So, what did we all do in the pandemic 2020 – 2021? – The Cambridge City Community Response 

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 

Click here to read the full report

A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy

Why now must be the time for community power and community wealth building

The title is a quote attributed to Guy Fawkes, but it seems eminently suitable as we come out of the biggest global pandemic in living memory. I am not advocating burning down the houses of parliament, but I am advocating finding radical ways to move power from the centre to the people, and changing where the rewards for work flow to. If we are to make a difference to some of the big issues in the world whether that is poverty and inequality, or climate change then we have to engage and empower communities and the people in them.

I am not an expert in either of these topics and if you want to find out more, a simple internet search will give you plenty of food for thought. I do, however, have some experience of working with communities and the groups that are embedded in them – groups that deliver services and bring people together, groups that are the glue that binds communities together.

We need people with skills in working with communities to help them realise their ambitions. We need people with expertise in setting up social enterprises. We need civic and business leaders to create a narrative of change within anchor organisations. There is space for all sorts to come together so communities, and those within them, can deliver outcomes that have positive impacts on people’s lives.

What is community wealth building?

Community wealth building is a “local economic development strategy focused on building collaborative, inclusive, sustainable, and democratically controlled local economies[1].”  Or more simply it is about finding ways to keep money in local economies and not in the hands of investors with interest in the profit and not in the place or the people.

There is a whole movement that has been set up around this and different examples of how it can work can be seen nationally and internationally, Scotland even has a minister for this in the Scottish government. It is about a way to link jobs and wealth and skills so that communities can build them all; it is about working together and bringing work back into the realms of the commons so that it is of the people and for the people. It is a way to promote cooperative working and mutual aid, to foster enterprises that are truly powerful and to stop profit and return on investment being the drivers. Social and individual good become the prize. It is not about how much profit can be made, but how many local jobs are created. It is not about the lowest priced service and the race to the bottom, but about real living wages and fair division of the benefits of labour. It is not about temporary gig culture, but meaningful jobs with a future and a way of progressing.

What is community power?

This is about giving communities real power and the resources to make real change. It is about smaller central government and devolution of budgets, it is not necessarily about less government or reduced spending. It is not about consultation and short-term projects but has to be long term, sustainable change. It is also not about community councils that are talking shops or that produce reports, it is about giving people the collective power to change legislation locally. In some areas it may be about devolving more power (and more budgets) to parish councils, but these councils have to find ways to become more reflective of the whole community. It may be giving power over the things that are important to different communities of interest, to young people or to families. It must be about building consensus and community ownership and not creating divides and discord.

In some places it might be about power moving to community anchor organisations that are rooted in their community these could be new or existing groups who will take on the upkeep of an area and provide spaces and services that the population need. There will not be a single way of doing things but all will involve people collaborating and agreeing on a way forward. This does not mean everyone will be happy with every decision, but it will mean that everyone has had the chance to make their point, and that there has been discussion and debate.

What can we do to build community wealth?

The first thing to realise is that we are not alone. All around the country and indeed the world, people are looking at how wealth and power can be vested into communities to reduce inequality. There are concrete examples of how differences can be embedded, and changes made to work, and whilst not everything will work in our communities, we have to take heart and ensure we take our first step.

We need to start to talk to communities and start to engage with them. It is not enough for the great and the good, or the academic, or the enlightened to sit and talk about this. We must get into the communities. We must engage with people. This will mean good old fashioned community development. It will mean setting up long term projects (nothing less than 5 years). It will mean us getting political and helping others to become political as we will eventually need things to change at local, and national government level.

We need to work with and influence some of the anchor organisations in the area to get them to change how they procure services and contract work. This will include big local businesses, local councils, the NHS and universities to name but a few. If these organisations are able to change and create a market for community enterprise, for co-ops and for socially responsible firms then people will see that there is a point in engaging and setting these up. These organisations have to offer more than warm words. It may mean that initial costs are higher but that this is not the deciding factor in looking at who will deliver a service. It might be about ensuring you are a living wage accredited organisation. It might be less about competitive tendering and more about compassionate tendering. It might be about truly embedding social value in all you and not just nodding occasionally in its direction.

By taking this two-pronged approach to working with communities and businesses we will develop both the customers and the suppliers for new ways of working. It will then be about looking at how these can be married up, what we need to do to make this happen, and ultimately how we develop community owned organisations that can deliver required services, and will invest in the people and places they are grounded in.

What about community power?

Since the days of the partitioning of common lands, communities and individuals have been losing out to business and the state. If we are going to redress this, we have to look at what the people can take back. This must be more than ‘community rights to acquire’ when communities get to take over what no one else values. We need to find ways that will get people engaged in their community and passionate about making it better. This will mean we have to get people angry and political if we want them to take charge of changes.

Our society is getting more unequal in income, in health outcomes, and in education. Institutions that were once available to the people have been disappearing as libraries and children’s centres close, as playing fields are sold off, and as everything from schools, to trains and buses, to utility companies are privatised. To restore equality, we need to find ways that communities can take back some control.

The pandemic showed what communities can achieve, where government dragged its feet or struggled to adapt, communities acted. You can find out more from the Support Cambridgeshire research on the pandemic. People came together to deliver services, to help people in need, and to save lives.

Now is the time to put our trust in communities but we need to find the vehicles for this, and they will be different for different communities. If we are going to hold citizen assemblies, they must be given the power to force change in legislation otherwise they are an interesting report. If we are going to hand power to resident associations it has to come with the resources to make the changes agreed, otherwise it was an interesting consultation. If we are going to ask parish councils to take on more responsibility, they need to have the devolved powers to decide and act, otherwise it is simply a talking shop.

Whatever route we take to put power back into the hands of communities we need to ensure that they are representative and that all voices are given an equal weight. Work will need to be done to facilitate engagement and to mediate consensus. There may be a few quick wins, but this has to be a long-term project that will see community power embedded into the countries decision making processes.

Now is a good time to start to make changes and to build consensus and connections that help to answer some of the big questions facing the world. These solutions will not solve everything on their own but the power of people coming together has always driven change. Communities and the individuals and groups that exist in them have demonstrated their ability to step up, and it is about time they were given opportunities to do more to address the issues they are facing. As Margaret Mead said

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


[1] Community wealth building, Guinan and O’Neill

Volunteering wisdom

If you want to know why people volunteer, what keeps them volunteering and how we can get more people into volunteering you really need to ask some experts – which is exactly what we did at our celebrating volunteers event during National Volunteers’ Week (check out the web page for more info) – we were lucky enough to fill the brasserie at John Lewis & Partners in Cambridge with volunteers and people who work with them – after all there is no such thing as a free lunch!   

Our ‘experts’ were drawn from a random sample of local volunteer groups, so feedback is entirely subjective but at the same time closely reflects national research and trends as seen in the NCVO research.  The key reasons our volunteers started volunteering were: 

  • To make a difference, feel useful and help others 
  • Meet new and different people and engage in their community 
  • Use existing skills 
  • As a way of giving back because they or those they cared for had been helped.

When we look to recruit volunteers, we need to convey these messages.  For some ideas to get you started check out the CCVS Pinterest board and maybe sign up for our next workshop on recruiting & retaining volunteers.

When we asked the volunteers Why do you keep volunteering? they told us it was about: 

  • The other people they volunteer with and for, who make it worthwhile and enjoyable 
  • Being able to see they help others and make a difference 
  • Being able to use skills 

Our random sample highlighted the fact that if organisations what to attract and retain volunteers they need to understand what motivates people to volunteer.  Organisations also need to be aware that motivation changes as people develop in their volunteering roles.  To keep people turning up to volunteer they need to feel valued and gain satisfaction from their role.   

There is no one size fits all and we need to be flexible.  For some volunteers. time credits will make the difference for others it might be regular thanks and taking the trouble to keep them up to speed on what is happening with clients they have helped.    

While they were on a roll, we went on to ask our ‘experts’ the million-dollar question How do we get more people into volunteering?  

  • Highlight the difference volunteers make and tell their stories.  The enthusiasm of existing volunteers is infectious (CCVS will be running a story telling workshop early 2020 to help you tell your stories) 
  • Make it easier for people to volunteer reduce barriers, increase flexibility 
  • Show you value your volunteers.  
  • Improve promotion, use more channels to reach more people and convey strong appealing messages (CCVS have a range of free training on using social media) 

CCVS has a programme of training and support for those managing volunteers free to our members and supported by funding from Cambridge City Council. 

Cambridge Community Safety Partnership (CSP) July 2018

ccsp-logoSome thoughts on the meeting held on 17th July 2018. Firstly, you can find out more about the work of the CSP on the City Councils website, and you can download the papers here. These meetings are generally open to the public, but there are never crowds so you can always find a place!

This meeting was a little different as we had a report on a Domestic Homicide Review. You can find out more about what a DHR is here, but in essence it is

“A Domestic Homicide Review (DHR) is a locally conducted multi-agency review of the circumstances in which the death of a person aged 16 or over has, or appears to have, resulted from violence, abuse or neglect by:

  • a person to whom he or she was related, or with whom he or she was or had been in an intimate personal relationship; or,
  • a member of the same household as himself or herself.

DHRs were introduced by section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 (DVCA 2004) and came into force on 13 April 2011.”

The report from this will be made public once the process has been completed, but safe to say if we never have to do another of these that would be fantastic. There is lots of help for those who are victims of domestic abuse, and for those who have concerns. A good place to start when looking for help is the Domestic Violence Helpline.

The rest of the meeting followed its usual pattern of extremely thorough reports and opportunities to look at how partners could be involved. Some of the highlights.

  • The CSP will be bidding with others in the county into a pot of money that has been recovered from criminals. It would be good to look at how voluntary groups may be able to access this in the future and we will be meeting to investigate this.
  • There is a growing aim of joined up working to look at issues within the City Centre. To begin with the area needs to be defined as do the priorities. The key learning was that communication with other groups needs to be improved and that communication with the public would also help to reduce crime and fear of crime.
  • The annual report and the updated terms of reference for the CSP were accepted. The annual report will be published on the City website, but the draft can be seen as part of these papers.
  • The work to align the CSP in the City with the one in South Cambs and with the two Living Well area Partnerships is ongoing. The next CSP meeting will be joint with the South Cambs one. Whilst CCVS attends all of these so reducing meetings will be of benefit to our sanity, I do wonder if this is feasible. There are undoubtedly some areas of overlap that could be addressed jointly but there are significant local issues that it would be wrong to lose sight of.

We are happy to answer any further questions that may arise. We are also always eager to hear from organisations who have an interest in issues around community safety so that we can take concerns etc. to this meeting.

“Good things come in small parcels”

“Good things come in small parcels”

I am not sure where this quote comes from so I will attribute it to my Mum (who was small), who used it every Christmas when someone (usually me) complained that they didn’t have any big presents.

And you know what my Mum was obviously very wise!

The Glue that binds

glue

Every day here at CCVS we work with groups that are doing amazing things, and many of those are doing that with very little funding and little or no paid staff time. In fact, this year 58% of those groups who responded to our annual survey had an income below £50,000 a year; 69% had 5 or less staff, and 35% had no staff.

These groups are at the core of what makes the communities in which we live ‘good places to live’. These small groups bring people together. These small groups provide services to fellow community members. These small groups, unfortunately, replace underfunded statutory services. If I look at the village where I live there are groups doing all these things and more. The archaeology society has brought people together through its programme of digging test pits across the village, its local talks, and now its work with local schools. The local Baptist Church runs a mother and baby/toddler group that allows parents to come together, make friends, and provides activities for the children. The local infant school PTA raised over £20,000 to provide the children with new IT, exciting learning opportunities and additional resources.

Robert Putnam said that we are now bowling alone and the latest national survey shows that volunteer numbers have reduced and that people volunteer for shorter periods. But I wonder if the small groups working in communities and the volunteers they have simply fly so far beneath the radar that few, outside their communities, know they are there. We know that some groups are struggling to get volunteers. We know that volunteering patterns are changing. We know that people work more hours for more years. Whilst these problems are real, and groups need help recruiting and retaining volunteers and developing volunteering opportunities that fit with people’s other commitments, I am always astounded by what people do and what the groups and organisations they give time to do. Last weekend alone me and 12,405 other people across the UK volunteered at Parkrun and Junior Parkrun events; 116,928 people finished the events. People were connected, active, healthy, and doing something in and for their communities.

So, there you are, small community organisations and volunteer led groups are the glue that binds communities together; as well as the deliverer of untold numbers of services and activities.

The growing darkness

dark moonNational research has shown that it is the smaller organisations that have been most impacted by austerity measures and changes to how national and local government fund the sector.

We have seen grants from local authorities fall in real terms for several years, and there is a real postcode lottery as to the funding a group might get dependent on where it operates. Coupled to this we have seen changes to how and what the Big Lottery will fund; and the consolidation (locally) of many corporate grants programmes into the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation.

Linked to the downturn in funding availability is the upturn in demand. As local authority and health thresholds for statutory help increase, more people are left to seek help from voluntary groups. There has been a marked increase in the use of Food banks. Many organisations working with those with mental health issues are seeing clients with increasingly complex needs and their ability to refer on to statutory or clinical services has gone down.

At the same time, there are growing pressures to get organisations of all size to meet different sets of regulations or rules. Changes in fundraising practice which came about following the failings of a number of big charities will have some knock-on effect on the small ones. Data protection will become an even bigger issue for all organisations regardless of their size. The charity commission is no longer there to support organisations but to regulate them. Whilst the impacts of all these changes may be less for smaller organisations their ability to know about them never mind implement them is a growing issue.

Organisations are run by volunteers in the form of trustees, and whilst calls to end charity such as that in the Guardian[1] are misplaced and written as ‘click bait’ the expectations and pressures are growing. Many small organisations are governed by individuals who are passionate about the work or cause; very few trustees are passionate about governance. Generally, trustees find themselves in the role after becoming a long term volunteer or by having been ‘asked’ by existing trustees in their acquaintance. It is essential that trustees are aware of all the different regulations, rules and laws that cover their work. From insurance requirements to financial management requirements and employment rights, the list is endless (or at least very long).

The light at the end of the tunnel

tunnelSo, to recap. We need small voluntary groups and charities for healthy local communities.

Healthy communities are better able to support, sustain and nurture individuals.

Small voluntary groups and charities are finding it harder to find the money they need to operate.

The trustees of the small voluntary groups and charities are being drowned under increasing regulation.

What these small groups, communities and individuals need is somewhere to turn to give them the skills, knowledge and confidence to deliver their services and stay sustainable. They also need someone who will champion their needs with statutory bodies and the wider public.

They need local infrastructure organisations like those in the Support Cambridgeshire partnership.

The Support Cambridgeshire annual survey shows the fact that organisations value their membership of both CCVS and Hunts Forum. They value the work we do to represent their needs and those of the wider sector and they appreciate the advice, support, training and communications. It is essential that this local service remains. Despite the wisdom of ages being available at the click of a Goggle search many organisations want some help in identifying the best resources, and in transferring the information into knowledge. Groups want access to local, free training that it is pitched at the right level. They want to be able to contact someone who will answer their question on all aspects of running a voluntary group. They want help identifying and applying for relevant funding pots. They don’t need consultants or long-term scrutiny; they don’t need courses in London or online.

Local infrastructure may well have fallen out of favour with many funders and with national government. Local authorities may try and squeeze it by asking for more for less. But local organisations value the service. By investing in strong and sustainable local infrastructure you are investing in a diverse and sustainable local voluntary and community sector; and therefore, in strong, resilient communities.

Local infrastructure may not impact directly on individuals lives and well-being but it does ensure that there are more groups out there that can, and do.

“It is difficult to sum up the support from CCVS in a few words! It is, quite simply, vital for organisations like ours who are small and inexperienced in many areas and also who sometimes struggle with confidence on bigger issues. It is amazing to know that there is high-quality support for us, and also such frequent and detailed updates about funding and what is going on in the sector. Thank you for all you do for us and organisations like us”

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2017/aug/08/kids-company-is-charity-worth-saving