How the lessons from a dark and difficult year can help us build a brighter future

January 27, 2021


By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive

At Christmas I was given Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History. It is a wonderful antidote to the day-to-day challenges of living in lockdown. I don’t want to underestimate or diminish the hardship that people face in their everyday lives, hardships that have been magnified by the pandemic, but perhaps the continuing success of the vaccine rollout means we can look forward to what comes next.

In this blog I’m going to talk about the charitable sector and the role that community plays in our lives and what this could mean for us at Somerset Community Foundation.

The role of community in our lives

I’ve written before of the pace at which communities responded to the first lockdown through semi-formal mutual aid groups, quickly followed by the local organisations that serve them. What I had overlooked was the very informal help of one person helping another – their family or a neighbour. In a recent survey conducted for The Law Family Commission on Civil Society, of the 40% of the adults who helped in some way during the first lockdown, the vast majority did so, not through an organised structure, but spontaneously and informally for a neighbour, friend or family member.

As we saw during the Somerset floods, people will go to extraordinary lengths to help others in need. This time we have seen many employers swiftly adopting flexible working practices and encouraging their staff to find a work-life balance, allowing them time to volunteer and look after their own mental well-being. Not only that, but we saw many use their assets to serve a greater cause. Just recently we have seen a small group of IT professionals in Taunton use their skills to convert redundant laptops into working equipment for children without access to IT equipment: not a registered charity, just another spontaneous, big-hearted community effort. 

I’m not looking at our society and communities through rose-tinted glasses. Furlough, for example, undoubtedly helped many do more for their community and, in truth, Covid has viciously exposed, exploited and increased inequalities. Too many people have been suffering from the outset, and nurses, doctors, carers, frontline and charity workers are all exhausted.

Maybe, though, the pandemic has given us a sneak preview of how we can build back better and revealed the value of acts of kindness. Before last March, ‘community’ was a word more often than not bandied around without much thought, an abstract notion; now, I hope, ‘community’ will be given the respect, recognition and opportunity it deserves.

The role of local organisations

What does that mean for our local charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises? Again, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus how vitally important our local charities are in our lives, often through the absence of a service we had previously taken for granted. Suddenly, we could see what life could be like if the village hall didn’t exist, if our local pre-school wasn’t there, or if the people who look after one of our parents with dementia for half a day to give the other some respite were not there.

Sometimes, it’s because they were more visibly ‘there’ that we have understood their value in our lives: the village shop that managed to stay open because it is owned and run by the community; the charity that brought sports equipment to a family so that their disabled child could still enjoy physical activity; the community hall that converted its kitchens to allow hot meals to be prepared and served in the local community.

And above all, we saw clearly the adaptability and ingenuity of organisations to find ways to deliver their services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities at a time when they most needed it. The rapid implementation of digital tools and transformation to deliver services and run local organisations – organisations that are often criticised for not being innovative enough or a bit stuck in their ways. This time last year who would have thought so many essential services run by small groups could go digital so quickly?

In the same survey from the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, there was an interesting (and surprising – to me, at least) insight into the public’s perception of charities. On whether there are too many charities and community groups, there was a fairly balanced view between ‘too many’ and ‘not too many’, while stronger majorities felt that charities are not wasteful nor working on the wrong priorities and that they are efficient, effective and – most notably – can be trusted.

After a number of years when trust in the sector has been relatively low and we have faced a tough time in the press, I do wonder whether this reflects the greater visibility charities have had in our lives, and in our communities, in this last 10 months. If so, it gives us a fantastic opportunity to build on that trust to make a bigger difference in the years to come.

Gazing ahead

I fear that we could slip back into old habits. When the first lockdown ended I had to firmly resist slipping back into the habit of commuting to the office and popping into the supermarket on the way home every day. Not good for me, not good for the environment and, ultimately, not good for SCF.

If we are going to build back better we are going to have to plan and make an effort to sustain that change. In Lewin’s change management model, change starts with unfreezing the status quo; what is often overlooked is the effort required to refreeze in the new, better place.

Here are three things to look out for:

  1. Digital – in this case sustaining and continuing the better use of digital within local charitable organisations, but also across society. As I mentioned previously, our sector proved just how nimble it was by the speed at which many charities adapted to delivering their services online. All done with a little funding, some support but most importantly the imperative to try, learn and adapt and carry on regardless, which it seems can carry us a long way. Crucially, we must be able to crack the digital divide. Of course, we look to the government to provide infrastructure, but community has a role too – from running training and support programmes to the provision of hardware for those in need. In the past couple of weeks I have come across two local IT firms volunteering to upgrade and recycle laptops for pupils, and I am sure there are more. Imagine, once we are past this emergency, if every Somerset ICT firm could refurbish just one donated laptop every week? We could deliver strong social, health and environmental benefits to people of all ages. But creating coherent and effective infrastructure for such initiatives is key; where will the leadership come from?

  2. Financial pressure on the sector – we know Covid has significantly impacted on charities’ abilities to raise money from their normal fundraising activities; fun runs, charity dinners, coffee mornings and all the things that rely on people coming together for a good cause. In some cases this has been offset by new sources of income, but I am very concerned there has been massive hit to organisations’ unrestricted funds, which in most cases is their lifeblood.

No organisation has a right to exist, but our communities deserve the services they provide. We need to make sure that organisations that have taken the hit and stood by their communities are supported when they need it, when they need to adapt, collaborate, merge or – where necessary – close well.

For funders, like us, we have to re-consider to what extent we need to fund tangible ‘things’ – projects, equipment or buildings – and to what extent we should offer more flexible funding, trusting our brilliant organisations and the difference they make. For an interesting take on this, this podcast with MacKenzie Scott from CAF’s Giving Thought series is worth a listen.

  3. Trust – this point about trust is pivotal. Above all else, we need to trust our communities and the organisations they create. The recovery of society and the economy may be long and arduous, but one silver lining from this crisis is that we can see the magic that happens when communities take more of a lead in creating their own destinies.

This is recognised in Danny Kruger MP’s report Levelling Up Our Communities: Proposals for a New Social Covenant which places as much emphasis on social cohesion, equality of opportunity and equity of outcome as it does on economic growth. This creates opportunities and challenges for all of us, including us at SCF, but it is possible to build back better if we want to.

Change happens at the speed of trust; trust is the currency of community.

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