Liz Rowlett considers the challenges of engagement and communications during COVID-19.
This spring and summer, Scotland’s Third Sector Interfaces have been working tirelessly to support their members, partners and people involved in volunteering. In Clackmannanshire and Stirlingshire, a myriad of organisations have sprung up to meet the needs of people in their communities, some of them completely new groupings, which has brought new challenges to us.
Both Clackmannanshire Third Sector Interface (CTSI) and Stirlingshire Voluntary Enterprise (SVE) have recognised established patterns of engagement with statutory partners, members and individuals looking to volunteer. They include attendance at community planning meetings and at health and social care strategic and project groups. Two-way communication with members takes place through forums such as Children and Families, Funders, Health and Social Care, Third Sector Leaders, Volunteer Managers and the Social Enterprise Network. CTSI hosts monthly community breakfasts – a chance to raise issues and share information for members, individuals and partners. Otherwise there are monthly bulletins for information sharing and one-to-one support is offered to organisations.
As lockdown began, the TSIs went out to the local voluntary groups and asked what support they needed. For some, it was immediate access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and for others guidance on specific tasks being undertaken by volunteers – accepting payments for shopping, for example, outwardly simple but more complicated the more one thought about it.
Councils and NHS concerned with supporting people shielding and others realised that they could call on the volunteering organisations to help provide localised support, but that there was an information gap as to who was best placed to do what.
Now the learning curve began. Zoom screens replaced tables, lockdown hair was tied back and wrestling with on-off broadband and old equipment brought us all closer together in empathy. The working world embraced a more domestic scene, with smiling children, cats on keyboards and glimpses of cabinet trophies, laundry and props for painting and decorating.
SVE organised a series of Community Calls (this link will take you away from our website) on Zoom to establish the concerns of the sector as a whole and for volunteering organisations around particular topics. In Clackmannanshire, one online community breakfast followed another and virtual meetings included discussions on where we are now, support needed to maintain activity and resume services in the autumn. This year’s Volunteer Week was celebrated online with storytelling and photos.
CTSI posted a COVID-19 specific page (this link will take you way from our website), which was updated regularly with government and health guidance and information about local community groups. Facebook was trawled for emerging groups and contact made by phone, email, Twitter and Facebook. In Clacks, the relatively new development trusts received continued support from the dedicated worker and organisations in both areas were helped to access the various and sometimes confusing streams of funding and financial support.
New teams came together and trust and confidence burgeoned. In Stirling, council staff worked with SVE to refer and record people requiring help with food, prescriptions and shopping. As we got to grips with Helping Hands software we chatted daily on Teams and worked on a council ward basis, forming relationships with organisations and individuals including providers and service users.
Anchor organisations were identified and in Clackmannanshire a new food network emerged of organisations and council working together to ensure that people shielding and others in financial hardship would have access to food and/or a hot meal. Community Cafes, such as the café at Dementia Friendly Dunblane and the Gate in Alloa became food/meal delivery services, experiencing an upsurge in demand as referrals came in and as volunteers identified people who might be isolated and need support.
Case studies have been written up and appeared in NHS and council staff bulletins highlighting the ability of communities to come together quickly to respond to immediate and longer term need. At a strategic level there were regular meetings with the Health and Social Care and Community Planning Partnerships as current problems were ironed out and future issues were identified.
The reliance on technology to engage with people demonstrated what we already knew: many people do not have the means to go online because of lack of equipment, finance or technical skills. Sometimes volunteers did not rely on people phoning or posts on Facebook, they simply counted rainbows in windows to see if there were families who might need some extra support or dropped postcards through letter boxes, with a local contact address or phone number. Extending our sector’s reach, volunteering organisations and tips on wellbeing appeared in the Clackmannanshire Love Local magazine (this link will take you away from our website), with the same planned for Stirling.
Guidance was provided by organisations such as People First on accessible information and Ideas for Ears raised awareness of communication problems for deaf people regarding face coverings and masks, an issue also highlighted by colleagues working with people living with dementia.
CTSI established a tech share scheme to help get people online and provided some one-to-one support for people unable to shop, phone or take part in sessions run by carers, or other peer support organisations, in a bid to ensure that no one really has been left behind.
According to the recently published TSI Scotland Coronavirus Survey Report 2020 (this link will take you away from our website):
“It is clear that community has flourished and risen to the challenge of supporting each other. A significant majority of organisations (84%) report that people are looking out for each other and 50% of organisations believe that there has been improved collaboration.”
It is vital as we move on that we continue to strengthen the ties between all sectors active in health and social care and recognise the value that partners bring. Maintaining connections and relationships is hard work but the value it brings inestimable. The virus has highlighted the real benefits of abandoning the silo and working together. It has been a masterclass in collaboration, leadership and co-production and brought whole systems working off the page.