The voluntary and community sector in Plymouth is showing an extraordinary level of resilience, adaption and innovation despite being severely affected by the conditions put in place to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. A survey of the sector carried out by POP+ (Plymouth Octopus Project) in the last month finds that although 80% of community activities across the city have been put on hold, many new or adjusted services have set up. While the response to the POP+ survey identifies an extraordinary level of commitment from projects and organisations to the people they support, it also shows that the sector has taken a massive financial hit and some organisations may not survive the crisis.
Of the hundred and twenty-five organisations that responded to the POP+ survey 81% have reported being financially affected by the lockdown: a fall in donations, the cessations of contracts and the loss of trading income (and in some cases, all three) have left many in a vulnerable position and likely to need support if they are to survive. Simply Counselling has been supporting people in the city since 2006. Last year it supported 365 clients including victims of domestic abuse. With three of its five staff furloughed it is relying on the goodwill of its volunteer counsellors to keep the service running on-line and over the phone. As its administrator, Kayley Churchill explains, financially, it has taken a massive hit;
“We’ve lost about three quarters of our income. We’ve had some emergency funding which has helped to pay for training to use zoom and our landlord has waived the rent for three months, but we’ve still got bills to pay. We are just about keeping our head above water but, to be honest, if it wasn’t for our volunteer counsellors – who are just amazing – then I don’t know where we’d be.”
The POP+ survey also identifies that those most at risk appear to be organisations with an income of less than £10,000 a year. The chief executive of POP+, Matt Bell, says we should all be concerned, while they are small, they are invaluable:
“We feel that that during this crisis funders should be prioritising organisations with incomes of less than £10,000 a year. We know from our survey that these groups are particularly vulnerable yet are putting in huge amounts of time and energy to continue offering support to people. We must ensure that they are still operating when all this is over.”
Plymouth’s social economy has experienced a rapid and critical shock. Many groups, clubs and support services that make up the city’s vibrant voluntary and community sector have ground to a halt affecting people from all areas of the city in all manner of circumstances. Furthermore, the survey has found that 75% of the services recently terminated – such as the weekly drop-in session at the All Nations Ministries in the City Centre – existed to help the most vulnerable. And yet as Matt Bell observes, while much has been lost, there is much to celebrate;
“Our members are showing an extraordinary level of commitment to their communities. It is remarkable,” says Matt, “that while many are facing financial uncertainty, they are reaching out to ensure people stay connected and supported.”
Nearly two thirds of those that responded to the POP+ survey have adapted their services or offered something new. A significant amount of innovation is being made through employing digital technology with all manner of services springing up connecting all sorts of people, in all sorts of places and all sorts of circumstances. In Stonehouse, for example, Nudge Community Builders working with the University of Plymouth and local company Outerstage, has provided free wi-fi to residents in and around Union Street enabling them to access the internet from their homes while RIO is opening its (physical) doors to Devonport Guildhall, providing people without any means of connecting to the internet with free (socially-acceptable-distance) access to computers every Thursdays. Meanwhile, Memory Matters has been ensuring it enables people with dementia (and their carers) to remain connected and supported through the provision of dementia therapy workshops and activities on-line.
POP+ is doing its best to help. Aware that not everyone is ‘tech-savvy’ POP+ has been hosting popular play sessions on Zoom where people (open to everyone as well as POP+ members) can try it out and make mistakes. In the first week it trained more than fifty people. One group embracing the change is The Ark Community Project in Southway which supports military and civilian families in the North of the city. Jenn Collings, one of its pastoral care workers, says having these practise sessions has helped her to set up weekly coffee mornings on zoom;
“I don’t feel confident using it and didn’t even know it existed until a few weeks ago, but now we’re using it to bring isolated parents together. We’re hoping that as word gets out, more people will join in.”
As instructions remain in place to stay apart, so the voluntary and community sector continues to find innovative ways to keep people connected even while many of these same groups are experiencing their own financial challenges. Thankfully, the fragility of the sector has been recognised nationally and, as many charities; organisations and groups are receiving additional emergency funding, so too will POP+, enabling it to continue providing support to the sector (and within the sector) with valuable lessons being learnt from previous ‘emergency funding’, particularly that of ‘Grenfell Tower’. What’s clear to everyone is that through collaboration, innovation and resilience Plymouth’s community sector mirrors that of the whole of the country: a heartfelt commitment and desire to work together for the benefit of everyone.
For more information contact POP+ on 01752 395131 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to view Simply Counselling’s Crowdfunding campaign.