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  4. Working ‘in the middle’: The role of voluntary sector Local Infrastructure Organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic in England

Working ‘in the middle’: The role of voluntary sector Local Infrastructure Organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic in England

This blog post is a continuation of an occasional series focusing on the role of Local Infrastructure Organisations (LIOs) written by Dr Daniel Haslam.

You can find links to previous entries on the CVSL Blog HERE.

Introduction

Local Infrastructure Organisations (LIO) have always operated within an environment that at times requires contradictory things. On the one hand they support and advocate for the rich diversity that exists across the voluntary sector and local communities, at times resisting attempts by others to make generalisations about people and places. On the other, particularly in work with larger organisations such as the public sector, they find themselves representing the voice of the sector as a whole, promoting greater funding across the sector, and attempting to create a unified picture of organisations and communities.

These two aspects are always in tension and during the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen examples of how this tension has been exacerbated. This blog looks at some of the findings of CVSL’s research with LIOs over the last two years and this has impacted their ways of working.

The Community Response

The pandemic saw a surge in focus on volunteering in local communities through ‘COVID Support’ and/or ‘Mutual Aid’ groups across the world. Many of these were facilitated by existing volunteers who refocussed their efforts towards providing food, medicine, befriending support, etc. to people who may have been less able to look after themselves or isolated in their neighbourhoods.

Many of these groups remained informal and for LIOs it was a challenge to stay connected and keep communicating with them as they emerged and grew. LIOs found themselves both supportive of these groups and concerned about the lack of oversight of them, particularly when working with potentially vulnerable people.

As one interviewee described:
So, there was a big debate that ensued about the way some of the mutual aid groups were advertising, putting posters through doors saying, if you need help, stick this in your window. It was just causing a lot of tension…And then we came to the conclusion that actually that’s probably the only flag for some people, it’s the only way they can make themselves known. And if the mutual aid groups are able to do what they say they’re saying they’re doing, which is having this real street focus, this regular monitoring of who’s in need of help, then without something else being in place, they may well be the only source of help for that person. (Interview 86)

In relation to these groups, LIOs were the more senior and more established partner. Often this meant that LIOs saw it as part of their job to attempt to coordinate and oversee the groups and in this sense were acting in ‘top-down’ manner in a form of informal regulation which varied in terms of success. LIOs themselves obviously had limited capacity to support additional groups but did consider it part of their remit to make the attempt.

As the pandemic continued and many of the people involved in these groups returned to previous ways of life, LIOs continued their supportive role in helping these groups transition to non-COVID issues and more formal organisational structures. This also linked with how LIOs were involved in mobilising volunteers for specific tasks such as at vaccine centres which continued for a long period after the initial crisis response (and continues now). LIOs were often also expected – formally or informally – to ‘pick up the slack’ left when these groups reduced their activity, which was something they generally could not do.

The Public Sector Response

In contrast to LIOs position relative to community groups, their work with public sector organisations involved them working in more of a representative and advocacy role for the wider voluntary sector. In that sense they were the junior partner in terms of size and capacity, brought in to provide ‘bottom-up’ engagement. LIOs who had previously enjoyed good relationships with public sector partners found that they were still able to have their say in meetings and events, but others reported having to force their way into COVID response planning:
So, we stuck to our guns, and we carried on with what we did… we stormed the doors of our local resilience forum and basically said, okay, who’s sitting round these tables for the voluntary sector at the moment? No-one. Why? You should have someone there. And they were like, well, do you guys want to come on? And we were like, fine…And it just allowed us to be able to explain what we were doing, not just about volunteers, but supporting groups, supporting communities. But also, to give a bit of that reality check to some of our partners. Especially health, and I say this with love. They really struggle to get their head round the voluntary sector. (interview 48)

LIOs also had a role in drawing attention to crucial services in the voluntary sector that remained running throughout COVID but that were not COVID-specific:
I’d say that something that I wanted to know, and make sure was recognised, was other voluntary organisations that had continued to deliver. Because there was a bit of language I suppose about everybody stopped, and there’s all these people out there that we need to help because they have no services. (Interview 94)

On the whole, much of this work was focussed on feeding intelligence to public sector responses in an attempt to ensure funding and capacity was directed towards those who would benefit the most. At times, LIOs were put in a difficult position in which they felt like they could not reject any request for help, not just because of the moral or practical position of supporting communities but because the people and organisations asking for help were amongst their pre- (and hopefully post-) pandemic funders.

Conclusion
Overall, like many organisations during COVID, LIOs found their capacity and funding stretched (although some did benefit from increased funding as covered in a previous blog, see here). One of the key issues for LIOs was the twin demand to both support more community groups – downwards engagement – and support more demand from public sector partners – upwards engagement. The pace at which these demands emerged, and at which they then reduced or changed was also a huge challenge for LIOs to respond to. The experience during COVID exemplifies the unity/diversity tension that LIOs face in their day-to-day existence in the local voluntary sector. We can conceptualise this as a ‘transmission belt’ type role (see previous blog here).

It remains to be seen if this intensity at either end of the LIO role spectrum remains as we continue to learn to live with COVID. As one of our interviewees reflected:
I’m hoping that it’s going to slowly start to open doors for us where we can have those discussions on, okay, we could do this for you now. Or, you said that you really appreciated that. We could do more of that, and add this onto it, and it’s only going to cost X, which really is a drop in the ocean… (Interview 48).

At CVSL we have recently completed some additional research with members of LIOs from around the country. Stay tuned for more information on what we find and sign up to our newsletter by emailing us here.

7th July 2022

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