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What good looks like: Example of cross-sector working in Pennine

In Lancashire and South Cumbria, Pennine Lancashire is often cited as an example of good practice in cross-sector working in the design and delivery of health and care services. It is a health and care improvement programme led by health, public sector and voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise sector (VCFSE) colleagues to improve the health and care system in Pennine Lancashire. Here we reflect on what we have learnt from our experiences of collaborating on this programme, in particular around the social prescribing agenda. We recognise that we haven’t got everything right yet, and much work is still to be done, but we hope that by sharing our experience it will contribute to wider discussions about what it means to develop meaningful cross-sector collaboration.

Over time, VCFSE and health sector colleagues in East Lancashire have developed a way of working that shows how being well positioned in the community and having good relationships enables a strong foundation. This has been highlighted in our social prescribing approach that supports people to make changes that improve their own health. The key enablers have been:

1. History of shared working

Our relationships have been solid for a long time and are well embedded. In order to be effective, local structures – e.g. Neighbourhood Teams – and programmes of work – e.g. The Better Care Fund and Community Safety Partnerships – required good partnership working. In such collaborations the voluntary sector feels like an equal partner and, while there is variation from region to region, overall, the sector feels they are sitting at the right tables. This has created a movement of cross-sector partnerships to support the health and social care agenda. We see the VCFSE sector as strong, thriving, flexible, open and passionate about local people and supporting them.

2. Motivation to form relationships

It comes down to our sheer determination not to be left behind. For us in the VCFSE sector, it has always been about the determination to deliver. ‘If we say we’ll do it, no matter the blood, sweat and tears, we’ll make sure it is done so that nobody can come back and say you didn’t do what you said you’d do’.

3. Strong local infrastructure

Structures like Primary Care Neighbourhoods (PCNs) and Integrated Neighbourhood Teams (INTs) have been key. They support integration and provide a space for the VCFSE to demonstrate what they can deliver, as well as reversing the challenge of primary care not knowing or understanding what the sector delivers. The PCNs and INTs were also key to making sure the voices of both large and small organisations were heard. There was a conscious decision to use the word ‘neighbourhoods’ as it conveys a ‘network plus’ approach, meaning it goes beyond just a network to involve communities and neighbourhoods in health and care conversations. Operationally, VCFSE partners are embedded in those structures, enabling the sector to have a strategic voice.

4. Having a common goal

We have tried to move toward being a whole system rather than individual organisations with separate goals. We also recognise that it is important to allow space for different roles within the common goal, and for each person to see how they fit together in the mosaic of things. For example, the VCFSE sector is better placed to engage with communities and understand their priorities, while the PCNs provide structures for better communication. However, everyone must also have sight of the bigger picture and understand how these different roles fit together.

5. Open and flexible commissioning

We have seen what happens when commissioning is open and flexible. Our ambition is to grow this approach, allowing the sector to do what it does best, without being heavy-handed and prescriptive. Two factors that have enabled this way of commissioning are:

  • Involving the VCFSE at a strategic level: Political leadership has supported decisions to involve the VCFSE sector in strategic decision-making.

  • Honest communication: Being transparent and sharing challenges; for example, the potential impact of cuts to public funding. 

6. Getting the relationship right with Primary Care Neighbourhoods (PCNs): 

While the above enablers have helped, when we started working with PCNs, VCFSE colleagues didn’t always feel their voice was represented. However, we were able to build on existing relationships with the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and local authority, and the appointment of Social Prescribing Link Workers has enabled better links into services that can provide support. As the PCNs and partnership working has grown, Clinicians and PCN Clinical Directors are also visibly more involved than they were at the start, and this provides a focus to our relationships and a central contact point in a PCN (that avoids us trying to contact many busy GPs). These relationships feed into the Primary Care Neighbourhood structures, making the connections easier and communication more efficient.

Next steps

The picture is positive, but there is always room for improvement and more that still needs to be done to enable our partnerships to do more. Having made progress, we now need to ensure that the following areas of progress are maintained and strengthened:

  • Continuing to involve VCFSE colleagues at an earlier stage: We’d like to continue to see VCFSE colleagues brought in right at the beginning of the local programme or issue that we’re seeking to respond to, rather than partway through.

  • Increased understanding of breadth and quality of activities delivered by the VCFSE: There remains a risk that the VCFSE sector is seen only as delivering ‘lower level’ activities when there are many high-end services they deliver for vulnerable people and those with complex needs.

  • Increased representation for smaller organisations: With different models in place across the area and small organisations delivering high-end services for vulnerable communities, social prescribing is central to joining up health priorities with the voluntary sector. Social prescribing makes sure that smaller organisations are brought into discussions and there is equity at the table. It is important to ensure better resources are included for them in strategic level discussions. Having a good structure in place will help with engagement, making sure the voices of small organisations are heard.   

  • Continuing to make the best use of the VCFSE role at PCN meetings: It is important, more now than ever, to think about a way of partnership working that sees collaboration between the health and VCFSE sector within prevailing structures in the system is more involved. This way can demonstrate what the VCFSE sector can deliver so that those acting as sector representatives are supported more proactively, and can use these places and forums well to maximise the opportunity.

  • Maintaining a shared vision: With the PCNs taking a role in decision making around priorities, action planning and partnership development, it is important to have a shared vision of what success looks like in communities.

What good looks like

What good looks like 1.
What good looks like 2.

Bringing together VCFSEs and PCNs 

In Lancashire and South Cumbria, statutory and voluntary sector professionals have been working together to design, test and deliver improved health outcomes for local people. IVAR, as a Learning Partner, have supported the Lancashire and South Cumbria Integrated Care System to create and sustain meaningful connections in hyper-local, cross-sector partnerships within the Integrated Care System (ICS), as a part of the Test, Learn & Review initiative. Read more about the work and access resources, here. [add link –  when Live] 


This blog was authored by the following individuals in the Healthier Pennine Lancashire partnership. Please contact them for more information about their work.  

  • Vicky Shepherd, Chief Executive, Age UK Blackburn with Darwen –

  • Angela Allen, CEO, Spring North – 

  • Elaine Barker, Chief Officer, Hyndburn & Ribble Valley Council for Voluntary Service –

  • Christine Blythe, NASP north West lead coordinator, Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale Council for Voluntary Service (BPRCVS)

  • Andrea Dixon, Integration & Neighbourhood Lead, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council – Andrea.Dixon@BLACKBURN.GOV.UK

  • Tim Birch, Community Support Unit Manager, Prevention, Neighbourhoods and Learning Service, Adult Services and Prevention Department, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council

How Chilli Studios were bold and experimented with tech

Chilli Studios shared their story with us for our latest report Response to change: how small voluntary organisations are using tech. Their case study shows how they use tech to monitor and evaluate the influence of their services. 

Chilli Studios aims to improve mental health through creativity. Based in Newcastle, they deliver services to people experiencing mental health difficulties and other forms of social exclusion: ‘We’re community focused… Art is the central tool but it’s about bringing people together and creating a strong community of support through creative activities… people get to a better place and form better relationships and have hope’.

Alongside developing a podcast and a wellbeing subscription inbox during Covid-19, Chilli has continued using technology to improve how they monitor and evaluate the influence of their services. At the outset, their objective was clear: ‘We wanted to develop a sense of whether we’re making a difference in people’s lives, and to some extent prove it’. Pre-Covid, they began to consider options for gathering data on how their users were experiencing their services and programmes.

Working with an IT specialist, they developed an app for service users to record their mental health and how they experience the service. This data is then fed into their existing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database. ‘We wanted to see how well people are progressing. For example, with creative writing [classes], are they showing improvements in their wellbeing? Not just saying ‘it’s good’ or ‘bad’, but to give us a sense of the benefits and its value. Then with that data, you can consider how to improve things and measure those improvements, and articulate that to funders’.

Each service user enters data into the app which is linked to their individual membership data on the CRM database, making data collection easier. While a small number of service users may show resistance to using the app and others will take time becoming comfortable with it, they are sure the app will become part of their everyday life.

The app will make a big difference to Chilli, helping them to understand how their services make a difference in the lives of their service users. Chilli also feels more confident about the future as the app is ‘making us ready for the future and the different kinds of needs we’ll have’.

What can other SVOs learn from Chilli Studios’ experience? ‘We have lots of big ideas… We could be throwing money into something that is a waste of time. So, my advice would probably be understanding what the need really is and researching it first’; ‘Collect in a simpler and often more powerful way.’

Response to change 

We’ve collated the findings from our report on our key insights page here, as well as links to download the full report. Visit it to find tips and advice for SVOs; more stories of SVOs embracing digital as a response to Covid; suggestions for how funders can support the use of tech, and challenges facing both SVOs and funders. 

Image credit: Meghan Schiereck on Unsplash

How Integrate UK are working towards digital inclusion

Integrate UK shared their story with us for our latest report Response to change: how small voluntary organisations are using tech. Their case study demonstrated how they have used tech to bring young people together virtually and creatively during Covid. 

Integrate is a youth-led charity based in Bristol. They aim to empower young people to actively transform the society they live in and to take an equal role in a cohesive and representative society. Topics the young people work on include racism, forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual harassment, extremism and homophobia. Tech is embedded into their work at Integrate; ‘Tech plays a huge role in opening access… It’s using all these tools to discuss sensitive, deeply engrained topics and empowering young people’.

Lockdown exacerbated inequalities: ‘Children we work with are faced with multiple socio-economic challenges as well as other challenges’. Some of the young people they work with didn’t have access to IT equipment: ‘We managed to secure a grant for 17 digital kits so that those young people who didn’t have equipment were able to engage’. Not only did the equipment help young people with their school education, but it also opened up access to an array of resources and services that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Knowing that young people had internet access, Integrate then offered a range of online activities. For example, weekly pastoral calls, online music recordings, adapting their school workshops to be delivered online, and online creative workshops. Integrate also launched a tutoring scheme: ‘We found university students and matched them up with young people’. One participant went from a 4 to a 9 (D to a high A*) and another went up two sets.

Integrate is seeing significant benefits from greater digital inclusion. Delivering their services online has enabled them to continue bringing young people together from different backgrounds: ‘Relationships form between the young people – from opposite ends of town, different races and backgrounds – all meeting on zoom as if they were old friends’.

A short animation by Integrate UK and their service users. It was developed over Zoom, with short, socially distanced shoots in the summer to introduce the young people before they became animated versions of themselves.

Knowing that they can overcome digital exclusion, Integrate plans to sustain the use of tech: ‘We will continue using Zoom as this means the workshops are more accessible to those who can’t come to the centre. There will now be the option of both: to join remotely or join the workshop in person. We’ve become more familiar and accustomed to using online platforms – that will never disappear’.

Response to change 

We’ve collated the findings from our report on our key insights page here, as well as links to download the full report. Visit it to find tips and advice for SVOs; more stories of SVOs embracing digital as a response to Covid; suggestions for how funders can support the use of tech, and challenges facing both SVOs and funders. 

How Saving Lives repurposed existing tech

Saving Lives shared their story with us for our latest report Response to change: how small voluntary organisations are using tech. Their case study shows how they repurposed their existing software to cater for a new need. 

Savings Lives is a national charity based in Birmingham, with an income of less than £0.5m in 2019. The charity aims to provide easy testing for blood-borne viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis. They aim to reduce the stigma around these tests and ensure the testing process is as uncomplicated as possible; ‘Tech is short circuiting the stigma and bringing accessibility’.

Saving Lives developed a software and database system that enabled service users to request a blood test kit online which is then delivered by post. The system manages all incoming tests, processes test results and delivers the test outcome to the service user. The software provides efficient and effective end-to-end management of the testing process.

When Covid-19 emerged, Saving Lives quickly realised that their software and database system could be repurposed to manage Covid testing programmes. ‘We had created a system for requesting postal tests and then delivering the results. The laboratory we worked with deals with public health issues. We repurposed the system to deliver their Covid screening programme. They needed something quick that they knew already worked with their lab systems. We flipped and moved quickly into that size of a thing… So, we’re a sexual health and blood-borne virus charity, but in the context of the pandemic, we switched to respiratory virus work in the context of Covid. It kept us busy but, at the same time, sexual health clinics have closed so some of our clients have increased their [online] tests 10 fold’.

Saving Lives found that the system they had developed for their own needs could be adapted to become an off-the-shelf system for someone else, exceeding their expectations of the software’s usefulness. ‘Our experience demonstrates that if you build a system to do a specific thing, it’s likely it will also be helpful for other things that are similar’. For the labs, the Saving Lives product was an established solution and was effective enough to run their Covid testing programmes: ‘We didn’t build a system that only did what we wanted it to do. We built a system that could do what other people might want it to do as well. It’s not a Swiss army knife, but it can be built in a variety of shapes’.

Response to change 

We’ve collated the findings from our report on our key insights page here, as well as links to download the full report. Visit it to find tips and advice for SVOs; more stories of SVOs embracing digital as a response to Covid; suggestions for how funders can support the use of tech, and challenges facing both SVOs and funders. 

How RASASC embraced a blended service model using tech

Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre (RASASC) North Wales shared their story with us for our latest report Response to change: how small voluntary organisations are using tech. Their case study shows how a blended service model supported their service users; they also share their plans for using digital to improve their reach.

RASASC is a support centre for victims of rape and sexual abuse. The charity offers specialist therapy, counselling and support to people who have experienced sexual abuse. The organisation has been running for over 35 years, with its main office based in Bangor and counselling outreach centres located across the whole of North Wales.

Before Covid-19, RASASC started piloting an online counselling service. North Wales is a large area with limited transport connectivity, so providing an online option helped RASASC reach more people. When Covid-19 restrictions were put in place, they continued developing their service, which included email support and online counselling. Although referral rates dropped at the beginning, it offered another access point for service users and limited possible disruptions to the therapeutic process’. RASASC sourced additional training and supervision for staff members to ensure that services could continue safely online.

Some of RASASC’s service users were initially reluctant to go online: ‘A lot of our clients deferred and wanted to wait for face-to-face again. Those who wanted to go online did and data suggests that they still experienced therapeutic benefits as those who accessed therapy face-to-face. Clients also reported that they benefitted therapeutically from our online therapeutic intervention. We then contacted those that had deferred after two months and most came back as they realised they wouldn’t be able to continue with face-to-face for some time – they also reported the positive benefits of RASASC online therapeutic intervention.’

At the same time, RASASC was aware of the limitations of online services. Not everyone in the region has the necessary computers and webcams at home, and some lack broadband and Wi-Fi access. There were also safeguarding issues to consider: ‘We had to stop our children’s work as it wasn’t ethical to continue working online with young children. We had to source funding to reconfigure our centre so we could continue face-to-face services with children and high-risk clients in a safe manner’.

A therapy room at RASASC North Wales.

A therapy room at RASASC North Wales.

RASASC plans to continue to offer both, with face-to-face delivery in the future: ‘We’ll be offering choice to clients moving forward, acknowledging the fact that both online and face-to-face delivery of services is of benefit for the organisation and, most importantly, our clients’. They are also challenging themselves to improve their services further by exploring online group therapy. In addition, they are looking at how they can use social media and online services to reach the hard-to-reach and marginalised survivors, such as male, LGBT and disabled clients.

Overall, RASASC has realised that digital has to go hand-in-hand with face-to-face service delivery: They have to coexist together’.

Response to change 

We’ve collated the findings from our report on our key insights page here, as well as links to download the full report. Visit it to find tips and advice for SVOs; more stories of SVOs embracing digital as a response to Covid; suggestions for how funders can support the use of tech, and challenges facing both SVOs and funders. 

Image credit: Christin Hume on Unsplash 

Summary of new briefing: Birds in a hurricane

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have spoken to over 1,000 voluntary organisations across our portfolio of research. In every conversation, whatever the focus, we have heard about how small charities, social enterprises and community groups have been coping and adapting.


Along the way, we have been capturing snapshots of the live situation through our regular briefing series, drawing specifically from our peer support sessions for voluntary sector leaders. We have been inspired by individuals, holding their teams and organisations together in the toughest of times. And we have reflected on how funders, in particular, could best support their efforts.


This latest briefing, however, draws material from a wider range of projects – most of which began before the pandemic hit. In early 2020, we were facilitating local, cross-sector health partnerships, and looking at how small charities were using technology, not knowing just how vital these already important and interesting fields would become.


We decided to explore how organisations have survived – and in some cases even thrived – since the pandemic began. And we share the things that we believe will help both voluntary organisations, and those who support them, to sustain and develop their contribution for the longer term.



Leading a small VCSE organisation is a tough job at the best of times: ‘As a CEO, you’re the HR department, the marketing department, the finance department, the operational manager and so on. It’s difficult managing all this and the staff’. But Covid-19 has turned the volume up right across the spectrum: ‘I feel like a bird in a hurricane!’.


Core Funding


Key pressures organisations have faced


  • Funding

  • Increasing/changing demand

  • Going online

  • Taking care of their teams

  • Leadership

Core Funding


Funding. Many funders worked hard to provide emergency funding that supported rapid responses, and to take a light-touch approach; but the pipeline for longer-term applications remains seriously disrupted. 

Core Funding


Increasing/changing demand. Many organisations uncovered new needs. Some transformed their services; others went into a holding pattern, providing what support they could from afar. The sense of never being able to do enough was profound: ‘People in need are falling off the radar’, ‘Our users don’t always cope well with change’. 

Core Funding


Going online. The shortcomings of ‘communicating on squares’ have become clear – from the loss of informal spaces, through to trying to support vulnerable service users, or even mediate conflict, virtually.

Core Funding


Taking care of their teams. The welfare of staff and volunteers has been a pressing concern. To begin with, staff often ‘threw their all into it’, but, as the weeks turned into months, leaders wondered how long staff could ‘survive this intensity’ and keep going.

Core Funding


Leadership. Leaders have had to make ‘tough decisions with no perfect answers’, like whether to develop, flex or close services. There have been multiple balancing acts, for example between the welfare of users and that of staff.

The past year has been a ‘story of extraordinary resilience and adaptation’; a rare, shared period of experimentation and taking risks; and a time when new possibilities and options have sprung up: ‘Learning from the crisis will stand us well in the future’.


So, what has helped VCSE organisations to stay afloat in a period of adversity?


Core Funding


What has it taken to keep going?


  • Collaboration

  • Taking care of staff and volunteers

  • Discovering new ways to connect

  • Responsible, supportive funders

  • Financial cushions

  • A space to share

Core Funding


Collaboration. The need for joined-up thinking’ was pressing. The sense of urgency and shared purpose dissolved many common obstacles. VCSE organisations worked together to share data and enable cross-referral; they felt valued in partnerships for their distinctive reach and contribution; and they found and used a stronger voice.

Core Funding


Taking care of staff and volunteers. From coffee mornings to candle making, leaders found ways to support their teams, and provide spaces for people to unload. Some used furlough funding in a supportive way to respond to individual circumstances; while others benefitted from experienced volunteers on furlough.

Core Funding


Discovering new ways to connect. Going online provided unexpected benefits for many – reaching new people, enabling new conversations, and hearing more diverse voices.

Core Funding


Responsible, supportive funders. Many funders shared risks, relaxed targets and reporting requirements and were active partners, saying: ‘We want you to be responsive to your community needs’.

Core Funding


Financial cushions. Where they had them, reasonable reserves or unrestricted income gave leaders some assurance as they regrouped.

Core Funding


A space to share. Leaders often talked about the isolation of their position. They valued opportunities to reflect, whether that was with their chair, trustees, an external coach (although most were reluctant to spend on support for themselves), or through peer support sessions.

It is clear that the pandemic has both stimulated new thinking and demonstrated the value and workability of approaches to funding and collaboration that VCSE organisations have been advocating for years. The intensity and visibility of need during Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of change, but its foundations feel fragile.


Core Funding


What next? 


We end with reflections on some key questions and challenges that both VCSE organisations and those who support them will need to consider if the transformative capacity of the voluntary sector is to be strengthened and developed to help meet the challenges ahead.

Core Funding


Judging progress. We will all need to learn how to work well with uncertainty – having the confidence to act on the basis of ‘what we think we know right now’, then to look critically at how that went and try to do better.


Embedding joined-up working. Can the collaboration, networks and the trust that have been established survive in the face of new challenges, lack of capacity, resumption of conventional roles and fierce competition for tight budgets?

Core Funding


Blended services and ways of working. We have learnt about the ways technology can help us to work more flexibly, but also about its limits. We will need to take a mixed approach – to how we work, collaborate, and provide services.


Making digital inclusion a reality. Many small VCSE organisations now have both the relationships and practical skills to reach communities so often left behind – but digital exclusion is a problem that needs to be tackled nationally.

Core Funding


New thinking about unrestricted funding and income diversification. Many small VCSE organisations had turned to trading and donations to achieve flexibility – but both have been hit hard by the pandemic. A greater shift to unrestricted funding is urgently needed. VCSE organisations can then focus on listening to their communities and implementing solutions based on what they need. 

Core Funding


Embedding a more responsive, agile, proportionate and trusting approach to funding. Anything that funders can do to lighten the fundraising and reporting load and to share the burden of risk makes an immediate and tangible difference to small VCSE organisations.


Organisational health and wellbeing. When resources are tight and demand is pressing, it can be hard to create time and space to ‘look after our people’. The pandemic has shown just how vital this time is.

Core Funding


Mutual aid. Many small VCSE organisations benefitted from the surge in community spirit at the outset of the pandemic. How can they retain volunteers and maintain good safeguards, while also avoiding disproportionate red tape, regulation and formalisation?


User voice. Small and medium-sized VCSE organisations have a distinctive and vital contribution to make to the debate over ‘what next?’. How can they best be supported in giving voice to their users? And how can their own contribution be kept in the public eye?  

We have all been affected by the pandemic. It has upended our lives, both at home and at work. Across our families and our organisations, we see exhausted and anxious faces. And the uncertainty isn’t over. At such a moment, there needs to be a premium on patience and kindness, and a concerted effort to bring imagination and empathy to our work. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that voluntary organisations have these qualities in abundance; and that if they are trusted and respected, they will deliver for those they exist to serve.


Click here to read the full briefing, Birds in a hurricane


Photo by Fer Nando on Unsplash.

Pause, reflect and respond

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the scale and pace of change has impacted the way we live and work. Although we don’t know the full extent of the fallout, many of us are very aware that the pandemic is affecting individuals’ mental health and wellbeing.  People have had to quickly adapt to remote working, makeshift offices, and balancing home life demands such as home schooling and caring for dependents, and, in some cases, they’ve had to deal with bereavement.

At IVAR, we have been running free 90-minute peer support sessions with voluntary sector leaders, which spotlight the emotional demands that leaders and their workforce face during work. We have produced a series of anonymised briefings from these sessions which refer to the emotional labour and demand on the voluntary sector workforce as a persistent concern, with the potential to result in more levels of workplace stress, burnout and sick leave than ever before.

We know that addressing workplace wellbeing can reduce boredom, and boost productivity and job satisfaction. Now, more than ever, voluntary sectors leaders take on more responsibility to provide emotional support – not only for their workforce but for themselves. I see this as an opportunity for the voluntary sector to pause, reflect, and respond to the current situation, embedding new and different work practices to improve future work conditions in the voluntary sector.

Over 400 voluntary sector leaders have shared with us a range of experiences of leading during uncertain times. We heard the positives of remote working, such as more flexible working and reduced commute times, as well as the differing ways leaders have responded to support the emotional wellbeing of their workforce. Their responses were shaped by a range of factors, including being adaptable to each individual’s personal situation; and which communication modes and practices were already in place.

Practical suggestions from our conversations with voluntary sector leaders

1. Build a shared purpose

You can do this by providing spaces for reflection, reaffirming the organisation’s mission and values, encouraging people to stay engaged with the work and identify with the organisation, even if they have been furloughed.

2. Be human

The pandemic has shone a light on staff’s personal remote working conditions, filled with distractions and responsibilities. During lockdown, more people have had to juggle home schooling and other caring duties. Having good HR practice is a positive starting place to address expectations of remote workers – such as clear job descriptions and working contracted hours – but this current situation requires leaders to be flexible and to understand that some staff may need to shape their work patterns around their responsibilities. Leaders might need to ask different questions when planning work for their colleagues in the future.

Our sessions have highlighted the positive examples of leaders taking a more human approach with their teams: being more transparent about their concerns; delegating responsibilities and issues; not trying to hold things that are not in their control; and talking to others. In turn, this has created stronger relationships, a shared sense of purpose, and heightened team morale.

3. Share power and build autonomy

As the majority of us are working remotely, it is essential that leaders are comfortable with giving up control and trusting their workforce to do what is best. Open and regular communication is key to ensure that people are not only listened to but feel heard. This consistent and transparent conversation should also bring staff into the decision-making process as it contributes to building core motivation and a sense of individual autonomy as they can take ownership over their working day and workload. For example, permitting employees to say no to ‘back-to-back’ Zoom meetings and stepping away from the computer to go on a daily walk.

4. Talk about emotional wellbeing

We are all feeling emotional demands during the pandemic. Compartmentalising between home and work life has become harder as the lines between them have faded. Staff feel exhausted, sensitive and receptive to tensions that might normally have been brushed off in an office environment; this can have a knock-on effect by creating uncomfortable and tense work dynamics.

Staff are missing face-to-face contact with their peers and the support they get from this. Leaders have adopted different practices to address this disconnect, such as offering additional coaching or support sessions; conducting weekly temperature checks; building self-care into the working day; sending care packages to staff; weekly online ‘coffee mornings’; and some have offered extended annual leave. It is essential that providing emotional support should not be viewed as a one-off, tick box exercise but rather embedded into an organisation’s culture; this requires regular check-ins and open spaces for staff to share their concerns and needs.

Staff are really struggling – we have upped clinical supervision to twice a month, this second lockdown is really hurting…home schooling, staff breaking down in team meetings…if you say something in the wrong way, people take it so personally.

Can’t give someone a hug, so need to think of different ways of doing this’ e.g. ‘coffee and cake chat’ on zoom- this works for some people and not all, but gives a chance to keep up to date with individuals responsibilities they are facing.

5. Learn together

There is a no ‘one-size-fits-all’ to supporting the emotional wellbeing of your workforce, and what is required for your organisation might be different from another. A good first step is to bring people together to have transparent conversations about what works for them and what doesn’t – this can be a powerful process that builds trust.

What can funders and commissioners do?

• Acknowledge the importance of emotional wellbeing and offer dedicated wellbeing grants.

• Proportionate and relational funding practices to understand the current and differing needs of voluntary sector organisations.

• Long-term, unrestricted funding has never been more vital.

The voluntary sector has demonstrated tremendous flexibility and resilience during the pandemic – although resilience should not be viewed as a coping strategy, nor is it a sustainable working state. As we move towards a blended way of working, this is a key opportunity for us reflect on what has worked and what’s not: to shape our work practice for the better and prevent us from returning to ‘how things are normally done’. It not only requires structural changes but a cultural shift in how we think, talk and approach supporting the emotion and wellbeing of the voluntary sector workforce – with the guiding aim to prevent exhaustion and burnout, as one leader described ‘I don’t just want to survive but also thrive during these challenging times’. I hope that these practical suggestions are helpful to leaders but also highlights that there are opportunities available to individual staff members to take up during these strange times.

Join the event

Vita Terry and Mike Aiken are running a series of events funded by the Voluntary Sector Studies network that is examining the role of emotion and feelings in Voluntary Sector work. The second event in this series will run on the morning of 13th April 2021 from 10 am – 12.30 pm, and will be held via Zoom. We aim to provide space for developing the discussion on practice and research insights into the role of emotion and feelings in any aspect of voluntary and community work. Please register your interest in the event here:

Measuring what matters: Valuing the voluntary sector in East Sussex

How do you want to be judged? By how much you earn? By your kindness and humanity? It’s not an easy question to answer. By the same token, it is difficult to determine the best way to value the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector. Despite the social and environmental contribution of the VCSE sector, there’s an overriding tendency to value it in standard economic terms. In this short blog, we argue that perhaps we need to think more carefully about what we choose to measure.

Valuing the VCSE in East Sussex


Earlier this year, IVAR was commissioned by East Sussex County Council to research the social and economic value of the county’s VCSE sector. The Council wanted to understand the scale, scope, and contribution of the sector. As we discuss below, arriving at reliable economic valuations was far from easy. Nevertheless, we made the following estimates about the VCSE sector in East Sussex:

  • Over 3,500 organisations
  • Generates an economic gross value added of at least £76m
  • Employs at least 6,000 people, roughly equivalent to 3% of the county’s workforce
  • Harnesses £110m from volunteers contributing 9.6m hours per annum, equivalent to a workforce of 6,000 full-time workers

Numbers like these are useful. They give us a feel for the size and significance of the VCSE sector. They remind policy-makers that civil society should be taken seriously. However, they also need to be interpreted with care.




There are significant challenges in estimating the economic value of the VCSE sector. Government data rarely separately identifies VCSE organisations. Furthermore, a large number of small, local voluntary organisations are not registered with their regulators, often because their income falls below registration thresholds. As such, we have to make educated guesses about the size and scale of ‘below the radar’ organisations.

The issue of ‘below the radar’ organisations is especially significant because the vast majority of VCSE organisations are small. We estimate that over half of the VCSE organisations in East Sussex have an income of less than £25,000. Much of the value of volunteering (calculated from survey data) resides in these organisations, yet we cannot readily identify them all.




Valuing small voluntary organisations in economic terms has an air of nonsense about it. When we think about voluntary organisations, is economic productivity really what comes to mind first? Are VCSE organisations best understood by their monetary value? As part of our East Sussex research, we have spoken to various local voluntary organisations. It seems clear to us that, while there is economic value in what these organisations do, there is other more significant value. For example, there is enormous value in the social relationships that form in and around local voluntary organisations. There is value in the trust that forms through participation. There is a value in the way that VCSE organisations help people to feel better.


Reconceptualizing VCSE value


It is important that the VCSE sector can articulate its value in ways other than economic terms. Civil society is distinctive and should be proud of its unique contribution. We need to articulate how VCSE organisations contribute to what is beneficial and important in our lives.

Measures of wellbeing offer one potential alternative to understanding the contribution of voluntary organisations. Measuring wellbeing takes us away from an emphasis on productivity and consumption, towards an understanding of our happiness and life satisfaction. That said, there are challenges in measuring wellbeing and establishing causal relationships between VCSE activity and improved wellbeing. Wellbeing measures may also not suit every situation.

What is important varies with context and perspective. For example, the way an environment group improves our enjoyment of the natural world may differ from the way a youth charity builds the confidence of young people. Thus, the assertion of value becomes a judgment as to what is important and beneficial in our lives.



Measuring the contribution of the VCSE sector is incredibly hard.  We can place economic values on it, but perhaps this does it a disservice. The VCSE sector provides fabric to many people’s lives and surely deserves to valued on its own terms. So, rather than looking at estimates of economic worth, let’s be bolder in asserting the value of VCSE organisations according to what is important and beneficial in our lives.

In the next stage of our work in East Sussex, we will holding a Share & Build Share & Build event on Thursday 17th  December. We will share initial findings from the research and provide  an opportunity for organisations in East Sussex to add further insights and discuss these with colleagues from across the VCSE and public sectors. For more information about this work or to join on the 17th of December, please contact

A simple ambition for grant-making: unrestricted and light-touch

Over the last decade there has been much talk of funders – particularly trusts and foundations – trying to become less burdensome, more straightforward and quicker in their dealings with applicants and grantees. In the current context, as funders and VCSE (voluntary, community and social enterprise) organisations grapple with uncertainty, anxiety and complexity, we are all having do things differently. It’s too soon for definitive answers on long-term strategy but we feel there is an opportunity now to collaborate in rethinking the future and the funding practices that will best support it – to explore what’s needed to enable funders to remain outside their normal. This is the focus of our new learning review, in collaboration with London Funders and a group of charities and funders.



As a group, we are ambitious for change. We recognise that the moment demands it. Not just the need for a simpler philanthropy, one that can reflect and accommodate the anxiety and uncertainty of applicants. But also a respectful philanthropy, one that recognises that applicants and grantees have assets – activities, services, reach, trust, legitimacy, practice, knowledge, expertise, energy and passion – that have intrinsic value and significance. And an inclusive philanthropy, one that is resolved to rise to the challenge (so strongly exemplified in the Black Lives Matter protests over recent months) of breaking down the systemic barriers that exclude and disadvantage so many.


At the same time, we need to be determined. When people comment wryly that ‘it took a pandemic for the value of unrestricted income and light touch reporting to be felt by trusts and foundations’, it brings home how hard it is to achieve deep and meaningful change. Together, we seek to translate words – ‘trust’, ‘speed’, ‘light touch’ – into visible, practical and durable changes to behaviour and practice. To turn things upside down, so the burden falls on funders to ensure that their systems and their processes are truly simple, respectful and inclusive.


Together, we seek to translate words – ‘trust’, ‘speed’, ‘light touch’ – into visible, practical and durable changes to behaviour and practice.

We have been here before, researching and arguing for progressive practice. In 2011, IVAR embarked on ‘Recession Watch’, exploring how independent funders could help small voluntary organisations navigate the political and economic uncertainty sparked by the 2008 recession. We heard about the reduced availability of core funding; higher demand for services due to increasing poverty, hunger and unemployment; difficulty accessing ‘funder plus’ support due to the time or travel commitment incurred; and a lack of time for strategic planning that amplified these other issues.


Five years later, in 2016, we returned to the question of small organisations’ health and prospects through a study on sustainability. We argued for relational, rather than contractual, interaction between funders and funded organisations. An interaction which values the contribution of the ‘real world’ experience and knowledge of the funded organisation and the resources, overview and convening power of the funder.


Then, in 2018, we returned to the Recession Watch organisations. We found that their ability to adapt continued to be hampered by precarious balance sheets and uncertainty about their future. And we highlighted again the importance of greater flexibility, of funders making processes more proportionate – looking for ‘not what suits me but what helps you’; and of being more responsive: giving more core funding, more feedback, more support. We saw encouraging signs of some foundations being more realistic about the outcomes they can expect small organisations to deliver in complex environments, while increasingly valuing the unique role they play in meeting the needs of those who do not fit into standard boxes.  


Speaking most strongly to the current crisis, in 2018 we published The possible, not the perfect. Grant makers who responded to emergencies during 2017 demonstrated just how far foundations are able to adapt their procedures in the face of crisis. Processes were slimmed down, conversations took the place of form filling for applications and reporting, and time frames for decisions radically contracted. ‘Being effective’ in these circumstances did not mean delivering a perfect grant programme that no-one could question or criticise; it meant being ‘straightforward, easy, quick and trusting’.


Then, as now, we argued that that this notion of ‘effective’ grant-making had the potential to resonate beyond the confines of emergencies. Funders were excited by what had proved possible: ‘There is an opportunity here and it would be a shame to let it go. Let’s not get too bogged down in all the problems and challenges – all it takes is a few organisations who are willing to get on with trying out some of these ideas to see how they work’. And local organisations trying to serve their communities were hungry for change: ‘Every day in a community is an emergency. They don’t have to have a tragedy to give money that way.’


Throughout this period, funders have been evolving. Green shoots of genuinely progressive practice have been slowly emerging – now rocket propelled, as everything has been, by the imperative of the Covid-19 crisis. In a few short weeks, some funders have transformed their relationship with grantees, dismantling onerous reporting structures and proactively offering a range of financial and technical support. Others have overhauled their processes, streamlining application forms, and radically speeding up decision making. More are testing the waters of unrestricted funding. Some have even publicised their willingness to meet fundraising costs in support of the effort to keep going. This new mood of agility, trust and common endeavour points the way to a healthier and more collaborative relationship between funders and the VCSE sector.


This new mood of agility, trust and common endeavour points the way to a healthier and more collaborative relationship between funders and the VCSE sector.

There is much to draw from and build on. That is why we are ambitious. But we must be determined. Because, while we know how flexible and imaginative funders can be in the face of emergencies, we have also lived through stalled attempts to evolve funder practice. Already some foundations are feeling the pull of familiar ways of working – a sense that ‘the immediate emergency response has been successfully negotiated, now let’s get back to business as usual’. And, for applicants and grantees – waiting for the email, wondering whether to call, second guessing what is required, struggling to interpret criteria, jumping through hoops, dressing up core costs as innovations – the stress and the strain persist. The power to change this, the power to remain outside the normal, resides with trusts and foundations. Their importance for the VCSE sector cannot be over-estimated. They continue to be uniquely placed to provide continuity; take risks; operate flexibly; and invest in politically unpopular or marginalised areas. With these freedoms come responsibilities. Not to shoulder all of the burden; but certainly to ensure that their contributions are the very best that they can be.


We have seen what is possible in an emergency. The challenge now is for funders and VCSE organisations together to interrogate these new behaviours and to nurture and grow the best of them into the future. A future that, as far as the eye can see, will be characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability. A future that therefore requires a sustained commitment to flexibility and creative adaptation. That is our ambition.


Join us by completing this survey – it will take approximately 20 minutes and will inform work to help to shape both future emergency approaches and general grant-making practice (e.g. stripping back application processes; reaching new groups or speeding up decision-making). 


We’re working with a group of charities and funders: 

Logo Board - Learning Review


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.