Our Rural Coffee Caravan CEO, Ann Osborn, reflects on the community response and position of small charities through and beyond the Covid-19 crisis. Finding new ways to work, the challenge of looking after your teams, relationships around governance, working collaboratively, and sustaining connection – vital, precious connection.

I love Suffolk. Who wouldn’t? Huge skies, beautiful countryside, fabulous food producers, so much creativity, it’s a wonderful county to live in. And, if we didn’t already know it, it turns out its greatest asset is its people!

On March 23rd life as we know it changed overnight into a life of isolation and disconnection for an unspecified length of time. It was disconcerting at best and very frightening at worst but the response was nothing short of incredible. Community Action Suffolk was overwhelmed with people wanting to volunteer in their own communities and literally hundreds of hubs and Good Neighbour Schemes were up and running in the blink of an eye. The Suffolk Community Foundation amassed an emergency fund from seemingly out of thin air and turned grants around within days. Councils, the East of England Co-op and others also offered emergency financial help. It was a stunning response.

But that wasn’t all, not by a long shot.

The surge of neighbourliness we have seen has been heart-warming. Basic every day, over the fence style neighbourliness. People saying hello to each other on the street when taking their daily exercise, neighbours pulling up fence panels and having socially distanced cuppas from the safety of their own gardens, furloughed people getting to know their neighbours for the first time, children filling windows with rainbows, streets turning the weekly clapping into a community event, telephone trees and WhatsApp groups set up to include everyone. And the beauty of this, and its strength, is the reciprocity; everyone can do something, even if it’s just a smile and a nod. It’s all connection, vital precious connection.

“…when we talk of building stronger relationships being a positive outcome of this crisis, the relationships around governance are right up there.”

Lockdown is easing and we are seemingly taking faltering steps back into the world but nothing is certain, so what now for our sector?

Charities and community groups sprang into action to adapt their services to meet demand but across our county, many are facing the challenge of maintaining, adapting or trying to increase, their level of activity in the face of potentially devastating financial problems. Losing income means reaching into reserves just to keep going right now, but that has implications longer term. Charities that have tried to find alternative income streams in the name of sustainability, e.g. donations, retail income, charity auctions etc have seen those disappear too.

On top of this, for smaller charities, especially those with no employed staff, there is not the capacity, to address the here and now AND look to the future. They are run off their feet trying to support the people who need their services and whilst totally understandable, it’s very risky long term. Hannah Reid from Community Action Suffolk has highlighted that many do not have a business continuity plan and certainly do not have the time to write one right now. Trustees and  committees with commercial experience will be needing to step up to guide their charities through this; and when we talk of building stronger relationships being a positive outcome of this crisis, the relationships around governance are right up there.

The important thing is not to be so focused on delivery that addressing income problems is left too late.

“We simply cannot let this incredible surge in neighbourliness and community spirit disappear…”

For all of us, trying to plan when we really don’t have a full and steady picture to work with, is both challenging and tiring. Finding new ways to work, assessing what can be dropped, what has to be adapted, what may have to go permanently has an emotional price too. We are all so passionate about what we do and so dedicated, that none of us want to shelve any aspects of our work. Then there is the challenge of looking after our teams through this crisis. Working at home may mean you can live in your pjs but it’s lonely too. Office camaraderie, the brainstorming and the banter are all important aspects of our working day.  Zoom, Teams, Slack (and who thinks up these names anyway?) are great but many of us are now talking about being ‘zoomed out’ and believe me that’s a real thing! Nothing beats regular face to face connection in any relationship, including work.

So let’s look again at the positives.

We simply cannot let this incredible surge in neighbourliness and community spirit disappear because these reciprocal relationships are what will sustain us in the future. People need to be needed, it’s part of what make us human, so we also need to hold on to and continue to inspire, the huge numbers of volunteers that have stepped up to help their fellow citizens in the past few months. This sense of togetherness also pertains to our working relationships; we are seeing far more collaborative working and we need more of this, more partnerships and less duplication. A huge part of the learning when we look back must surely be that we are better together on so many levels and potentially have a far greater beneficial impact when we understand how much more capable and dynamic this unity makes us.

“We need people to understand just how important our charities are…”

So how do we move forward?  Well firstly we have to look at what we realistically can do that is of benefit right now. Pare down to basics but press pause on other aspects, leaving them ready to resurrect as soon as possible. Decide if the adaptations we’ve made can become permanent without harming our offer and then formalise our ‘phoenix plans’ to be ready for funding applications. Most of us, if not all, will have spoken to our funders in the past few months to understand the expectations on both sides. We must keep doing this. We need our funders to trust us to do our absolute best in what is still an evolving situation. A good relationship with a funder is of paramount importance and never more so than now.

Our sector has been very high profile throughout this crisis and there is a real opportunity to build on that and increase public awareness of the vital role we play. Charity, in some form of other, will have had an impact on most of us in our lives, either directly or indirectly and it has so often been taken for granted. We need to change that. We need people to understand just how important our 5000+ local charities are, how hard they work and how vital that work is. We must use all platforms open to us to do this whilst also finding ways to increase the understanding of the business and statutory sectors, of what we actually do and why it matters so very much. We just can’t lose any of our charities.

Did you know that 78% of local giving leaves Suffolk and goes to the top 3% of national charities? It’s shocking but it’s true and many donors don’t realise that this happens. We need to make people understand that if you want your money to work locally, then it must be given locally.  A simple internet search will bring up lists of Suffolk based charities related to a huge cross section of need. Consider Suffolk Community Foundation’s Rebuilding Local Livesappeal A very important campaign to deliver more local giving to theSuffolk Coronavirus Community Fund, set up to support charities across Suffolk through these challenging times.  There is so much work to do right across our county as we move forward and this way you know your gift will go to work in Suffolk helping the local charities that need it most.

“Suffolk’s greatest asset is its people…”

At Rural Coffee Caravan we absolutely believe we are better together. We have always welcomed working in partnership with other bodies, voluntary and statutory and most important of all, being a catalyst to help rural residents be the change they want to see in their communities. So we readily joined The Connection Coalition set up by the Jo Cox Foundation, AgeUK, Mind, Nesta and others. The Coalition is growing fast with over 400 members already, with growing numbers subscribing to their #CommUNITYmakesus campaign. They have created a toolkit for each member to share across its platforms and I urge every charity to sign up, download their toolkit and make this voice louder because together we can build a better, more compassionate future.

As they say, “The UK will be a changed country as a result of COVID-19, but it will have changed for the better if people continue to build and strengthen the connections within society that bind us together……..It’s a chance to build stronger, kinder better-connected communities. It’s a change we need, not just now, in the worst of times, but always’.

For us at RCC that means ALL connection, family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, collaborative partners, everyone! And this brings me back to my first point, Suffolk’s greatest asset is its people, we’ve got this and together we are going to capture this spirit, this willingness, preserve it and celebrate it!

Written by Ann Osborn