Skip to content

Covid and community - charities and voluntary groups have 'shown up' and 'stuck around'

In this story

Explore the people, themes, departments and research centres behind this story

Press contact

Jo Beattie

Contact the press office

For help with a story or to find an expert

Email: pressoffice@shu.ac.uk
Phone: 01142 252811
Twitter: @shupressoffice

17 February 2021  |  Long-read

Covid and community - charities and voluntary groups have 'shown up' and 'stuck around'

The word community has resonated with many people during the Covid-19 pandemic. From checking in on elderly neighbours to furloughed workers delivering essentials to vulnerable people - a rediscovery of community spirit has been one of the few positives from the last year.

At Sheffield Hallam University we understand the power of community. Through our world-leading research into the charity and voluntary sector we knew the impact small local charities and voluntary organisations had on their communities – and we knew they would be at the forefront of the response when Covid-19 hit in early 2020.

Campus landscape shot

Small, locally-based voluntary organisations and community groups are vital to the health, wellbeing and social fabric of neighbourhoods communities across the UK.

From the start of the pandemic small local charities and voluntary organisations have played a crucial role for vulnerable people in the community. They have provided access to food and medicine, supported mental and physical health and offered a lifeline for those experiencing social isolation.

Voluntary Action Research Group

As the crisis unfolded, researchers from the University’s Voluntary Action Research Group (VARG) saw how immediately it affected people in a range of different ways. Basic human needs such as having enough food, medicine and social contact were not able to be met for many vulnerable people living in the community. Small charities, voluntary and community organisations swiftly responded to keep these people - many of whom face complex issues and often fall through the cracks of mainstream services - safe, well and connected.

The VARG team wanted to contribute to the response in a meaningful way and pivoted a number of ongoing studies and established new research to examine how national and local organisations in the charity and voluntary sector had adapted to the changing needs of local communities.

Working with over 50 national and local organisations, researchers studied in real time the impact of Covid-19 on the sector, the challenges these organisations face and how they can play a significant role in the post-pandemic social and economic recovery. 

Prior to the pandemic the highly experience interdisciplinary team specialised in providing critical commentary on key policy developments affecting the charity and voluntary sector and demonstrating to funders the impact they have. By conducting research in diverse fields, including voluntary sector policy, volunteering, social value and small charities the team were well placed to shine a light on the actions of community organisations during the Covid-19 era.

During 2020 the team worked with five national charities and over 50 local voluntary and community organisations to better understand their work, find out how they have adapted during challenging times and support them to develop their plans going forward.  

The Value of Small

One of those projects been with Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales who focus their funding on smaller charities who provide holistic person-centred support for people experiencing complex social issues.

Researchers from VARG produced the Value of Small research report which illustrates how smaller charities across the country have demonstrated tremendous energy, flexibility and professionalism during the crisis. Many have had to adapt their provision to a constantly changing landscape, needs and circumstances.

The team’s research shows how many smaller charities ‘showed up’ and then ‘stuck around’, using their position of trust within communities experiencing complex social issues to support vulnerable people when they were needed most. This contrasts with parts of the public sector, who were slower to react early on, and informal support and mutual aid, which has slowed down and ended over time.

Evidence is presented as to how and why smaller charities should be supported to contribute to the recovery of the country as it emerges from the crisis of the pandemic. In order for them to support the economy and society to ‘build back better’ key resources and financial support is needed to ensure they can carry out their work and continue to adapt to the circumstances that arise in the future.

Two nurses passing parcels to elderly man

Supporting older people to live active and independent lives

One of the most vulnerable groups during this pandemic has been older people – from both a health and social perspective. The Leeds Neighbourhood Network (LNN) supports older people to remain living independently and to participate in their communities through a range of activities and services that are provided at a neighbourhood level. The Ever more needed? The role of the Leeds Neighbourhood Networks during the COVID-19 pandemic research project by the VARG team, funded by the Centre for Ageing Better explored how these neighbourhood organisations have supported older people during the pandemic.

This ‘real time evaluation’ report evaluated the LNNs, and their response to the pandemic, giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their value by being part of the crisis response at a city and neighbourhood level. The report provides a rapid synthesis of emerging findings to help inform planning and policy making by the LNNs and their key stakeholders.

A transformative role in post-Covid recovery

In Sheffield, VARG researchers worked with Voluntary Action Sheffield and other key partners across the city to understand the contribution the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector made locally during the pandemic.

The research uncovered how the sector responded quickly and effectively through informal neighbourhood activity, formal community level support hubs and city level coordination. The most active areas included food supply, physical and mental health, social isolation and domestic violence.

The research concluded that the small charity, voluntary and community sector could play a transformative role in the post-Covid-19 recovery of the city if challenges including funding, sustainability, working successfully with the public sector could be overcome, particularly once they are able to operate as ‘normal’ again. This research will help to inform policy debates and developments about the role of the sector in Sheffield in the short, medium and longer term.

As well as locally focused research in Leeds and Sheffield, the team is also collaborating on a national project in partnership with Nottingham Trent University and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Together they are exploring the dramatic impact Covid-19 is having on the voluntary and social enterprises in a major new study -  Respond, recover, reset: the voluntary sector and Covid-19. The ongoing project collates monthly data through The Covid-19 voluntary sector impact barometer which presents how individual organisations have responded, how finances, services, staffing and volunteers have been affected. It explores short-term expectations of how the situation may evolve. 

Local councils have played a key role in the response to Covid-19, working closely with communities and partner organisations in the charity and voluntary sector. Our experts have worked with Local Trust to examine the relationships between local authorities and communities across England during the pandemic. The impact of austerity and the power dynamics between communities, local and central government has led to a complex and varied picture. 




Man handing elderly woman package

Looking to the future

The pandemic has been a deeply challenging time for many people in society, especially for vulnerable people with complex problems. The numerous small charities, community and voluntary organisations our researchers have worked with during the Covid-19 period has built up a clear picture of the community and voluntary sector landscape. Their work illustrates how these groups are vital to the fabric and lifeblood of local communities. The research highlights the absorptive and adaptive capacity of these organisations to support society, in particular vulnerable people who may find themselves overlooked by mainstream services.

This positive work will continue as the organisations have proved they are adaptable and have staying power – they have not let people down during the crisis. However, at the moment the transformative capacity of these varied organisations to support society and the economy to start to recover from the challenges of the pandemic is limited by a lack of resources they need to carry out their vital work.

The meticulous research work undertaken will help inform policymakers on the best approach to promote and develop the sector. It will also go towards supporting charities and organisations in their quest for investment and recognition as we look to rebuild the economy and society – putting our communities first.


In this story

Explore the people, themes, departments and research centres behind this story

Press contact

Jo Beattie

Contact the press office

For help with a story or to find an expert

Email: pressoffice@shu.ac.uk
Phone: 01142 252811
Twitter: @shupressoffice

Share this page