Responding to and learning from changes during Covid-19

Responding to and learning from changes during Covid-19

The fifth and final blog from the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic sharing learning on the sector’s strengths and challenges experienced over this time, as well as some of the desires and concerns for the future expressed by project staff.

The WGI Learning and Impact Services team has continued to gather stories from projects about how they have adapted during lockdown and the easing of restrictions. This final blog of the series shares some learning on the sector’s strengths and challenges experienced over this time, as well as some of the desires and concerns for the future expressed during these conversations.

‘When statutory services withdrew, the third sector stepped up’

One strength of WGI projects has been the ability to ensure services continued when many other providers stopped delivery. Whilst some provision temporarily halted as it was reconfigured to be safe, much of this picked up again quickly and new support designed. For instance, Women’s Community Matters (WCM) in Barrow set up a meal delivery scheme for up to 50 families a week, increasing to 75 families in the summer holidays.

To achieve this, WCM increased its partnerships and networks, including with volunteers at the local community hub and a private catering company, with funding from donations and corporate giving. As a result, WCM has supported those who did not meet the threshold for or were unable to access statutory support. Referrals from the Police and social care departments reduced during lockdown but referrals from others, such as schools, increased.  And whereas before lockdown one-to-one support for young women was not widely taken up, since March requests for this have increased (from 40 to 69), to which WCM have responded.

The speed with which projects were able to adapt to the circumstances has been a source of pride. In common with many other sectors, changes to working practices that would have previously taken decades to implement were in place within days or weeks. Some of these changes enabled projects to better meet some women and girls’ needs. For instance, A Way Out’s Blossom project found that the need to implement appointments, rather than having drop-in sessions, has been preferred by some young women, who like the choice and control over the time and medium of support given. Blossom staff also used the lockdown to support young women to reflect, review and re-set goals for the future, as well as take time for their own training and support.

However, new risks have continued to emerge. Women@theWell reported that whilst undertaking outreach work to support homeless women and those wanting to exit prostitution, they have come across new women who previously were on zero-hours contracts and are now on the streets, having lost their jobs. These women are very vulnerable, without previous experience of being homeless, and therefore need more intense support to ensure they are safe.

Some projects have also reported a lack of other services available to refer people onto, along with difficulties with finding out which services are available. Whilst projects might pass information onto statutory services in relation to safeguarding concerns, some have reported that these were not always being picked up or acted on, because of temporary amendments to safeguarding legislation. The concept of ongoing risk assessments has become very real during Covid-19, as projects continuously review and update them according to changes in needs and support on offer.

‘It is like conducting a huge orchestra’

As lockdown eased, new challenges arose in relation to opening up buildings, or not, and supporting women and girls face-to-face. Whilst bars, pubs and restaurants have opened, many women’s centres and other community buildings have had to remain closed to the public, causing confusion and frustration for some. Having continued some face-to-face work during lockdown, projects had already established ‘Covid-safe’ working practices. Those with big enough spaces could be relatively confident that they knew how to open in a safe way. Using their own building would mean that WGI projects were more in control of health and safety measures, including the protection of confidentiality and privacy, in a way that they couldn’t be in other spaces.

Therefore over the summer, some organisations with bigger buildings and/or outdoor spaces, have been moving towards more face-to-face work. In the process, they are navigating staff members’ and clients’ feelings about the changing rules, decisions around safety measures implemented (e.g. 1 metre or 2 metres distancing indoors), and staff availability as some cannot easily work away from home without childcare. Remote forms of support continue to be central to delivery, particularly as local lockdowns and changing restrictions are expected to continue at least into the next year.

Despite challenges, there have been breakthroughs in provision because of Covid-19. For instance, Trevi House in Plymouth worked alongside two local providers to ensure gender-specific accommodation for women at risk of domestic abuse which was previously not possible. Venus has seen women increasing in independence and supporting each other to do things that workers would have previously done, such as applying for homes on social housing portals. Rise in Brighton has seen their peer research group grow in independence as they moved from working in the office to meeting online, building positive relationships with each other, and taking a lead on gathering women’s voices during lockdown.

Whilst projects are eager to return to running their usual face-to-face services when possible, these breakthroughs indicate there are some changes that projects want to see continue.

‘No idea is off the table’

As already mentioned, WGI projects have found some new success in partnership working with other agencies over the pandemic. These actions have shown what is possible when partners collaborate, build on each other’s strengths, and recognise when others are best placed to deliver. WCM intends to continue outreach work when its building opens, now that it is set up for this and it has the partners and potential funders in place. Likewise, Venus envisages that to help manage increased demand, support services are likely to continue being delivered using both remote and face-to-face methods, so that more people can be supported, saving on staff and client travel time and increasing accessibility.

Organisations are also now set up for home working, and this is likely to be sustained in the future. However, some of the more emotionally demanding work may well move back into organisational settings, for the benefit of staff wellbeing – particularly for younger staff without adequate working space at home. Although some projects report online meeting fatigue, there is a recognition that the future will involve multiple ways of giving support, including online. Therefore, the need to continue developing knowledge and practice around working in the online space, and supporting staff who work remotely, will be important.

Achievements during 2020 demonstrate that assumed obstacles to support are not insurmountable. Knowledge about the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on women and girls, including the higher rates of domestic violence, has increased amongst the general population since March.

Projects have reflected on the essential nature of their work, and how the skills, adaptability and responsiveness of the women and girls’ sector have been noticed more widely. It has increased the resolve of some to not accept ‘the computer says no’ answer in future, and to challenge perceptions that gender-specific services are ‘icing on the cake’. As increased demand during the pandemic has shown, they continue to be a necessary resource providing specialist support that is able to meet the specific needs of women and girls.

With the likelihood that the longer-term impacts of the pandemic will also disproportionately affect women and girls, projects we spoke to are concerned about the funding outlook for the sector, when it will need to be even stronger.

‘It’s not a quick fix – it’s about recovery, building trust and relationships’

As funders put their general funds and longer-term funding pots on hold, or understandably de-prioritise them, in favour of short-term Covid-19 emergency funding, there are concerns that the sector could again find itself disproportionately disadvantaged when it comes to longer-term financial sustainability.

For many WGI projects, resources were already stretched pre-Covid, demand for support has since gone up and the organisational capacity to develop or write funding applications has not necessarily been available. Emergency Covid-19 funding has been accessed by some –from local community foundations, through local fundraising or from funders like The National Lottery Community Fund and this has been welcomed. WCM was able to re-allocate a member of staff from delivery to writing funding applications. However, they and many other projects have also had staff furloughed, with skeleton staff teams working ‘crazy hours’ to re-organise, develop and deliver new services, as well as fundraise.

Hopefully, short-term support provided will enable organisations to bridge the gap until longer-term funding can be accessed. However, competition for future funds is likely to be high and a number of projects are worried about the funding landscape. As the WGI is drawing nearer to an end, some projects do not know how they will build on WGI work and retain staff without knowing if, now delayed, multi-year funding applications will be successful. This not only affects staff but also, ‘women will need consistency of support and if staff change roles or leave, it’s another change for them to deal with.’

The hope is that the sector will attract new and longer-term sources of support in time. Thinking about this, some WGI projects articulated changes that they hope to see in their relationships with funders. There is a desire amongst projects that funding bodies shift from inviting continuously new, ‘innovative’ ideas, towards greater dialogue with projects. They look forward to working with funders to identify the long-term needs, building funders’ trust and investment in organisations to deliver and report against overarching objectives. Projects can then bring together the partnerships and methods that best meet the individual needs of women and girls.

Projects understand that traditional funding approaches, which require pre-determined design, partnerships and deliverables, can be reassuring for funders. However, they hope that it is possible to build on funders’ trust in the sector during the pandemic when they encouraged projects to adapt their services as needed without defining it all first. The sector then demonstrated how it can mobilise with each other and wider partners, to support women, girls and families effectively.

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