Between August and October, Eastside Primetimers was commissioned by Power to Change – the independent charitable trust that supports community businesses across England – to deliver workshops and capacity strengthening support for over 40 community businesses, as they emerged from the first lockdown. This was one of a number of ‘quick start’ interventions under Power to Change’s Renewal Initiative.
The issues we discovered are likely to recur again, perhaps more intensely, in December. Here we hope to share with you some of our findings about what the enterprises we worked with were confronting over the summer, lessons we learnt, and what supported steps community businesses can take in the months ahead to strengthen their services and financial outlooks.
What were the most common issues community businesses faced?
Participating community businesses came from across the country and had varying structures and services, but there were common threads in the problems they have experienced during the pandemic:
- Financial uncertainties due to interrupted trading and funding cycles – though some have benefited from emergency funding, a number of participants feared a financial ‘cliff edge’ in 2021, when Reaching Communities funding or local authority contracts come to an end. These problems were exacerbated in some cases by a lack of up-to-date business plans, financial projections or risk assessments
- Problems re-engaging with vulnerable communities – the elderly, those with learning disabilities and people in rural areas were often priority groups
- Uncertainties about affordable and effective ways to digitise and develop blended services
- The need for greater flexibility from returning staff and uncertainties about future levels of volunteering, as older volunteers went into self-isolation
- Uncertainties about trading options and how to phase reopening – the risk of new localised or national lockdown, reorganisation pressures, staff skills, lost volunteers and unpredictable demand were all factors businesses had to grapple with
- Delays in development projects (both in terms of buildings and new services or enterprises)
- Challenges managing the morale and flexibility of staff returning to work?
Work in the workshops and 1:2:1 sessions focused on how to overcome the concerns of people who use their services concerns about re-engagement, model digital engagement around user recommendations, and engage those with less digital access (e.g. through door-to-door work, peer outreach and telephone trees). A particular focus was also on how to engage BAME communities disproportionately impacted by COVID, with the help of speakers from our partners in the Ubele Initiative.
What did attendees learn during the workshops?
Some community business managers became more aware of the need to model and stress-test different financial scenarios, to review insurances and reserves policies, and of how to stay abreast of the changing funding landscape. Many emerged with a clearer idea about how to re-engage effectively with their communities at varying levels of lockdown, including through affordable and effective digital communication approaches. This often led to improved operational or business action plans, financial models, marketing plans and strategies for fundraising and income generation.
All participants were also asked to consider the specific needs and exclusions facing BAME communities in their areas, and address them throughout their planning processes. Advice from Ubele emphasised engaging with authentic intentions – BAME communities and organisations can be undermined when partners use intelligence gained to simply compete for contracts, rather than offering meaningful empowerment through genuine partnerships. BAME participants also shared insights on preferred modes of digital technology, such as the importance of maintaining free wi-fi access even from closed cafés or the potential for higher participation rates from 1:1 phone calls, rather than teleconferencing.
Participants also swapped insights through peer learning, for example tackling issues around what to do with office space or how to maintain team wellbeing. They also exchanged experiences about digital innovations they had found useful (e.g. how to share Zoom licences or make low cost videos to communicate materials, or what the best tools were for project planning, online sales or community consultation tasks). and developing new blended services.
What long-term support will community businesses need?
Community businesses will benefit from continued support to review and reposition their business models, including help stress-testing financial options and scenarios. More organisations need to be able to carry out light-touch risk assessments and be confident with risk management techniques. For many the threat of insolvency, budget deficits, redundancies and threats to services are very real. They will also need to ascertain the feasibility of their trading activities as they relaunch them, and optimise their community hubs to generate income.
Many organisations will need to develop re-engagement, re-opening and marketing plans, and may also need to access support for organisational restructures. And finally, while there has been progress towards digitisation in the community business sector during the pandemic, further work is needed on digital inclusion if community enterprises are to reach marginalised community members and beneficiaries disproportionately affected by COVID.
Can we help your community business?
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like a 1-2-1 conversation about how we can support your organisation. Through fast changing and difficult time.
Kevin Davey and Rosie Chadwick are Eastside Primetimers consultant members