Oral history project reveals how COVID-19 impacted charities and volunteers

  • Date

    Mon 27 Sep 21

Two young boys playing basketball

A new Essex study commissioned by Community 360 and the Health and Wellbeing Alliance, has revealed, through a series of oral history testimonies, how Colchester’s charitable and voluntary sector has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ‘Communities Responding to Crisis’ report, by Dr Alix Green, Dr Rebecca Warren, Dr Deb Wiltshire and PhD student Samantha Woodward reveals the “absolute and immediate human impact” the pandemic has had on staff and volunteers delivering services and those who use them, whilst showing how organisations have responded rapidly in creative ways to ensure people have access to the support they need.

Community 360 worked in partnership with the University to ensure the local experiences of citizens and community leaders were captured. The charity works with over 500 community groups each year and wanted to look in greater detail at the ways in which organisations that help people of all ages responded and continue to respond to the pandemic.

Together with Dr Daisy Payling, the research team collected 22 testimonies from people working to support communities in Colchester and north east Essex. The interviews reveal a complex picture of how the pandemic has impacted staff morale and the wellbeing of service users, funding and fundraising and the development of partnerships.

Dr Rebecca Warren, smiling and wearing a pink roll-neck top and black jacket, in front of a green plant
"In order to understand and respond to this national crisis we have to unpack the human lived experience at the local level."
Dr Rebecca Warren essex business school

The report shows how new groups formed in response to community needs and how others, adapting in response to the pandemic, will change the way they work forever.

The testimonies were recorded between October 2020 and February 2021, with interviewees asked to reflect on how their organisations had been responding to the ever-changing pandemic situation and their feelings about the future.

Interviewees were then given the opportunity to reflect upon everyone’s contributions at a workshop in May 2021 and agree a series of implications.

Organisations that contributed included Refugee Action Colchester, Beacon House, Outhouse East, MS:UK, Breathe Easy Colchester, St Helena Hospice, Action for Family Carers, and Next Chapter.

Findings of the project include:

  • While some organisations saw an increase in demand for services, others saw a drop off either because they could not offer remote services or because COVID-specific policies aimed at reducing the impact of lockdowns meant there was temporarily less need.
  • Staff and volunteers have suffered with a decline in their own wellbeing, with many feeling socially isolated, those on furlough suffering from a lack of purpose and those working from home worrying about the service users who need their help.
  • Services that rely on volunteers reported a ‘changing of the guard’ as older volunteers left face-to-face roles to shield, replaced by younger people furloughed or out of work.
  • Many organisations successfully moved services online, with staff providing support remotely able to reach new and wider communities, while others found their users suffered either because of a lack of digital confidence or access to IT equipment, or because they relied on specialist equipment in face-to-face support centres.
  • New groups, like the Eight Ash Green Hub, formed in direct response to the needs of their communities, with many using social media to reach people who needed them.
  • Emergency COVID-19 funding benefitted many organisations, allowing them to continue to work safely, but the short-term nature of funding streams cast doubt over continuity and uncertainty remains with some beneficiaries who fear services will be cut when funding stops.
  • While many organisations have suffered because restrictions have meant they cannot fundraise in their usual ways, others have seen increased interest in donations due to media coverage around issues such as food poverty.
  • Many new and innovative partnerships have been formed between organisations as an immediate response to COVID-19 with many expected to last beyond the end of the pandemic.

Dr Alix Green, from the Department of History
"These organisations have shown great resilience, adapting incredibly quickly to keep people alive, safe, connected and cared for during the pandemic."
Dr Alix Green department of history

Dr Rebecca Warren, of Essex Business School, said: “In order to understand and respond to this national crisis we have to unpack the human lived experience at the local level. The voluntary sector landscape has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis response in multiple ways and through the development of this report we have a sense of the absolute and immediate human impact of what this means for people delivering these services during the pandemic.”

Dr Alix Green, of the Department of History, said: “These organisations have shown great resilience, adapting incredibly quickly to keep people alive, safe, connected and cared for during the pandemic. They have responded to complex and diverse needs, often reaching beyond their remit to support communities where statutory services drew back.

“These testimonies capture experiences of working on what the government likes to call the ‘front line’ in a way that numerical data alone cannot. They provide vital evidence of the implications of COVID-19 policies that we hope will inform decisions about service provision, planning and funding in our local voluntary and community sector, as well as feeding into future inquiries into the pandemic response. We will be working in more depth with some of the participating organisations over the coming months to ensure the interviews are a useful resource for their own processes of recovery.”

Tracy Rudling, CEO of Community 360 said: “We were delighted to work with the University of Essex on this project. We wanted to highlight the experience and views of community organisations working in neighbourhoods during the Covid crisis. The insights of our local voluntary organisations offer a vision of how communities can come together and do on a regular daily basis, sometimes this has gone unseen.

She added: “If we are to harness the energy and goodwill that communities have shown in the last 18 months, we will need to invest in our communities and the people that have the energy to drive and reduce inequality. Their flexibility was crucial to the speed and effectiveness of activities, and in many cases challenges the more conventional notions of volunteering. It was both humbling and inspiring to work shoulder to shoulder with so many undiscovered volunteers.”

Community 360 will be working with local organisations to implement actions in response to the report, including continued working with the University of Essex to understand and influence the process of recovery to include in its ‘we can’t go back’ action plan.

Header picture courtesy of African Families.