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Covid-19 in 50 languages

So, you’re feeling ill, it’s the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown, you don’t speak English and your mobile phone is 12 years old. How do you manage?


That’s when you need an organisation like Sussex Interpreting Services (SIS), a registered charity that has been supporting people’s access to public services for over 25 years. Just before the virus hit, SIS was delivering around 1500 interpreting sessions a month for people whose first language was not English. The Covid-19 crisis added a whole new level of complexity to that. Overnight.


The average monoglot Brit who struggles to say ‘oui’ and ‘non’ on a weekend in Paris might think everyone in the UK speaks English. Yet, as Alice Evans’ report for the BBC suggests ‘four million people in England and Wales do not consider English to be their main language’ while there are ‘over 800,000 people who speak little or no English’ and 88 languages other than English are used as a principle language.


This points to the importance of voluntary action by organisations like SIS which, with 15 employees and a pool of 100 sessional linguists, delivered services in around 50 languages last year – sometimes in emergency situations. Their situation during the Covid-19 crisis mirrors some of what we’ve been hearing elsewhere. Services have had to re-adapt fast, funding was required quickly, with the minimum of fuss, and statutory partners had to be flexible.


Getting close up


But what’s the inside story? Let’s get granular. We spoke to Arran Evans, an SIS Director, about the challenges for the people they support, the design and funding difficulties SIS faced, and the flexible ways they responded.

For people with difficulties in English, obtaining GP appointments remained extremely difficult until the beginning of July. Many of SIS’s service users would normally drop in at the doctor’s surgery. However, the (understandable) growth of automated phone services – as an access point for public services – created barriers for certain groups. SIS worked alongside people who could not understand the correct selection to choose in the complex series of options offered by automated phone services.

Arran pointed out that ‘if people cannot understand the instructions and the system – they do not get access’. For mental health services, for example, it could take over 40 minutes in English to go through all the questions. One of SIS’s tasks was to explain the service users’ access needs to statutory services to which they were entitled.


Linkage to statutory services


In the early stages, strategic statutory partners were slow to respond. For example, GP surgeries closed, but people still needed their necessary or regular appointments. The consultation that a SIS interpreter would attend, alongside the service user, stopped overnight.

‘We can’t do what we do without collaboration with hundreds of people’
says Arran. SIS estimates that they lost 85% of work because appointments were cancelled, the translator had to go home, while, crucially, the person in need did not get diagnosed or treated.

Information needs presented another important dimension. Although every local community is different, large sections within BAME communities have stayed at home during the Covid-19 crisis. Language difficulties have meant that it was sometimes easier for them to obtain information about Covid from family members outside the UK. However, by the time such news arrived here the message may not have been clear, correct, or up-to-date. Arran explained that:

‘We spent lots of time auditing information – adapting it and posting it on our pages and translating – and distributing it to the council … The very best and useful information was what we got from
Doctors of the World, not government at large which had done little on this issue.’


Agile organisational adaptions


In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, Arran said, SIS had to fundamentally re-design their whole service almost overnight including the web site and phone service.‘We had to be very creative. We don’t have enormous resources.’


They designed a free platform that was working well with interpreters online. But there were still access challenges: many of SIS’s users did not even have an up-to-date working phone. SIS developed important and collaborative links to the Clinical Commissioning Group and doctor’s surgeries in cases where it was necessary for people to be shielding for medical reasons.


Arran pointed out:


‘The interpreters have been magnificent but SIS is now about half the size it was … It is exhausting to gain income from contracts. Funding dried up. We had to significantly use our reserves.’




Most funding streams that appeared during the crisis were exhausted before SIS could even apply. Meanwhile, some funders even thought SIS was not a voluntary organisation as their work was concerned with people’s access to statutory organisations!


Overall, Arran acknowledged that:


‘It has been emotionally draining in our team. We’ve been supporting people facing domestic violence or asylum seekers who are destitute or with long term illness.’


Dealing with this has had long term affects on staff and interpreters.


‘We’re not machines! And we’re not together physically like usual. We’re isolated at home and some colleagues are working and sleeping in one room. It’s very tough!’




It was hard for a relatively small organisation like SIS to get local strategic partners to respond. However, as Arran explained:


‘We’re so proud of what we’ve achieved. But you can’t do that forever… It’s very draining. Do local authorities, government funders get it?’


This points to the vital role of independent voluntary organisations like SIS in identifying, and acting upon, social disadvantage. SIS have developed – and adapted – a model of working based on their closeness to the people they work with over the long term. And their small team have been agile in re-designing their entire service, in a national emergency, at short notice.


As Arran indicates: ‘We’ve worked right through the crisis. It’s been very tough. Really tough.’

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. 

Calling all funders! Help us test a new risk framework

Our recent studies The possible, not the perfect and Duty to Care? observed that ‘too much caution can narrow the range of people and organisations funded and what that funding can achieve’, and encouraged funders to consider if they ‘are taking enough risk rather than too much.’

Today we launch a Risk Framework (created with a pilot group of five funders) to help funders to think about their appetite for and approaches to risk. As part of our ongoing work on Thinking about … risk, we are now looking for funders to help to test the new framework.


A framework for thinking about risk


The framework aims to help funders achieve clarity about the different aspects of opportunity and risk inherent in their strategies and aspirations. And to ensure that their application, assessment and decision-making practices accurately reflect their appetite for and approaches to risk.

The framework outlines seven attitudes and aspirations – plotted on a spectrum – that tend to influence appetite for risk and associated practices:


  1. Attitude to innovation
  2. Expertise
  3. Certainty and clarity of outcome
  4. Data
  5. Capacity and capability
  6. Financial risk
  7. Public opinion


The framework provides a structure for interrogating the balance to be achieved between ‘the things we care about’ (positive risk) and ‘the things that we worry about’ (risk mitigation). This enables challenges and inconsistencies to be ironed out before going on to the practical question about how risk is to be identified and managed day-to-day.


Read Thinking about … risk and try out the framework here.

We need your help

IVAR and the funder pilot group want to widen the conversation and encourage more funders to test the framework and bring a range of opinion to bear on the critical challenge of making the practical connection between intended risk profiles and day-to-day grant-making practice.

Is your organisation taking ‘enough risk’? Would you like support to achieve more clarity about your appetite for risk? Get in touch to join a group of funders collaborating with us to take the process through to its next stage. Participation will involve:


  • Using the framework (with the support and guidance of IVAR facilitators) to assess the risk profile of a grant programme

  • Attending a ‘share and build’ workshop with other funders

  • Consenting to share the findings more widely to help shape the future of thinking about risk in grant-making.

Sleepout or sleep in: keeping up with the new funding environment

Streetlife took part in our Duty to Care? research project. We asked them about their recent experience of working with trusts and foundations.

Tell us about Streetlife

Streetlife is a youth work charity based in Blackpool, which assists vulnerable people between the age of 18-25 years old. Our aim is to enable and empower them to make informed choices and provide support via our emergency night centre, eight bed day centre and drop-in or lifeskill sessions.

What has changed about your work – and how you work with trusts and foundations – over the past five years? How have you responded to this?

In the past few years, our funding environment has changed quite drastically; funding for supporting young people that had originally been ring-fenced was lifted, and in 2014 all Local Authority funding ceased. This meant both Blackpool Foyer and Oasis night shelter had to shut down, so it was high-time we did a SWOT analysis and started exploring other funding opportunities. We managed to secure three years funding from Tudor Trust, one year funding from Amy Winehouse Foundation, and on-and-off funding from Lloyds Bank Foundation, CiN, Comic Relief and the Police and Crime Commissioning Fund that helped maintain salaries.

The world is changing so rapidly that it’s important we do too if we want to ride the tide and keep up momentum. We’ve adapted the way we recruit and work with volunteers: we capture people as soon as they start showing an interest, get them more involved with social media, and organise induction processes once a week so that volunteers can develop a better sense of the organisation.

We also ventured into community fundraising and raised our profile on social media – this is the fourth year we’re doing an annual sleepout, which raised 12k in its first year and saw over 200 people sign up within two years. This year we raised £43.5k and we are also planning our first charity ball.  As a result, businesses began showing an interest and we’ve started to see different kinds of people supporting us now.

What could trusts and foundations do differently to make your life easier?

The focus should be on fostering long-term relationships with funders, so that we can work together to develop a more proactive and scalable strategy. For example, The National Lottery Community Fund has been supporting us for four years and recognise that we need to support our overheads, so we can concentrate on what really matters.

A personal touch also helps a great deal – the Lloyds Enhance grant manager regularly comes to visits us, which means we’re able to have an open conversation and keep them informed of any new challenges before they become an issue. They’ve also invited us to the House of Commons to talk about our work, so we can be more involved at policy-level and garner more support.

Developing instrumental, long-term relationships

Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit took part in our Duty to Care? research project. We asked them about their recent experience of working with trusts and foundations.

Tell us about Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit

Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) advises, supports, represents and campaigns with people subject to immigration control.

Representing over 1,000 people at any one time, we are a team of specialist solicitors and case workers for those claiming asylum or in other precarious, immigration-related situations like trafficking or domestic violence.

What has changed about your work – and how you work with trusts and foundations – over the past five years? How have you responded to this?

Since 2012, there’s been a significant surge in cuts for legal aid and public sector funding. It’s an important challenge that caused many charities around us to flounder – like the Asylum Support Housing Advice (ASHA), who helped between one and two hundred people a week. We felt like the only ones left standing, so we knew we had to respond: we took on all the charity’s employees, so we were able to get people onboard by rescuing other services.

Key to our survival and stability is our team of highly skilled, well-established solicitors and support staff. We also have a mixed income stream formed of a legal aid contract, funding from Manchester City Council, trusts and foundations, and some donations.

Added to that, there are more people sleeping on the streets now than ever before so the Mayor has put the issue of homelessness at the top of the agenda. This has provided us with a key platform to get our voices heard and the chance to engage at a new level – now when we suggest a cheap way to resolve an immigration or asylum issue, Manchester City Council can hear us and back our efforts.

What could trusts and foundations do differently to make your life easier?

First and foremost, we need core funding to strengthen our management and finance infrastructures so we can start to invest in ourselves. Fast and flexible processes also help a great deal; when we took on AHSA, one of our funders got us £25,000 to secure the first year, which removed the emergency from the situation and made a huge difference.

We also want to develop more instrumental, long-term relationships with funders. That would enable us to discuss the future of GMIAU, and be able to pilot ideas that might improve our organisational sustainability and service delivery. For example, Legal Education Foundation supported GMIAU to test out a new model for reuniting refugee families – and to run an intense scale-up programme looking at how to replicate the model and generate income. Ultimately, this could lead to a more sustainable organisation, that reunites more families over a longer time period.

Strong relationships, good fun and an awful lot of cake

Rotherfield St Martin took part in our Duty to Care? research project. We asked them about their recent experience of working with trusts and foundations.

Tell us about Rotherfield St Martin

Rotherfield St Martin is a 14-year old community-led organisation aiming to combat isolation and loneliness.

We’re a club for some 225 older citizens from a rural village in Wealden, that offers a range of activities and support – on anything from ‘Knitting & Nattering’ through to volunteer driver schemes and health therapies. We’re run by 100 volunteers who work hard to foster an open and supportive environment underpinned by strong relationships, good fun and an awful lot of cake.

What has changed about your work over the past five years?

In the past few years, we’ve noticed two key changes in our environment that affect the way we operate.

First, the statutory sector is increasingly turning to the voluntary sector to fill in the gaps left by its model of care. This means that we’ve had to develop our networks and become more deeply rooted in our local area – we’re now partners to the District Council, the NHS and other collaborative stakeholder groups, but we still often find ourselves running upstream to resolve issues quickly.

Second, what’s happening with some of the big charities is causing a ripple effect. We’ve noticed a concerning change in people’s attitudes towards charities in general, and a few very public cases have led to higher expectations of transparency and professionalisation.

Have you changed anything about the way you work – and how you work with trusts and foundations – in response to this?

In this context, and following a change in CEO, we’ve gone through a process of organisational development and formalisation: we’ve changed from an unincorporated organisation to a CIO and put in policies around safeguarding to ensure we protect ourselves against this backdrop of increased transparency and accountability for charities.

Another challenge for us is income generation and fundraising – particularly as we work in a village of 4000 people and there is competition with other community groups. At the moment we very much depend on independent fundraisers, but trusts and foundations also fit well within our culture and long-term approach. They can see we’re growing and strengthening ourselves, which bolsters existing relationships and allows us to pursue those funding avenues. We’re also looking at other ways to generate income – like legacy funding or a regular giving programme – but for now we’re focusing on building strong, long-term relationships.

What could trusts and foundations do differently to make your life easier?

For us, stable, multi-year funding would make the biggest difference, as it would create some space for longer-term thinking and enable us to develop a sustainable funding model.

It would also be helpful to have a closer local-level dialogue between the public sector and the people delivering services on the ground – it’s positive that public agencies are looking to work ever more closely with us, but they need to understand that small charities only have enough in reserves to keep going for 3-6 months.

Finally, independent funders need to realise what a crucial role they play, as this could lead to making the application process quicker and easier, which would make us stronger and more resilient.