How community business peer networking operated before and during coronavirus
By Cathy Harris, Sheffield Hallam University
Amid the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, community businesses have found vital support from their peers. Sharing worries, challenges and information with other community business leaders has helped them navigate stressful and uncertain times, our research has found.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on community businesses, with significant declines in trading income from services and buildings, and often increases in the demand for different types of services. In response to the crisis, community businesses have had to make rapid adjustments to the way they work, the services they offer, and the staffing of their organisations. The impacts of Covid-19 have varied widely: some community businesses became extremely busy, while others had to stop work entirely. Some had furloughed staff and many were seeking access to emergency funding and relief to support cashflow. However, Covid-19 also highlighted the value and importance of community businesses in being able to respond quickly to local needs. They were able to build and strengthen relationships with local authorities and others, and had to adapt and innovate quickly, e.g. providing services online.
Peer networking proved to be invaluable during the Covid-19 lockdown. It provided members with personal and professional support throughout the crisis, through sharing and signposting information, and streamlining services. We spoke to 16 community business practitioners in April and May 2020 who had either taken part in Power to Change’s 2017-18 Peer Networks Programme, which aimed to develop and grow sustainable peer networks across community businesses, or were members of the Health and Social Care Community of Practice. Participants spoke about the key role and impact of peer networking in supporting and informing their organisation’s response to the crisis. By building trust they were enabled to support each other, through sharing experiences, dilemmas and different approaches and responses. Online support from funders and national infrastructure bodies was also key.
Through our discussions with community business practitioners, we found that supported and facilitated peer networks were highly valued for both practical benefits and emotional and personal support. Participants valued having the time and space to build relationships and trust with others in similar sectors or types of businesses. This enabled them to share ideas and learn from each other’s experiences, provided mutual support, advice and problem-solving. It also allowed them to reflect on and develop their own practice and understanding of wider agendas. One practitioner told us that:
‘It felt like an opportunity to step away and review and learn, rather than kind of just keep on the treadmill of keeping going, keeping going. It allowed reflection time which I think helps us all individuals and which in turn helps the organisations.’
However, the ongoing success of peer networks often relied on investment and facilitation. Following the end of the Peer Networks Programme, many networks had become fragmented due to a lack of leadership and direction. Group members had less time to fit in peer networking alongside their day-to-day priorities. Nonetheless, some networks were continued, usually on a more ad-hoc and informal basis, and with smaller groups of people who had developed close bonds during the programme or whose work aligned most closely together.
Peer networking appeared to arise more immediately at the individual and organisational level with networks forming between clusters of similar organisations, rather than through efforts to influence systems, structures and wider agendas. Key benefits appear to be around personal and emotional support. This raises the question of whether benefits become fully embedded within organisational practices and approaches or stay with the individual.
However, there was evidence of lasting wider benefits. Information, knowledge and tools were being cascaded through specific networks and through ongoing collaborations. Many interviewees described how being part of a peer network broadened their horizons through access to other perspectives and support. This prevented the repetition of common mistakes and provided reassurance and confidence that they were tackling issues appropriately. One participant reflected that:
‘For me, the best part of it was being able to talk to organisations who I wouldn’t necessarily have linked up with or understood or known and, so, getting that external viewpoint, and a different viewpoint on how they approach things, and understanding their particular challenges.’
Experiences of peer networking and support during the Covid-19 crisis emphasises the wider importance and value of Power to Change’s work in investing in the development of sustainable peer networks to support community businesses. It also highlights the need for continuing support for community businesses as summed up by this participant:
‘It needs to be facilitated, which is the strength of it. And that needs to be funded…I think what Covid proves is that we need that to be kept going, really. Because of the value it has – of the support, of the information and knowledge sharing, and the influencing upwards of our issues and challenges….Because now we’re going to need it most for the next two years, because of the impact of Covid is not going to go away. But organisations are going to take two or three years to recover. And to do that you need groups like this.’