Researching the impacts of Covid-19: What can charities learn?

The last two years have been dominated by Covid-19, with headline after headline dedicated to how its affected life as we know it; charities being amongst the hardest hit. Daniel King has taken the time to research its effects on the sector and speaks to Melissa Moody about some of the findings.


Melissa: What made you decide to start researching the impact of Covid-19 on the voluntary sector?

Daniel: I used to work in the sector and my PhD was based on running a small non-profit arts organisation. As the pandemic hit we could see the impact it was having on society as a whole and the voluntary sector in particular and we could begin to see some of the issues that were arising. Particularly there was, I suppose, a real focus on the need for good information about our understanding of the impact.

The business sector has got a really strong and well developed, and quite historic, understanding of impact - particularly through quantitative data. There is no real equivalent in the voluntary sector. You've got business surveys that run very regularly and we're getting a lot of prominence in terms of the news. They have a long track record of reporting the impact [of Covid] and really trying to understand the impact of the sector. But really, there's a very clear gap in knowledge. Obviously there’s lots of surveys and things going on in lots of different places, but nothing quite UK wide, nothing that's got the depth and nothing that's actually that consistent. And not to disparage what is there already, there's some really good bits of work that was happening, but it wasn't fully consistent. It wasn't always research based. Sometimes it may be done for campaigning purposes or things like that.

Also we were doing some work with DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport). So we'd already got quite good connections within government and we were very keen to try to create research that could help inform policymakers as well as practitioners as well.

Melissa: What have been some of the main findings that have stood out to you through this work?

Daniel: There's lots of different things. Firstly, we've produced a series of mini reports and we will be producing a final report to come out on the in the end of March 2022.

Some of the big stories seem to be about the mixed impact that Covid had on the sector. There's obviously lots of negative things and they're being quite widely reported. Obviously it caused crunches in funding and other challenges that organisations faced. But I also think there's a second story, which is perhaps the thing that doesn't get reported quite as much.

Covid has been an opportunity for innovation, or building relations, or breaking down barriers. I think a real thing that's very evident is how quick voluntary community organisations moved in response to the pandemic, for example the way in which silos were broken down between the public sector and the third sector. Suddenly in that moment of crisis, people worked together in ways that maybe they didn't do before. It opened up opportunities for collaboration.

That seems to be a really key part of this, the innovation and the creativity that many organisations were able to do. Then that opened up the possibilities of doing things differently, where maybe they would have hesitated or maybe people wouldn't have given them the free rein that they did before.

I think we've also seen the importance of some aspects like infrastructure, but I think is often downplayed and isn't seen as important. In one of our latest reports we saw how many organisations really valued that the relations between them and the infrastructure organisations with the opportunities to advocate but also to translate government things and trying to understand that its appropriateness and provide the support. So I think that's the second thing.

There's a wellbeing crisis that’s still very much there. There's obviously lots of burnout and exhaustion and energy sapping as. I think that provides real challenges for organisational leaders. There’s a notion that we're back to normal but people are still struggling a lot with that. So how do we create organisations that have that support I suppose.

The final major thing, it seems to me as well is around how the pandemic has intersected with other things, particularly black lives matter, and around equity and inclusion as well. That’s become a more nuanced debate and maybe revealed many inequalities that people already knew, but really brought them to the surface. I guess there's questions about what do we do with that now? Where do we go in the future?

There's big questions around. Can that innovation, that creativity, that flexibility that we saw in lots of places, and how things were operated, the new relationship and silos that are broken down, can we take those good bits and can we move them to make that become a little bit more normalised? Can we make those debates around equity and inclusion become part of the normal ways of operating and thinking, and can we take some of that energy and innovation and bring that forward?

Melissa: How did you go about the research? Was it through interviews, data or a mixture of the two?

Daniel: We've got three strands to our database. We’ve got our barometer, which was a monthly temperature check on the sector, and we very deliberately based that around some of the business surveys with a core set of questions. And then we also rotated sort of thematic questions as well. I think that probably the gives people the most comprehensive guide, we had between about 350 to 700 responses a month. That can be tracked over the waves so it gives a really nice picture from September 2020 to December 2021. So that's the first phase.

The second one is a panel survey where we talked to just under 300 organisations and tracked them through 2021 looking at crisis leadership. We were trying to understand the organisation leaders, their relationships with their staff and the volunteers and how that shaped their capacity to respond.

The final thing was interviews - we've done 300 in depth interviews. We will be putting this in what's called the UK Data storage service so it'll be available for researchers in the future as well. And I think it gives really nice social history of how people have gone through the pandemic, particularly for voluntary sector organisations.

I think even now, you know, we're at the phase of pandemic now and you sort of forget what it was like 18 months ago, in a way and I think these things bring out some of the emotions from the time. People were talking about anything from pets dying, not be able to leave the house through to reconfiguring and doing strategic decisions within their organisations. You could begin to see from the interviews, the lived experience of people going through the pandemic as well. And from that as well you get rich insights into the thinking and decision making of a wide range of different people as well.

Melissa: That sounds really interesting. It sounds like you're really passionate about the subject.

Daniel: Yeah, it’s a very interesting and unusual time. I think we've seen lots of creativity going on as well. Sometimes the media portrayal, understandably, is focused on the finances and the impact, but you've also got to think about the creativity, the innovation, the flexibility, the shifts in thinking and attitudes that have happened as well during the pandemic.

I think it's interesting to see where it goes in the future, as well. I think there's an important question about good data in the sector. How do we make decisions? How do we open up that for the government but also for organisations themselves? For trustees, for managers? On what basis are decisions being made? And if you compare the charitable sector to the business sector, you'll see that charity sector is lightyears behind.

There are ways of bringing people together in such a way that you can create a really strong base and that would help not only advocacy, but it actually would help decision making on the ground as well.

This has been an opportunity for the charitable sector to reflect on their own organising practices and ways of doing things and whether it creates forms of exclusion through simple things like funding processes. There's opportunities to learn through moments of crisis. There's just a tendency to go back normal again, and I think that would be a real missed opportunity.

I would really suggest organisations taking the opportunity to pause and reflect and to learn about what's worked well and what hasn't worked well internally and externally. The stock taking and learning and reflection moments are really important if you want to move forward as well.

Melissa: It looks like there's going to be some long-term impact on the voluntary sector. What have been the benefits through innovation?

Daniel: Part of the challenge is that lots of aspects of the sector are often under resourced. To make the most of some of these innovations, it will take resources and not just money but of time and attention. And maybe people have been building things as they’ve been going along. Covid has been an accelerator, it’s speeded up things five years or so. Other aspects of that have to catch up now to make sure that it really works.

Melissa: What are the next steps for and your research?

Daniel: One of the things that we are doing is preparing the data that we've created to be available for researchers. We were funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). One of our commitments is also to make the enormous pool of data that we've got available. Not just to ourselves, but to other researchers. And that's not just academics, that could be researchers in the sector.

The second part is that across 2022, we’re going to be running a series of events, roundtables and other things like that where we take some of those key themes that we've identified and slowing down slightly. What we're wanting to do now is to take some of those really important [themes] so for example we're looking at funding and funders behaviour, looking at around diversity inclusion, and other sort of variety of other areas as well. We want to take these things and do a little bit more of a deep dive, but really trying to engage with people across the sector in policy and in practice and trying to disseminate those findings with people.

The third thing then we're really thinking very deeply around is an observatory to the sector, so a way in which we can create a more definitive space and place for data that really can be relied on. We are trying to explore this through various things, like technology. The opportunity is that I think you can create something that would then become more useful for trustees for making decisions, for policymakers for making decisions, and anybody else. We want to support or lobby, so we're trying to explore what that might look like. That's quite a long-term project for us and I can't guarantee it will work but I think it'd be really amazing.

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