Keeping it real in a virtual world – lessons from the frontline

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Written by

Stephen Muers, Interim Chief Executive Officer

COVID-19 has made it hard to connect with people. Sitting in the same room at home, with conversations all taking place through a phone or computer screen, makes everything seem more distant. At Big Society Capital, we are always conscious that as a wholesale funder, well endowed with capital, we are several steps removed in both position and outlook from the front-line organisations we ultimately exist to support. And lockdown has made many of the things we normally try to do to bridge that gap very difficult. That is why in September we organised a “virtual festival”, we met and heard from several brilliant social sector leaders. Then, to connect up the front-line experience to strategy and policy, we also heard from the Minister for Civil Society.

My first reaction to the festival was awe at the ingenuity, resilience and drive of the leaders we heard from. There were incredible stories of taking organisations badly affected by the crisis and coming up with new ways to do things, not just to survive but to achieve even greater impact. Craig Thomas from Steam Hubs and Pubs CIC told us how, despite all the restrictions on pubs during lockdown, they had managed to find new ways to reach out and provide vital support to the local Manchester community. John French talked about how Fuse has coped and changed despite the almost total closure of the events business.

There will be more challenges ahead, as the pandemic is far from over. But what I took from the conversations was a faith in the ability of organisations to respond and seize opportunities. We in the social investment sector have made a small contribution to helping the sector during the initial phase of the crisis, through initiatives like the Resilience and Recovery Loan Fund. We now need to think about what will be needed in the longer recovery phase and to support organisations who want to seize new opportunities. We at Big Society Capital are keen to work with others to think this through. Our ‘A New Horizon’ panel along with Karl Wilding, NCVO, Vidhya Alakeson, Power to Change and Celia Hodson from Hey Girls provided us with both great insight and also challenged us to step up to our role as convenor and sector supporter, as well as being a provider of capital.

The Minister recognised the way the social sector has responded to the crisis, and the vital contribution it has made. However, she also laid down a challenge to us: can we be clear about the benefits of the social sector and social investment in particular? What are the three clear and simple reasons that we can give her to help make the case more widely across Government?

I would be interested to hear from others how you would rise to that challenge and what your three reasons would be. To start the conversation off, here are three of mine, drawn in part from the insights I heard at the virtual festival:

  • Mobilising communities: the Covid crisis has demonstrated, more than ever, that there are some social challenges that Government and the private sector simply can’t address alone. From ensuring food reaches vulnerable people who are shielding to avoiding isolation and promoting social contact, it is communities themselves, and the social sector organisations rooted in them, that mobilise what is needed
  • Health: the crisis has exposed the poor and drastically unequal public health we have in Britain, and the vulnerability of the care system. Social sector organisations are at the forefront of tackling the issues at the heart of this, such as unequal access to good housing, healthy food, social contact and mental health support
  • Jobs: the recent unemployment figures are just a start of what is likely to come as the furlough scheme winds down, and there are already worrying signs that rises in joblessness are worse in areas that were already struggling economically. Social enterprises disproportionately create jobs in the poorest communities and can have a major part to play in any concerted response

I’m extremely grateful to the front-line organisations, and the Minister for Civil Society, Baroness Barran for taking the time out to talk to Big Society Capital and some of our partners at this exceptionally busy time. I came away reinvigorated to do what we can to support the organisations who are improving lives across the UK

Stephen Muers

Stephen Muers

Interim Chief Executive Officer smuers@bigsocietycapital.com

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