Project reveals how COVID-19 impacted Colchester’s charities and volunteers

A University of Essex study, commissioned by Community 360 and the Health and Wellbeing Alliance, has revealed, through a series of oral history testimonies, how Colchester’s charitable and voluntary sector has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ‘Communities Responding to Crisis’ report, by Dr Alix Green, Dr Rebecca Warren, Dr Deb Wiltshire and PhD student Samantha Woodward reveals the “absolute and immediate human impact” the pandemic has had on staff and volunteers delivering services and those who use them, whilst showing how organisations have responded rapidly in creative ways to ensure people have access to the support they need.

Community 360 worked in partnership with the University to ensure the local experiences of citizens and community leaders were captured. The charity works with over 500 community groups each year and wanted to look in greater detail at the ways in which organisations that help people of all ages responded and continue to respond to the pandemic.

Together with Dr Daisy Payling, the research team collected 22 testimonies from people working to support communities in Colchester and north east Essex. The interviews reveal a complex picture of how the pandemic has impacted staff morale and the wellbeing of service users, funding and fundraising and the development of partnerships.

The report shows how new groups formed in response to community needs and how others, adapting in response to the pandemic, will change the way they work forever.

The testimonies were recorded between October 2020 and February 2021, with interviewees asked to reflect on how their organisations had been responding to the ever-changing pandemic situation and their feelings about the future. Interviewees were then given the opportunity to reflect upon everyone’s contributions at a workshop in May 2021 and agree a series of implications.

Organisations that contributed included Refugee Action Colchester, Beacon House, Outhouse East, MS:UK, Breathe Easy Colchester, St Helena Hospice, Action for Family Carers, and Next Chapter.

Findings of the project include:

  • While some organisations saw an increase in demand for services, others saw a drop off either because they could not offer remote services or because COVID-specific policies aimed at reducing the impact of lockdowns meant there was temporarily less need.
  • Staff and volunteers have suffered with a decline in their own wellbeing, with many feeling socially isolated, those on furlough suffering from a lack of purpose and those working from home worrying about the service users who need their help.
  • Services that rely on volunteers reported a ‘changing of the guard’ as older volunteers left face-to-face roles to shield, replaced by younger people furloughed or out of work.
  • Many organisations successfully moved services online, with staff providing support remotely able to reach new and wider communities, while others found their users suffered either because of a lack of digital confidence or access to IT equipment, or because they relied on specialist equipment in face-to-face support centres.
  • New groups, like the Eight Ash Green Hub, formed in direct response to the needs of their communities, with many using social media to reach people who needed them.
  • Emergency COVID-19 funding benefitted many organisations, allowing them to continue to work safely, but the short-term nature of funding streams cast doubt over continuity and uncertainty remains with some beneficiaries who fear services will be cut when funding stops.
  • While many organisations have suffered because restrictions have meant they cannot fundraise in their usual ways, others have seen increased interest in donations due to media coverage around issues such as food poverty.
  • Many new and innovative partnerships have been formed between organisations as an immediate response to COVID-19 with many expected to last beyond the end of the pandemic.

You can read more about the report here.