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From isolation to opportunity – my story of adapting to Covid

What a surreal eerie time the last eight months have been and I can’t say I’m getting more used to it.  As an academic and Director of the Irish Institute for Catholic Studies (IICS), a tiny organisation based in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, the changes Covid-19 has brought to my work and personal life have been enormous – just like for everyone else. It’s so counterintuitive not to reach out to people; my kids’ grandad is 90 and they haven’t hugged him in nine long months.

 

At the beginning, my work life seemed frozen and still. My desk in the third-level college where I worked was deserted and eight months later remains untouched, exactly as I left it at the end of March. The plans I had been making evaporated overnight. The IICS was about to host a Seminar on Sikhism with the City Council and months of work was cancelled in minutes. A public exhibition of images due to be launched the week of lockdown is now lost between hope and memory. The virus pulled the plug on the schedule of public face-to-face lectures we’d planned for 2020, on various seminars and fieldtrips with students and forthcoming conferences. I was reeling and perplexed. That feeling of isolation and solitude wasn’t good. I imagined that I’d just have to do desk-based research until the virus was gone. It was deeply shocking to be so powerless overnight and for all certainties to be erased.

That feeling of isolation and solitude wasn’t good.

As the weeks dragged on I was offered an opportunity for support from IVAR – to chat to a small group of people in the UK who were leading organisations and charities. The initial meeting online with the group of 9 or so people was a real turning point for me. In the first meeting we all spoke about our work, our reactions to Covid and how we were trying to lead our organisations. I was amazed to hear dynamic, energetic peers speak of the adaptations they had already made to continue their vital work. Charities serving people in crisis could not pause. The peer session was conversational, natural, easy, honest and profound. The participants were passionate about their organisations. They showed ingenuity and creativity in the way they quickly adapted their diverse practices, supported their staff, addressed the acute needs of the people they served, all while socially distanced or online in accordance with government regulations.

The peer session was conversational, natural, easy, honest and profound. 

Prior to this peer mentoring I had never heard of any of these amazing organisations and I’m certain they had never heard of mine! Yet these regular monthly peer sessions became a real opportunity for solidarity and a window into a world of possibility. People were honest about their worries, the financial strain, and their fears. In those sessions we spoke spontaneously about day-to-day matters that arose as the pandemic continued to unfold. The need to keep going despite huge challenges, the pros and cons of working from home, the difficulties of connecting with and meeting the urgent needs of people in the community, the challenge of keeping positive and focused when energy levels and morale is low, the immediate need to access funding. Even the things that kept us awake at night. Pretty quickly I realised that Covid was a watershed. There was no going back. As the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus wisely noted, nobody can step into the exact same place in a river twice. The old ways were gone.

I realised that Covid was a watershed. There was no going back.

In the early days of lockdown I hadn’t used technology very much at all. Zoom and Teams were not my best friends. Skype was a rare feature in my life. Through learning from my peers in the IVAR group, I began to see the possibilities for changing my thinking about my organisation and my role within its development. A pivotal moment was when I heard one leader speak of the importance of providing confidential counselling online and of the potency of technology to support life-saving online dialogue with people who were vulnerable and isolated during Covid. As I listened to others speak of the ways they’d adapted their schedules and repurposed their budgets, it led me to a complete flip.  I’d been viewing Covid as this terrible threat. During the conversations with my IVAR peer group, I began to grasp that this new Covid-time could also be seen as an opportunity. I could see the potential of trying to contribute something positive to the transformed world. The challenge was to see if there were new and creative ways to do what I once did, albeit very differently.

During the conversations with my IVAR peer group, I began to grasp that this new Covid-time could also be seen as an opportunity. 

Technology has meant that the IICS cannot only continue our work but that we can focus on growing it for a new world. We are hosting our events online and have a new schedule for the autumn semester. We have people joining our events from across the UK, Uganda, the South of France, the USA, Ethiopia to name just a few. In June, instead of cancelling our annual retreat with the Benedictine monks in Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, we decided to move it online. It was a lot of work, but we got 5 times the number of participants we normally have on the day (250 instead of 50) and we also recorded the event so that people can still access it.

 

We all know that the pandemic has brought so many negatives. However, it has also given us great opportunities if we stay positive and try to be flexible. As John Henry Newman said ‘to live is to change’. We are working on making the most of the changes Covid has visited on us in the belief that this time is precious. We can survive and we can thrive.

 


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Six ways VCSE leaders are adapting to Covid-19

Over the past 11 weeks, we’ve hosted peer support sessions for over 180 VCSE leaders across the UK. We’re publishing regular briefings about the challenges they are facing; we’ve also heard much about how these are being overcome.

In celebration of Small Charity Week, we wanted to share six ways in which VCSE leaders are adapting.

  1. Actively managing staff and volunteer welfare, by encouraging them to:

 

  • Take some time off
  • Build self-care into the working day
  • Find opportunities for social connection (e.g. daily quizzes, sharing a favourite book or photo weekly)
  • Keep a diary
  • Adopt a more flexible working pattern
  • Introduce a buddy system across the team to ensure people have someone they can check-in with regularly

 

In cases where staff have been furloughed, finding ways to include them so that they remain motivated and are aware of key organisational decisions/changes:

 

  • Inviting them to take part in remote team meetings
  • Rotating furloughed staff to reduce the emotional impact of not being at work
  • Swapping furloughed staff between peer organisations for skill sharing and volunteering purposes – informally or through Furlonteer, which has been set up to connect furloughed staff with charities who need their expertise and time

 

  1. Setting boundaries

Continuity of service provision – now or when restrictions ease – is the intended goal for most organisations, along with responding to the increasing needs of their beneficiaries. However, VCSE leaders are trying to set clear parameters when it comes to service adaptation to ensure they do not step too far away from their original mission, and that they have the appropriate capacity and skills to deliver: ‘Focus on what you’re good at and do as much of it as you can’.

 

For some, this is clear cut. Others are finding themselves ‘tip-toeing’ into new or altered activities (e.g. evening and weekend shifts), leading to deeper questions about organisational boundaries and, at times, the need to review charitable objectives: ‘We had one trustee say “you can’t do that”.  But we said “we have to do this to support people”. This might be something people have to think about – changing charitable objects’.

 

  1. Scenario planning

 

As things remain unclear and are constantly changing, many leaders are turning to scenario planning as a way of fulfilling their dual role of strategist and visionary. This ensures that long-term implications are being acknowledged without committing to a particular course of action, continuing to ‘take each day as it comes’

 

‘It’s important to not be over-planning for the future as we are still in uncertain times. Planning for what’s important for now, and what’s pointless for now is also as important.’

 

  1. Working together

Leaders are recognising that, by coming together to collaborate with partners, they can effectively coordinate services and strengthen the sector’s voice to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on organisations, communities and individuals:   

 

‘A natural reaction is to focus internally, but from experience, partnership working is a lifeline and will keep us afloat.’

 

 ‘All of this needs to be done with the thinking and humility that we’re all in the same boat and none of us have the perfect answer.’

 Examples include:

 

  • Signposting to alternate provision
  • Advocating for the needs of particular groups (e.g. the homelessness sector working with the Greater London Authority to address housing need)
  • Supporting people who they wouldn’t usually, because they know that the organisation who normally does this is inundated

 

  1. Listening

Some are investing time in actively listening to the changing needs of their beneficiaries, either through specific surveys or via ad hoc interactions.  This intelligence is being used to help shape organisations’ own responses as well as to ‘actually see what’s happening so that we have some data we can go back to government with … and say “some of the solutions you need to put in place are xyz”’.

 

  1. Talking to funders

VCSE leaders are having honest, open conversations with funders about what can and can’t be delivered, and what impact this will have on outcomes for existing grants and contracts.  While much of this has been initiated and enabled by funders themselves, it feels important to note the courage and clarity it requires from VCSE leaders to be able to make these decisions, and to articulate what is possible when under extreme pressure.

 

__________

 

For the foreseeable future, VCSE leaders will be called on to continually review and reshape their work – in line with shifting government guidance and increasing understanding of what existing and prospective beneficiaries need: ‘No one knows how to feel or respond at the moment. There is no right or wrong way to support people’.

 

In this context, VCSE leaders are remaining steadfast: holding their nerve; making clear, resolute decisions; balancing optimism with realism; and doing everything possible to protect the welfare and motivation of their workforce to ensure they can continue to deliver high quality – albeit slightly altered – services to those who need them most.