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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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Acting locally in the Covid-19 era

Covid-19 has been like a viral version of globalisation. It’s the import and export of a deadly virus that pays no respect to national borders. So what’s local community action got to do with an international pandemic?

At a national level, of course, we have needed to mobilise the public sector, most notably the NHS. At a personal level, social media has provided ways for us to communicate with friends, family and colleagues across continents. But has the pandemic either stimulated – or stifled – local community action?

At one level, helping a neighbour with shopping; waving through the window to someone in isolation; sticking up a poster about a Mutual Aid scheme; all represent important contributions to our local communities. We could think of these as individual civic acts. Alongside this, mobilising our contacts with voluntary, community and co-operative organisations in our towns and villages has also been crucial. Local community action has an important complementary role to play in the current crisis but it also faces challenges.

Vulnerable people hardest hit

First, it’s important to note that community groups were already providing frontline support to people before the crisis. For example, they may have offered support or advocacy to people who were homeless or living in overcrowded temporary hostels; to undocumented migrants who encountered barriers to accessing health care; and to people on low incomes who relied on food banks to survive.

Second, it’s worth recognising that local groups have encouraged the associational life that is so important for mental wellbeing and local engagement. Over the last months most community centres have necessarily remained closed. These were places where people might learn yoga, drama or juggling; or organise and advocate for local needs; or provide places to socialise and meet friends. These are not frontline emergency services. But they may be vital locations for fostering mutual support and wellbeing.

Practitioner Voices

Let’s take two examples. At one community centre, in a densely packed neighbourhood in the south, volunteers have been regularly cleaning the garden as a convivial social space. Janet, one of the trustees, pointed out that the centre’s normal activities had ceased following government guidance several months earlier but ‘we have kept the garden open for local residents with strict rules on social distancing’. They rely ‘purely on room hire and fundraising activities’. At present ‘there is no income coming in’ and ‘we don’t get grants’. 

Meanwhile, a community centre on a new-build estate, have been operating an independent food bank. Sam, a committee member, underlined that health, housing and food were ‘the most basic aspects of life’. In this locality, ‘most people coming to food banks are on universal credit’ and, according to Sam, they are ‘self employed on low incomes that aren’t sufficient to cover their costs’. Their policy was that there would be no means test. Meanwhile, donations of money are preferred – rather than odd combinations of non-nutritious items – so that quality food can be distributed.

For him, the reason that Covid-19 had been such a disaster was because ‘for many people affordable secure housing, sufficient nutritious food and decent access to health services was already not part of their world’.

These two vignettes illustrate some modest but important examples of responses to the effects of Covid-19 by local community groups as well as indications of their own organisational fragility. Certainly, Public Health England’s (2020) [1] examination of the pandemic points to the higher risk faced by older people, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, as well as for those living in deprived areas or in medical and menial employment roles. Local community action groups work closely with many of these groups.

The Outlook

It seems a different era since headlines on the 31st January 2020 read ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’ [2]. For analysts such as John Gray [3], the arrival of the virus did not represent ‘a shift to small-scale localism’ however he argued that ‘…the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either.’ Gray’s analysis holds echoes of Paul Hirst’s [4] ideals of a local or regional associationalism that sought democratised private and public agencies.

The important support roles of local community action can easily be overlooked. Their multiple voices need to be heard in any post-Covid reappraisals of our social and economic structures. Their practical, social and convivial roles remain a vital contribution at the local level.


References

[1] Public Health England (2020) Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, London: PHE publications.

 

[2] Burgess, K. (2020) ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’, The Times; 31 Jan, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/world-health-chiefs-declare-coronavirus-is-global-emergency-9pc9jkkfk.

 

[3] Gray, J. (2020) ‘Why this crisis is a turning point in history’, New Statesman; 1/4/2020.

 

[4] Hirst, P. (1994) Associative Democracy. New forms of economic and social governance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

NB Names of those interviewed are anonymised at respondents’ request.

‘There’s no expectation to learn everything at once which makes it much less nerve wracking’

Poppy Osman, a volunteer at East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust:

‘My name is Poppy and I’m currently volunteering in the East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust. At the moment I’m working in the Pathology department in my local hospital. I first decided to volunteer for the trust when the Coronavirus pandemic meant that there was a possibility that the NHS might be overwhelmed. I wanted to be able to do my bit to help in these uncertain times. I am in my first year of university studying biomedical science in Manchester. Volunteering has not only meant that I can contribute to the fight against Coronavirus, but it has also allowed me to gain experience of working in the NHS, a career path that I could potentially take in the future.

 

From volunteering in the NHS I have learnt many crucial skills which are useful in the workplace and in daily life. Working in the pathology department is often very fast paced as it is essential to get all the samples analysed on time. I have seen how communication is also key when discussing patient diagnosis. At times it can be hard and getting used to things as a new volunteer can be difficult but I have found from everyone I have worked with that if you are ever unsure, there are so many people willing to help you. There’s no expectation to learn everything at once which makes it much less nerve wracking.

 

My favourite moment about volunteering so far has been having the opportunity to work with and shadow the biomedical scientists in the laboratory. As biomedical science is the degree I am studying at university, having this opportunity to volunteer is not only a great experience but also something that I find really interesting and enjoyable. I’ve been able to have hands-on experience with organising samples to be sent off to hospitals in London, I have learnt how to start the process of analysing the urgent samples that come in from the hospital wards and also how to use the system to log the samples when they come into pathology reception.

 

From having this experience, I have improved so many skills including time management to ensure that samples that come into pathology reception are given to the lab as soon as possible. This is really important not only to ensure that there aren’t delays in the patients getting their results but also to ensure that the tests can be done on the sample before it becomes unsuitable for testing. Working in a hospital environment has also meant that I now have experience in a workplace which is different to one a university has to offer. As a young person it is often difficult to get opportunities to gain experience without having specialised training. It is so important that opportunities like this are more widely available to young people as it gives us the best start to our career as we become the scientists, doctors, nurses and teachers of tomorrow.’

You can find resources for setting up youth volunteering in your hospital here. They have been collated from 30 NHS Trusts and their respective charities, who have been welcoming young volunteers since early 2018. 

Thinking about merger in 2020

This blog is complemented by the perspectives of four practitioners who have led merger processes.

IVAR has learned much over the last two decades about what makes a merger successful. How much of this can applied in the current circumstances?

23 years ago, as chair of an alliance of regional HIV charities, I asked colleagues a simple question about our futures: “If we were to design a voluntary sector response to the challenge of HIV and AIDS from scratch, how would we organise ourselves?” The answer was a single, national organisation. A vehicle with the potential to achieve two essential public benefits: enhanced equity and quality of services; and a louder and more powerful voice with policy-makers and funders. 18 months later, four of our organisations merged into Terrence Higgins Trust, followed a year later by London Lighthouse and, over time, others.

This approach was rooted in a belief that organisations are a means to an end, and that there might be a better way of meeting charitable objects.  We know that mergers entered into out of strategic choice seem most likely to yield benefits to beneficiaries (e.g. more and better services) and organisations (e.g. greater influence). However, even this ideal kind of merger requires time, money and an element of risk-taking: after all, mergers are an inexact science. For all the due diligence in the world, they always require a leap of faith.

Through the work that we have been carrying out over the course of the last few months, tracking and supporting the response of smaller VCSE organisations to the Covid-19 crisis, we have observed their extraordinary resilience, creativity and integrity. This is a precious resource and needs to be understood, valued and nurtured. At the same time, we recognise that, for a myriad of reasons, the possibility of merger is beginning to loom large for many of these organisations. Leaders are feeling frustrated, worried, and unsure about how to shift gear out of crisis and into recovery. Faced with daunting challenges – funding cliff edges and sky-high demand for services – some are beginning to look at merger as a way of continuing to deliver for their beneficiaries.  The challenge is that the conditions and resources for careful, constructive mergers are less likely to be in place at the moment: organisations are feeling anxious, and the space for thinking creatively about the future is squeezed.

So, when thoughts turn to merger, how can leaders respond in ways that feel authentic and useful?

If we strip the insights and guidance of Thinking about Merger  down to their bare bones, five things stand out:

 

  1. After the 2008 financial crisis, we found that organisations were more likely to survive and, over time, thrive if they were open to asking themselves fundamental questions such as: Who are we? What are we trying to achieve? What is the best vehicle to make that happen? At a moment of crisis, there may also be an opportunity to focus minds and bring the possibility of merger into discussions about the future. 
  2. For organisations with their backs against the wall, the proposition may be: the preservation of something versus the gradual disappearance of everything. But even if you enter merger explorations on the back foot – preoccupied, say, by survival rather than growth – it’s still important to identify and then pursue a positive agenda about change. Keeping a service going might not feel like the most compelling vision, but that may be the vision that is possible right now.
  3. However bleak your prospects, merger may not be the answer. In addition to a shared vision, you need a feel for the fit with your potential partner(s). Do you have enough in common, enough shared values, to trust in the potential of a merger to work? There is no shame in concluding not. We have written before about the importance of having an ‘awareness of mortality’. For organisations whose aims are no longer appropriate, or for whom sources of public funding on which they were overwhelmingly dependent no longer exist, or who have not been able to make a transition to a new environment or find a sustainable alternative business model, it may be more responsible to close down rather than compete with others or struggle on, hand to mouth. Or there may be steps short of merger that can at least preserve some of what has been achieved – such as hiving off a non-loss-making service, or simply much closer collaboration.
  4. Under normal circumstances, we would encourage possible merger partners to think about possible deal breakers upstream. These might include questions of identity (including name and brand), location, service model, and staffing. Without the luxury of time, or resources to support a staged process, it will still be important to articulate and be mindful of what each partner is not prepared to give up or take on. Without, at best, addressing these ‘red lines’ or, at worst, putting in place plans to do so, the risk of failure will increase.
  5. Finally, there is one key deal breaker which will need to be resolved as early as possible in the process: leadership. Here, as with all design considerations in a merger, form needs to follow function. In other words, what kind of leadership will the new, merged entity require to give it the best chance of succeeding?

IVAR and Bates Wells are working on a new edition of Thinking about Merger to support charities navigating the particular challenges presented by Covid-19. Sign up to our newsletter and be the first to know when this is released.

The key features and stages of merger are outlined in Thinking about Merger, and described in more detail in the Locality and TACT case studies.

Merger: Practitioner perspectives

This blog shares four perspectives of practitioners who have led merger processes. We asked them to share their reflections for other leaders contemplating merger in the current context.

Laurie Rackind is CEO of JAMI (Jewish Association for Mental Illness), which merged with Jewish Care in 2012:

Isolation and distancing may be great weapons in the fight against Covid-19, but they are far from ideal concepts for those already experiencing significant mental health problems. Organisational isolation and distancing are just as unhelpful when responding to the pandemic, and the current challenges are causing many charities to contemplate closer collaboration or merger.

Where the drivers behind mergers are the needs of charities’ beneficiaries, such collaboration should be applauded. For many, though, the drivers will be institutional or professional survival: this is understandable, but may not be enough to see organisations through an inevitably challenging process. Whatever the context, improvements for beneficiaries should always come first. 

Jewish Care and Jami came together seven years ago with a very simple vision – a single mental health service for the Jewish Community. Our challenge was to make one plus one equal more than two. In terms of income, one plus one now equals four. But most importantly, in terms of output, one plus one now equals nearly seven.

During the pandemic, Jami has been able to adapt and respond to the needs of the community with agility, creativity, innovation and speed. It is highly unlikely that, as two separate organisations, we could have coordinated our efforts to the same outcome.  This is thanks to a collaboration which was initiated not by a crisis, but a simple vision of more effective services.

Society is full of vulnerable people who have been isolated for many years. Arguably, this is also true for many of our charities. As lockdown is eased, let’s hope that, as a society, we can all thrive by rising from isolation together.

 

Ben Hughes was CEO of bassac which, in 2011, merged with Development Trusts Association to form Locality:

I remember being asked by a civil servant, once news of our ‘merger exploration’ was out, which model we were using. At the time I blagged it given they were a significant funder, seemingly wanting surety that all was OK. In truth, of course, I had no model up my sleeve. I had little idea – beyond a sense of creating something more resilient to the onslaught of looming austerity – of exactly where this process might take us.

But, of course, mergers aren’t about deciding on a tidy plan. People aren’t machines, and merger advisers aren’t cartographers. It’s a fluid process and one I found took time to get used to; step by step process working is different! I had to trust, a lot. But the collegiate support I got from our tight knit group of chairs and CEOs gave me invaluable confidence to navigate every step of the journey. Helped by a clear and strong process, I felt contained and able to raise difficult issues.

For me, though, there was another, important element. I was clear from the outset that I didn’t want to be CEO of the new organisation. With 11 hugely rewarding years behind me, this was my time for change. This stripped out personal competition and tensions between creating what I’d want to lead, and what was right for the organisation.

Was there any loss? Bassac had a special quality. Our quirky settlement members, impossible to pigeonhole; the slightly maverick network of characterful individuals, achieving remarkable things in their way. So yes, there was loss – of that movement; and for me too, in sidestepping the excitement of the new creation and in letting go of the role I’d inhabited for all those years that had given me so much. But like parenting, doing what you know is the right thing, and seeing the flourishing consequences, brings its own, unique rewards.   

 

Leah Swain is CEO of Community First Yorkshire, which was formed out of a merger in 2017 between North Yorkshire & York Forum and Rural Action Yorkshire:

Covid-19 has created all kinds of local heroes – NHS staff, social care teams, and key workers keeping going utilities, logistics, retail. Let’s add to the list small, local charity Chief Executives who are on the frontline of community support for so many vulnerable and isolated individuals and their families. I’ve watched them demonstrate their own special super powers – the power to give laser-like focus to changing overnight to find, reach and support hundreds of people needing food or company. The ability to transform new volunteers into efficient delivery teams in days. But they also seem to have the most frustrating power of invisibility. Invisible to national bodies who parachute in assuming there is no local support, invisible to the MPs calling for local volunteer infrastructure, invisible to Government departments with limited understanding of the incredible small charity ecosystem that exists.

Even as these small charity leaders continue their hard work totally focused on their beneficiaries’ wellbeing, we know many are starting to question how long their reserves will last when their previous income plans are unlikely to recover. And that’s where that frustrating power of invisibility might have a use after all.

The funding environment is going to get tougher. Many charity leaders will have to actively consider mergers if they are to ensure the valuable services they provide in so many communities will continue after their own funding runs out. Contemplating a merger is hard – you feel you are losing the organisation you have poured every part of your soul into. Boards are loathe to mention the M word to the Chief Executives they value and respect – knowing a merger may mean there is no longer a role for them. It’s tricky.

When my Board started to explore merger they found it much easier to know that both existing Chief Executives did not expect a job in the new organisation. We both provided guidance and support in the background, but made sure we gave our Boards clear permission to put us, and our current way of doing things, to one side. The success of mergers depends on a clear vision for the charities’ beneficiaries, looking beyond current staff and structures. Mergers can open new possibilities – different, but potentially as powerful at supporting local communities.

Many small charity leaders will need to put on their cloak of invisibility and give Trustees freedom to contemplate merger – to move on without them in the picture.

 

Joanna Holmes is Co-Director of Wellspring Settlement which was formed out of a merger in February 2020 between Barton Hill Settlement and Wellspring Healthy Living Centre:

Merger on 1st February 2020 and Covid-19 in March is quite an ask of any organisation. However, we are more than surviving, we are doing some quite extraordinary things. This last two months have shown up very distinctly the underlying issues we knew we had to deal with and the differences in organisational culture. We had thought we might have a year to sensibly integrate all staff and systems as a new organisation, but following the extraordinary Covid19 period – in which we have restructured to provide a community hub with all other services switched to operating from home and phone – we now have to sort them out much more quickly.

The main learning for me is that having one common underlying driver, which is deeply held, gets you through what could be deal breakers or show stoppers. In our merger, this was a strongly held belief that two similar size organisations in one area serving the same community can do this better for the community by being one organisation. In difficult situations everyone can return to this and regroup to move forwards again.

The second thing is that mergers are never easy for lots of reasons. I have had to face the worst things about myself and the organisation, as well as the best. This isn’t too pleasant, but is useful in the vein of: “if it doesn’t kill you, it will be the making of you”.

Thirdly, we took a long time to work through the feasibility stage and, with hindsight, if we had done this more quickly we would have been further ahead with integration now. We also found that the costs of merger are much higher than is recognised, but this is widely known.

I think all organisations should consider merger as an option. And while it isn’t simple or easy, neither are the issues we are trying to tackle in our communities or with the people we are here to benefit. Extraordinary times demonstrate the need for extraordinary responses. Merger could be part of this. It’s not always easy, but  if it’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.

 

This blog is complemented by a practical piece on Thinking about merger in 2020 from IVAR Director, Ben Cairns.