New research shows how the voluntary sector tackled inequality and isolation during the pandemic
The evidence has come from the Space to Connect programme - a partnership funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Co-op Foundation.
The £1.6million project was aimed at helping community organisations develop physical spaces such as buildings, allotments, and playgrounds to reduce social isolation. It ran between 2019 and 2021 and funded 57 community organisations, ranging from community trusts, youth clubs, arts centres, and city farms.
Today’s report gives an insight into how organisations adapted to the pandemic. It demonstrates how they focused more on creating virtual spaces, reaching out to vulnerable and isolated people, and co-ordinating support to communities.
The research also found that support needs to evolve – groups of people with new and greater needs will emerge, so it’s more important than ever for organisations to listen to people’s needs, aspirations, and issues. Meeting people in their own safe spaces is important, as is using existing spaces to engage with groups.
Language and terminology are important. Communities’ spaces enable, empower, and offer a warm and welcoming space where people can support each other – they are not ‘charity’. There also needs to be more collaboration, partnerships, and new approaches to working together.
Finally, a blended approach of online and face-to-face contact will be needed in the future to maximise reach, access, and participation.
Professor Mark Gamsu from LBU’s School of Health said: “We worked with Space to Connect projects to capture, understand, and share their experiences and learning during the programme – their role in the Covid-19 pandemic response became a particular focus.
“The immediate challenges facing community Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations during the pandemic were complete or partial closure of premises (often resulting in lost income), loss of staff members or volunteers, ceasing in-person support services and rapidly changing to online communication and delivery.
“However, VCSEs were quick to adapt, and the majority looked at how they could still support emerging local needs either through totally new activity or moving their previous work to other channels e.g., online or telephone.
“The response of these groups challenged and extended the understandings of what community spaces are and how they operate.”
All groups involved in Space to Connect spoke of creating ‘hubs’ and ‘bubbles’ of support for groups of people in neighbourhoods and delivering support and resources via these mechanisms. There was also a view that young people and old people want to be together as they’ve been bubbled together in lockdown and want to stay that way, so these spaces provide an opportunity for intergenerational work.
Nick Crofts, CEO of the Co-op Foundation said: “Our Space to Connect partners strengthen community connections, tackled isolation and addressed inequality all through the unique challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thank you for everything you’ve achieved and learned.
“As a funder rooted in co-operative values, we’re sharing everything we’ve learned so others can benefit too. I’d recommend anyone involved in a community group reads this report to find new ways to support, strengthen and develop your communities.”
Community organisations and spaces also became a key vehicle for local authorities and public health teams in terms of reaching communities and providing accurate and relevant information on Covid-19 and lockdown rules around social distancing. They also supported uptake of the vaccine programme. Local cross-sector multi-disciplinary groups (i.e., local resilience forums) can have a role in ensuring communities of interest are receiving relevant, targeted information e.g., for ethnic minority groups. Community organisations have a key role in health promotion around Covid-19.
A grantee of Space to Connect explained how the pandemic has changed how they work: “Since lockdown, we’ve linked in with a lot more vulnerable people and at-risk people than we would have done previously. People who never came near our lunch or exercise [classes] and who probably needed it more than the people who did come … and I think …it’s been a blessing…we have found people who had slipped through the net.”