Covid-19 has caused exceptional upheaval, bringing unprecedented changes to how we live, work and think. The implications for the voluntary sector as a whole and for individual voluntary and community organisations are considerable. Many have seen the need for their services rise massively, while some income sources have dried up overnight, and established ways of working have no longer been possible. As a DCMS Committee Report on the Covid-19 crisis and charities highlighted ‘Many charities perform vital work supporting the vulnerable in society. Their contribution is needed now more than ever… […] Yet many charities are fighting for survival.’ In rising to the challenge, organisations have been adapting and working together in ways that previously did not seem possible.  

In amongst all this, voluntary sector leaders are having to make sense of the rapidly changing context and adapt their practices and behaviours accordingly. It feels more difficult to take the time to think, but perhaps also more important than ever to reflect on the changes that are taking place now, how they differ from those in the past, and what they might mean for the future.

To this end, the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham has been working in partnership with BVSC to use findings from our ESRC-funded Change in the Making research with Sheffield Hallam University to stimulate discussion, reflection, sharing of experience and learning amongst voluntary sector leaders in Birmingham. Change in the Making involved us working closely with a small group of case study organisations over a period of ten years, generating a unique study of change within the voluntary sector. We think that the study can offer useful insights for voluntary organisations during the current crisis, while also learning from the experience of voluntary sector leaders who have been at the forefront responses to the pandemic. Our study has demonstrated the ongoing nature of change in the third sector: change is not the exception, but the rule. It is increasingly apparent, however, that the scale of change currently being experienced, in multiple dimensions, is exceptional.

When we first met with a group of Birmingham’s voluntary sector leaders in January we could never have imagined the scale of change on the horizon. We have now met several times, latterly online, with a range of organisations from across the city. Three particular themes have emerged from our discussions:

1.  Now, soon, one day: Organisational change

There is an emerging body of evidence which is highlighting the pace and scale of organisational change occurring within the third sector and the challenges and opportunities which this is creating. Talk of both the sector’s agility and its fragility abound in equal measure. Pro-bono Economics’ Covid charity tracker survey reported in June that 58% of charities had ‘reduced activity in a significant way’ and 90% foresaw a negative impact of Covid-19 on their ability to deliver on objectives in next 6 months. IVAR’s regular Covid-19 Briefings have highlighted the key concerns of VCS leaders, which have included significant anxiety about mid to long term funding; staff welfare; anxiety from staff about the return to delivering front line services; having to think about ways of being more flexible  in terms of working practices but also through collaborations, new services and new approaches; and trying to work out how much energy to put into longer term strategy when things are so uncertain.

In our early sessions we heard about challenges facing organisations in thinking through how best to reorganise activities that were previously face to face; how stressful it could be for frontline staff who were used to being ‘hands on’ and had to quickly move to completely new ways of working; and how leaders had to provide reassurance to their staff, volunteers and service users, whilst also dealing with their own anxieties about how best to proceed in a fluid and uncertain context. We also heard about the incredible energy that was generated in ensuring that services were reconfigured to meet changing needs. As time has gone on fatigue has set in, but also a growing sense of acceptance of uncertainty and change, and a confidence in the ability of third sector organisations to navigate it.

2.  Trusted collaborations: Changing relationships within the voluntary and community sector

Emerging evidence is suggesting the responses to Covid-19 have seen different parts of the sector working together in new ways. As The Relationships Project reported “The most comprehensive and successful social responses have been highly collaborative and the best collaborations have emerged in areas where there were pre-existing structures and relationships”. A focus on meeting need, rather than on organisational requirements or positions, has perhaps enabled collaboration.

Whilst never without difficulty, we heard of strengthening partnerships across the voluntary and community sector in Birmingham, which went wider and deeper than previously, and a growing sense that we are ‘all paddling in the same direction’. The urgency of the situation, combined with clear leadership and establishment of both locality based and thematically organised strategic alliances, had enabled a more open dialogue, greater sharing of information, and a building (back) of trust. This, it was suggested, was helping to overcome what were competitive tendencies of the past, exacerbated by previous commissioning practices (something that we have heard a lot about during our research).

3.  All hands on deck: Changing strategic relationships

Evidence is mixed as to how Covid-19 has affected strategic relationships between the voluntary sector, the state and others. While some have suggested that there has been a re-valuing of the role of voluntary action, and that voluntary and community organisations have been seen as essential cogs of connection’ between individuals, services, and multiple layers of response, others have suggested that government saw the voluntary sector as an irrelevance’ at least in the early days of the pandemic. Elsewhere, we have suggested that a ‘partnership of necessity’ has developed between voluntary action and the state, but that this emerges from a period of antagonistic collaboration’. Experience, it seems, varies. The approach adopted by individual local authorities can be ‘make or break’.

Within Birmingham we heard of mixed experiences. Some felt that relationships had improved between voluntary and statutory bodies through the crisis, facilitated by the structures that had been put in place to coordinate responses across the city. Most felt that there was still room for improvement as voluntary organisations still ‘weren’t sitting equally around the table’. Differences in approach between the Combined Authority, the City Council and individual commissioners were pointed to. And for some it was a case of ‘we’ll do our best work despite not because of them’.  There was hope, however, that stronger working relationships and a growing sense of confidence within the sector would in time lead to greater power to influence and in turn more equal relationships with statutory bodies in the future. Time, of course, will tell!

Blog authors: Angela Ellis Paine, Rob Macmillan and Sophie Wilson