Looking Back – Ian Bruce reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic (part 1)

Ian BruceThis is the first of a series of articles written by our Chief Executive, Ian Bruce. In part 1,  he reflects on what we’ve learned during the first phases of the pandemic and the critical role of the voluntary sector in meeting immediate needs, and supporting people in crisis situations.

“May you live in interesting times”.  That ironic phrase seems appropriate right now.

The last few months have particularly difficult for everyone. It has often been overwhelming. The scale of the changes in society and the speed at which they arrived have limited our time for reflection and planning.

At what feels like the cusp between emergency response and a “new normal”, I therefore want to outline my reflections on what has happened over the last few weeks. In a second article I will outline my thoughts on how we respond to what is coming next.

I’m not much of a writer so I’m going to keep this article simple and say the things I want to say. Some of these reflect on communities, some on organisations and some on “the system”. I’ve just included them all together:

  • We all now have a tiny insight into the lives of people who are normally excluded. Food shortages and being stuck at home may be new to many of us, but poverty, disability and social isolation are not new for far too many people.
  • That does not mean that COVID has been a social equaliser, as I have heard a few people suggest. Not in any sense. Inequalities have been “supercharged” as one of our members commented. People who relied on social care have had that reduced or withdrawn. People who were already isolated are now even more alone. People living on the breadline have now been forced further into poverty. While we have all been affected, for some the change has been catastrophic.
  • The role of communities and community-level support to this has been spectacular. Community and voluntary action have united to deliver an immediate and effective social response to COVID – delivering food, collecting prescriptions, checking on those who are alone and lifting people in crisis.
  • The narrative that occasionally emerges in public policy that there are “too many charities” or that there is duplication in our sector has been clearly shown as false. The diversity of the sector has been its key strength and the foundation of the wider COVID-19 response in the City.
  • Small is beautiful. Community-level organisations have been able to rapidly mobilise volunteers and donations to respond. Going forward, how we invest in these groups is vital and will be key to building on the strength of communities, however the new normal looks and feels. It means that we need to worry less about what they do (less over-scrutiny) and celebrate their ability to connect and give hope.
  • Governance and risk management have been critical for our sector. Organisations that had a robust risk management approach were able to quickly form some kind of contingency plan and crisis response. GCVS’ risk management didn’t cover pandemics, but a lot of what we had planned for fire and flood were transferrable. Supporting our workforce to work flexibly (as many in the sector do already) meant we were able to get our whole team working at home quickly. Without the amazing work of my colleagues we would have taken significantly longer to get back up to speed.
  • We need to stop worrying about “overheads” so much. Organisations need IT, HR and finance capacity to respond to challenging circumstances. That message is one for funders – public and otherwise.
  • Organisations have been told for decades to diversify their income towards fundraising and trading to make them sustainable. Those income streams have largely collapsed and, in the main, it is grant-funded organisations that are most stable. Grant funding works, and has been used in the wider Scottish Government COVID response.
  • During this crisis, thousands of people in Glasgow have signed up to volunteer, probably more than we can rapidly find opportunities for. This proves what we already knew – people are willing to volunteer but they need to understand the issue they are being asked to help with.
  • The lesson above is equally applicable to fundraising. People will donate only when they know what they are helping.
  • Use of digital has been driven forward by this and has been key to the sector’s ability to keep helping people. In GCVS I think we progressed as fast in two weeks as we would have done in a year. That is amazing and it will be interesting to see what long-term changes that has. The wider lessons for workforces across all sectors are plain to see.
  • However, we need to remember that not everyone can access digital. Those who are digitally excluded (for example through undeveloped IT skills or insufficient money to buy equipment / pay for home wi-fi) are now even more excluded than they were before especially as public bodies rely on web based information, applications etc during this crisis.
  • We have some way to go to properly embed the collaboration, localism and strength-based approaches that we say are valued in public policy. These principles have occasionally been forgotten or discarded when there is pressure to respond quickly. I can understand that, but it is important we remember that maintaining those principles is our best route through this.
  • This is not to say that they have been completely abandoned. There have been some great bits of good practice. I’m still blown away at the Glasgow Helps partnership of GCVS, Volunteer Glasgow, Glasgow City Council, Glasgow City HSCP and Scottish Fire and Rescue. To have colleagues from across the five partners answering calls a week after we first had the idea was amazing.

It would be wrong of me to write this article like this without reflecting on the work of the GCVS team. I’ve lost count of the e-mails, calls, texts and Twitter DMs I have had with people thanking us for the work we are doing. These are not easy times, but GCVS plays an important leadership role. I think the team have done a brilliant job and want to say a big thank you to all of them.

I would like to finish by saying a huge thank you to organisations, volunteers and staff across the city. Everyone has done amazing things in a short period of time. Remember though that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Look after yourself. Save some energy. Don’t beat yourself up because you’ve not done everything you want to do yet.

What matters here is the difference that our sector has made – charities change lives and charities save lives. We need to be proud of all that voluntary organisations have put in place in such a short space of time – without jumping through bureaucratic hoops!

So where next? That’s for the next article and for the next voluntary sector Zoom catch ups – watch this space and please – WASH YOUR HANDS!!

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