Emerging from lockdown: responding to the emergency in our communities

Community business leaders are adept at responding to changing needs, but this is something else, requiring all their energy, creativity and skills. Supporting them is not only what we were set up to do but is also now more relevant than ever.

Kate Stewart

Director of Programmes, Power to Change

As the enormity of Covid-19 struck when we went into lockdown on 23rd March, the leadership team at Power to Change quickly realised we had to pivot our business plan; as the independent trust set up to support community business, the crisis was there for all to see.

As well as taking on board insights from our team, we spent the first week of lockdown talking to our trusted partners and community business leaders to understand the immediate implications for the sector we exist to support; that way our decisions would be driven and informed by the needs of the sector.

Stopping in order to get started

Pausing our funding programmes one week into lockdown meant we could dedicate our time and energy to working out how best to support as many of the 9,000 community businesses across England as possible. It also reflected the fact our programmes were no longer what was needed right now. We didn’t take this decision lightly, but we did take it unanimously. Whilst our pre-Covid-19 programmes are no longer be open to new applicants, all grants awarded are still available to community businesses – no funding has been withdrawn.

As a spend down trust, we have a limited life. Our pre-crisis business plan saw activity finish by the end of 2022. We decided to set aside £12 million for our emergency response – 23% of our remaining endowment, 8% of our total endowment – even if that meant hastening our closure. The decision was clear – better to use our funds now rather than live on with a sector dying on its feet.

Our actions

The last two decades have seen significant shifts in how community and voluntary groups secure and diversify their income, often at the behest of funders. The community businesses model embraces this, with trading income at its heart. The almost total change Covid-19 brought about in routes to market to generate trading income felt like the best place for us to target our funding, so that those who have worked so hard to move away from grant-reliance aren’t penalised for their success. That’s why stepping in to replace lost trading income is at the heart of our emergency response.

So far we have:

  • identified a gap in the support being offered by Government and other funders – unrestricted grants to cover lost trading income
  • offered £7m in direct funding – to existing grantees and the wider sector
  • tried to make the processes as simple as possible, aware how much pressure anyone applying to us will already be under
  • opted for a first-come-first-served system for our sector support – the fairest, least-worst alternative – anything else was likely to mean a long, drawn-out process during which many applicants could have gone out of business

 

For anyone good with numbers, you’ll have noticed that leaves £5m unaccounted for from the £12m of emergency support that Power to Change announced on 30th April. We’ve been gathering intelligence since lockdown to plan for our medium-term response. This crisis isn’t coming to an end any time soon. We’ll continue to collaborate with partners and community business leaders – to make sure we meet as much need as we can, and, as always, adapt and improve our approach based on learning. Our medium-term support will launch in September.

Managing privilege

In many ways, Power to Change is similar to the community businesses it supports – we’ve had to make sure our team is well supported while gathering intelligence so we can revise what we do to meet changing needs. But, unlike community businesses, we haven’t had to furlough staff, to manage growing numbers of volunteers, to pause or stop vital services while working out how to deliver them online in times of social distancing. We haven’t had to stay awake at night wondering how to get the organisation through the next day.

Much like community businesses, we’ve had to adapt plans at an unprecedented pace. However, a critical difference between us and community businesses is the enormous responsibility and position of privilege and power we have as a funder. Sitting here in my makeshift home ‘office’, I’m painfully aware of how lucky I am to have a secure job during these times. This, and my absolute commitment to tackling social inequalities are what have spurred me on to focus all my energy into doing everything I can to make sure we continue to support as many community businesses as possible.

Community business leaders are adept at responding to changing needs, but this is something else, requiring all their energy, creativity and skills. Supporting them is not only what we were set up to do but is also now more relevant than ever. These leaders run businesses that put community first, put positive impact before profit, and more often than not operate in communities labelled ‘deprived.’ It’s not a comfortable label, but the inequalities out there are stark. Emerging findings already show how much more adversely people living in these places are affected, particularly those from a BAME background.

Doing my little bit to support such an important part of our society is an absolute privilege – using our power as a funder to work out how best to support it is, in my opinion, a moral responsibility, and exactly what Power to Change exists to do.