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Experimenting and learning during a crisis: A voluntary sector perspective

These precarious times have created mounting pressures, huge challenges and uncertainty for the voluntary sector. At the same time, opportunities have opened up for voluntary organisations to explore and adopt new and different behaviours and relationships. For some, ‘Human Learning Systems’ practices have catalysed tangible improvements and advances across four elements of organisational life:

Collaborative relationships


There has been growing emphasis on working together as the most effective way of responding quickly to the changing needs and growing demands of individuals and communities. A shared sense of urgency, more accessible and immediate forms of communication, and a stripping away of bureaucratic red tape have enabled cross-sector partners to come together on a more equal footing. And a spirit of collective endeavour has opened people’s eyes to the value of varied expertise, experience and knowledge. This sense of common purpose has helped to build rapport, strengthen bonds, challenge norms and redress power imbalances.

Adaptation and experimentation

There was no rehearsal for the pandemic: it shook everyone to the core and asked questions for which there were few, if any, obvious answers. Unexpectedly, these uncharted waters created the conditions for being more experimental, trialling new ways of working, and testing assumptions behind long-established practices. Everything was up for grabs; there were no one-size-fits-all solutions. This opened up space for people to show ‘collective bravery’ and take risks, learning and adapting through more iterative approaches.

Distributed leadership

Leaders have taken on huge responsibilities, regularly making tough decisions to look after the safety and welfare of their workforce and service users, at the same time as living through a pandemic themselves. Although leaders have retained a breadth of responsibilities as the nodal point in their organisations, circumstances have required them to give up elements of power and control by delegating some responsibilities, trusting other staff to do what is best for people accessing services, using their judgement to make and take decisions. This shift towards more distributed leadership has heightened team morale, as well as enhancing job satisfaction.

Being human and working with emotions in voluntary sector organisations

We are all feeling the emotional demands of living through a pandemic, not least the blurring of home and work life. Staff are feeling exhausted, sensitive and receptive to tensions that might normally have been brushed off. This can have a knock-on effect by creating uncomfortable and tense work dynamics. In response, leaders have adopted more human approaches, for example, by offering additional coaching or support sessions; building self-care into the working day; and through transparent and regular communication.

Three commitments 


Despite these advances and innovations, the risk of reverting to previous, more closed and insular ways of working is evident. To ensure that this is transformative moment, rather than a brief hiatus, attention will need to be paid to three commitments:

  • Ensuring that decision-making spaces continue to be accessible and available to different stakeholders, with a premium on involving and respecting the value of diverse expertise and knowledge when responding to complex needs.

  • Learning together, in real time, as a way of building trusting relationships and tackling competitive behaviour.

  • Acknowledging and addressing the emotional demands from working in this way, and embedding reflective and supportive practices to guard against burnout.

Download the e-book

We’re proud to be involved with the Human Learning Systems collaborative. You can read more about human learning systems approaches, and our chapter, in the new e-book. Download it here.

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.