Think Impact director Suzi Young explains why the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for the community sector to take centre stage in rebuilding our society for the better.
COVID-19 has not only exposed deficiencies in our immune systems, it has also exposed inequalities and vulnerabilities in our social fabric like nothing before it. The community sector has a critical role to play in responding to the crisis, but the crisis has revealed the varying capacity in the sector to respond.
In a short time, we have observed some incredibly creative actions, from hyperlocal neighbourhood activities to virtual connections forged across borders, seas and cultures. At the same time, the resilience of many systems and organisations has been challenged to the core. While some community organisations are stepping up and thriving, others are struggling with the uncertainty and change.
If you lead a community organisation, you may be facing threats to your very existence at a time when your services are most needed. Perhaps you’ve had to stop your activities because you can no longer deliver programs face-to-face. Perhaps your systems make it difficult for your staff to work from home. Perhaps your volunteers have dropped away because of the need for physical distancing. Will your programs continue to be funded? How can you make decisions amid all the uncertainty? How will your organisation survive? What now?!
Regional changemaker thriving with focus, flexibility
One organisation we’ve worked with closely for more than eight years is embracing the opportunities. The Horsham-based Centre for Participation in Victoria’s west has a mission to change lives and communities by creating local opportunities in community support, volunteering, learning and partnerships.
These days that work spans meeting basic needs, creating and strengthening social connections, and building skills – all of which contribute to the centre’s positive impact.
This is not the first time the Centre for Participation has adapted. Under the leadership of CEO Julie Pettett, the centre has evolved from Wimmera Volunteers, providing activities associated with volunteering, into a thriving hub of community activity.
Think Impact’s work with the centre has identified some of the strengths that set this organisation apart from others that are finding it harder to adapt to sudden change.
Importantly, the centre defines itself by why it exists, not what it does. The “why” hasn’t wavered in the face of COVID-19, so the organisation has found it relatively easy to change the “what”. Further, its leaders are courageous, and its people are empowered. In contemporary management-speak, “they really know their why”.
“Obviously many of our existing face-to-face activities are restricted and needed to change (but) we are not afraid to try something new!” Ms Pettett explains.
Centre exists to create connections, meet local needs
The Centre for Participation exists to create social connection, so volunteers have been redeployed from visiting homes to providing “phone trees” – calling vulnerable and isolated members of the community and giving them the skills and tools to call others.
Mimicking the spread of the virus, each community member connects (rather than “infects”) three or four others. New volunteers are being inducted remotely (this used to be a face-to-face activity) and the organisation is still observing all of the checks and balances required for safe volunteering within the COVID-19 restrictions.
The organisation is also responsive to community needs. Recently, food security was identified as the top local concern. That worry was even greater than the fear of catching the coronavirus, which ranked fourth in assessments.
With its kitchen infrastructure the centre has been able to provide access to cheap, nutritious, home-delivered meals, supporting the community by meeting these basic needs.
But to maximise their impact, staff and volunteers do more than just prepare and deliver meals. They take their time with people. They know that there is an opportunity to create value with every interaction, whether that’s receiving an order for a meal or reading a menu aloud. The meals are prepared in a social enterprise kitchen that employs people who are passionate about food and have experienced barriers to employment. The kitchen is a place for inclusive employment and participation, for building people’s confidence and skills.
In the face of the challenges some families have experienced in accessing fresh food, the organisation has ramped up this service (amid additional safety requirements), rather than winding it down.
In recent years, the centre has also added new assets which have added to its capabilities. These include a building, vehicles, a commercial kitchen and café, and a new mobile food van. Access to this infrastructure gives the centre greater autonomy and the ability to better respond to community needs.
For example, over Easter, the centre parked its food van outside the local hospital to provide coffee and home-baked goods for front-line health workers.
Centre works to build cohesion
As part of its mission to build social cohesion, it is battling the threat of xenophobia by finding ways to celebrate diversity among volunteers.
Led by ‘Young G’, a group of young migrants produced handwritten notes to share with members of the community to let them know they are not alone. On Anzac Day, they distributed 40 hand-crocheted poppies and homemade Anzac biscuits to volunteers in the district.
Similarly, the group provides health information in languages other than English to explain the new COVID-19 restrictions. It has worked with these communities to identify what they need to comply with the lockdown restrictions, and has even been sourcing bulk supplies of goods previously obtained from Melbourne to stop the need for unnecessary travel.
Like many organisations, it has been providing learning materials online, and it is helping employees with the skills and technology they need to work from home.
Throughout it all, Ms Pettett says, there’s a common thread.
“Social resilience is all about connectedness … we are all in this together. We are regularly talking to our networks, sharing and learning from each other.”
And that focus will remain, with the organisation looking to a future where it remains a central part of the community.
“We will continue to be responsive to our community and our community will be stronger. When this is over, we will celebrate new and strengthened relationships,” Ms Pettett says.
So, why the difference in responses?
As a social impact practitioner, I have been a keen observer of impact-led decision making in action. For some that process has been “supercharged” during the coronavirus crisis.
To be impact-led is to be clear about your “why?” and about who you exist for. An organisation with that in mind is responsive and empowered to act for purpose. This approach can help business, government, philanthropic and for-purpose organisations to solve problems, innovate, perform better and create lasting value.
The Centre for Participation has demonstrated many of the key characteristics of an impact-led organisation, particularly through this crisis.
Think Impact is working with the centre on research funded by the Department of Social Services. The study will examine the role of volunteer engagement in social cohesion, with a report due in late 2020.
Think Impact hosts a team of specialists in social impact measurement, evaluation, stakeholder engagement and strategic impact-led design. The certified B Corp provides industry, government and for-purpose organisations with analysis and communication of their social impact.
This article is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.