In October 2020, we released the interim findings from our Coordination in place project, which aims to investigate and share learning around place-based local action during the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past six months, we have been working closely with local community coordinators in Buckinghamshire, Coventry and Sutton to learn how ways of working and attitudes to collaboration have shifted during the crisis.
We have heard about increased levels of trust and collaboration between organisations and sectors in these three areas, but these positive developments may be under threat as the crisis continues to reduce work-capacity and resources. Our coordinators have shared with us their proposed next steps and asks for charities, funders and commissioners, in the hope that these will help maintain and improve collaboration during 2021.
Asks for charities
Going forward, it is important for charities to ensure collaboration is focused and strategic where possible. Buckinghamshire County Council’s Recovery Board, which is comprised of council officers and voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) leaders, is looking for ways to move beyond high-level conversations. One possible way to achieve this is by developing smaller, thematic subgroups to tackle topics in depth—the subgroups would include representatives from a wide range of charities and they would report back to the main recovery board. This would also help to spread the administrative load across more people, helping to avoid burnout. Buckinghamshire coordinator Jenifer Cameron, Chief Executive at Action4Youth, is also keen to see local charities establish strong, durable links with other key sectors such as the business and health sectors. This would involve charities in more key discussions with decision-makers, and would ensure the most effective solutions are developed to tackle community-wide issues.
Coordinators in both Buckinghamshire and Sutton also identified a need for charities and partners to collect data and evidence about local needs, provision and impact. Mapping exercises can highlight gaps and duplication in service provision, whilst a better understanding of local needs may help charities to realign their mission and strategy. Sutton coordinator Alison Navarro, outgoing Chief Executive of Community Action Sutton, warned against the assumption that mergers can always be useful for reducing duplication within the sector. As well as risking damage to small, innovative charities that bring fresh ideas to the sector, conversations about mergers also run the risk of neglecting the nuances of specialist organisations, particularly those providing services to marginalised communities.
Asks for funders
Across all three areas, we have seen some common themes emerge in regard to funders. VCSE leaders are keen to see an increase in core funding, with fewer short-term spending deadlines, to allow for more strategic, long-term planning. Funders should also consider increasing opportunities for local organisations that are embedded in their communities—larger organisations are less likely to understand local needs or hold the local relationships necessary to deliver effective solutions.
In terms of funding processes, charities would like to see the improved coordination between funders continue, in order to reduce duplication and to ensure the most strategic decisions are made about who or what to fund. They would also like to see more feedback given on unsuccessful funding bids: funding applications can be time-intensive and it can be difficult for smaller organisations to learn without feedback. Finally, we’ve learnt that funders could be more flexible in allowing charities to decide the best methods for achieving outcomes. Local charities will know what approaches work best for their particular communities.
Asks for commissioners
We have also heard some common asks for commissioners, in particular local authorities. The first of these is around making commissioning processes more transparent. Charity leaders may lose trust in local authorities if these processes remain unclear. Charities should be involved in co-designing programme tenders, rather than merely being brought in at the procurement stage, and they should be seen as strategic partners as well as delivery partners.
Secondly, commissioners should invite local organisations that are embedded in the community to apply for bids. Local organisations are sometimes unaware of existing tenders, while large national charities are invited to bid.
Thirdly, many charities have found that while demand and the complexity of issues have increased, their own resources are increasingly strained. Commissioners should therefore consider whether the funding being offered is proportional to increased demand, as charities cannot afford to be as flexible with resources as they were in the first wave of the crisis.
Asks for those working with communities
The need to embed genuine community participation in all organisations that work with communities, and in the wider charity sector, has been raised by coordinators in all three areas. In each area, local authorities are attempting to improve traditional consultation approaches with more participatory ones—for example, Buckinghamshire County Council has begun to establish 16 new community boards, which aim to give communities a real voice in shaping local decision-making. In Coventry, the council is working with a group of Coventry-based charity leaders (the Communities Pillar) to improve community participation and involve local organisations in strategic decision-making. In Sutton, a place-working pilot is being tested in a small community, St Helier, and has been developed using Asset-Based Community Development principles.
However, all three of our coordinators have highlighted potential challenges and barriers to community involvement. Coventry coordinator Jane Moffat, Early Help Manager at Coventry City Council, feels there has been a tension between the council’s desire to devolve power to communities and its concerns around resourcing and accountability.
As we enter the third national lockdown in England, it is important for organisations that work with communities and the wider charity sector to consider how they engage communities and resist the urge to reinstate traditional, top-down approaches to decision-making. By involving communities in tackling challenges, charities and organisations that work with communities can ultimately deliver more effective local solutions and maintain and improve collaboration during 2021.