needs doing to make sure that communities and community groups are front and centre of how we move forward to make Cambridge a fairer and more pleasant place to live
So, what did we find out back in 2021?
- A diversity of approach -The ward groups were a mix of spontaneous mutual aid style groups, new groups facilitated by local councillors to deliver emergency support and pre-existing groups collaborating with other community stakeholders, particularly faith groups. All the groups were supported by a City Council community officer and were given online guidance and £1000 to help them meet essential costs.
- What the groups did – All the ward groups offered to pick up and deliver shopping and prescriptions to people who were shielding or isolating. A number were also involved in running food hubs and other initiatives to support those who were socially isolated.
- A wave of volunteers – During the first lockdown most of the ward groups attracted more volunteers than they had tasks to allocate. Volunteering tapped into people’s desire to help their neighbours; people wanted to be part of something momentous. As the pandemic progressed numbers of active volunteers reduced and the needs of the people requesting help became more complex. More recently many people reengaged by offering to help at vaccination centres, but this activity has now mostly wound down.
For most of the ward groups a combination of volunteer coordinators and paid community/faith group workers provided the necessary support and guidance for the sustained volunteering effort. Red tape was minimised, and groups operated on mutual trust. The sense from the ward volunteer coordinators was that many volunteers had not volunteered before, had time to give and were attracted by how easy it was to offer help and the hyperlocal, flexible, and informal opportunities on offer. The direct interactions with beneficiaries meant that volunteers got instant feedback and could readily see the value of what they were doing.
- Communication was key – Effective communication within the wards was crucial in both managing the requests for help and the volunteers but also in helping to disseminate key information to the local community. Several of the wards were able to capitalise on pre-existing lists of data for people already in receipt of community newsletters or emails.
- Getting essential guidance in place – Initially there was a lack of focussed information particularly around data protection, pharmacy protocols, risk assessments, money handling and volunteer protocols. The groups also had trouble identifying other sources of help and support for people because of the lack of any up-to-date directory of services.
- Exposing inequalities to a wider audience – In most wards, volunteers identified issues around food and fuel poverty, disability, and mental ill-health. It became apparent to the ward groups very early on that whilst the crisis exacerbated these issues many were pre-existing. There is also concern about how to address the stigma some people feel around seeking help. Some minority ethnic communities faced disproportionate health risks from Covid with a high percentage in key worker roles facing even great risk. Ethnic minority groups were also more likely to work in activities badly effected by lockdown and therefore struggled financially. Cultural and language barriers added to people’s sense of social isolation and difficulties obtaining help and support. Including difficulties obtaining culturally appropriate food from food banks and food hubs.
What did we recommend back in 2021?
Build on local authority investment in social capital
- Continue to invest in building partnerships and networks with the local voluntary sector.
- Continue to support the work of the food hubs for as long as they are required and support these organisations to source and provide culturally appropriate food for all clients.
- Create seed funding pots under local community control to get new ideas underway.
Build on cross-ward cooperation
- Establish a ward group digital forum where groups can share and develop ideas.
- Run occasional network meetings around key topics of interest to maintain connections.
Create a repository of useful guidance for the future
- A toolbox of the detailed guidance, protocols, and policies for use in any future emergency.
Improving signposting to existing services
- There is a need to investigate ways to support effective signposting that is sustainable.
Support for local communications
- Develop a community newsletter for each ward. Some support and funding will be needed to help initiate these new communications.
Improve the volunteering offer
- Develop opportunities that meet volunteer needs.
- Create up to date, responsive online brokerage that allows those looking to volunteer a quick and efficient way to find and apply for local opportunities.
- Continue to offer support for those who face obstacles in engaging with volunteering.
Improved engagement with business
- Create digital resources including an online brokerage aimed at business to support their understanding of the needs of the sector. For more recommendations around connecting VCS and business, see CCVS report (2019)
Focus on improving digital inclusion
- Issues around digital inequality have highlighted the need for ongoing action to give everyone access to equal access to information, support and opportunity.
Recognise what has been achieved
- Consider creating a broader recognition of what has been experienced and achieved. The purpose of any recognition event would be to demonstrate the continued value placed on neighbourhood support