With so many wonderful, selfless people coming forward to give their time and energy as volunteers to support the elderly, the shielded and those in increasing need during the lockdown (many of them as first-time volunteers), I’m sure you’ll agree that if the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything at all, it is that there is an enormous wealth of good in our communities.
Now, we’re beginning to see the first glimmer of a return to a more normal way of life, and some of those volunteers may be wondering what’s next for them and for the community pandemic response groups they have set up.
Is there a role for these groups in the new normal? Are there still going to be needs they can fulfil?
It is becoming increasingly clear that the effects of COVID-19 are likely to reverberate through our communities and impact on our lives for many years to come, with many failed businesses and soaring rates of unemployment, poverty and mental health issues. And so yes, there will undoubtedly be a surfeit of need. Whether there will be a role for your group, and how it might adapt to continue to address the need in their communities will depend on a number of factors.
In this blog post, we’ve adapted a previous post and factsheet to bring you a list of questions that will help you focus in on the most important issues:
First Things First
The very first thing you need to do is to put your motives for continuing your group under a microscope.
Do all or most of your members want to continue? Is this because you know your community will still have a need for the support your group has been offering? Is it perhaps because you, as a group or as individuals, have enjoyed your role as volunteers and community activists and want to continue? Or is the answer yes to both?
Whatever your reasons, you do need to be so sure about why you want to continue your group into the future that you can explain it to others clearly and concisely.
1: How do you know there is a need for what you want to do?
With so many people confined to their own home during lockdown, your group may have been responding to the crisis in a number of ways: shopping and making food deliveries, collecting and delivering prescriptions from the pharmacy, providing cooked meals for those in need, keeping up the spirits of vulnerable individuals through regular phone calls, helping people get to vital hospital appointments etc. But it’s more than likely that not all of those services will be quite so necessary once lockdown ends, so which elements do you want to take forward, and how can you find out if they’re the ones people in your community want?
By now you’re likely to have gathered quite a list of contact details for the people you’ve been supporting, so you could ask them what services they’d like to see in the future. Put together a small survey and post it on your social media group, send it out by email, ask the questions verbally by phone etc.
Include others in the community by posting your survey through people’s letter boxes, writing a piece for your local parish magazine, or by calling a socially distanced meeting in an open space.
2: Is there already an organisation doing something similar near you?
In the normal scheme of things, does a group already exists in the same area doing what you want to do, even if it has needed to cease activity during the pandemic?
This is something you might need to research, but don’t underestimate its importance because if your potential future services are likely to duplicate those which another local group or facility already offers, this may affect the level of support, funding or volunteers you will be able to access. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that what you want to do is new and/or unique in some way before you start – at least in your area.
If something does already exist, you could join that group, find like-minded people, and save yourself a lot of work.
3: Could you work in partnership with any other groups or organisations?
If there are groups already doing something related but not quite the same, perhaps you could make your work an addition to their already successful organisation, or perhaps you could work together to develop something new. If you want to work in the same geographical area, then you could perhaps share premises and work together for the benefit of both groups.
4: Do you fancy trying a different volunteer role instead?
If it turns out that there will be no real need for your group in the future or not enough interest amongst the group to carry on, but you’ve caught the volunteering bug anyway, there are always lots of other community groups and charities that would be glad to make use of your skills and enthusiasm.
Northumberland CVA provides a Volunteer Connect interactive database that connects volunteers with organisations which have available volunteering opportunities in Northumberland. You can search the opportunities on the database at www.northumberlandcva.org.uk/volunteering/volunteers and make contact with any that interest you, or you can register and set-up your own profile so organisations can find you and contact you via the system.
Alternatively, if there is already a cause that you’re passionate about, you could contact an organisation directly and offer your services.
Incidentally, don’t forget that if your group does continue, you can also register as a group and use Volunteer Connect to recruit new volunteers: ,www.northumberlandcva.org.uk/volunteering/organisations.
Okay, so now you’ve made the decision that your group will continue beyond the lockdown.
Most COVID-19 response groups will have been set up by people who recognised the urgent need to mobilise and coordinate community volunteering efforts during the most devastating pandemic most of us have ever seen. But few will have started out with a well-developed knowledge of governance issues. However, if your group is to survive into the future, now is the time to address these issues.
Perhaps you’ve already done some work here and would just like to check you have everything in place you need. If that’s the case, we have just the thing to help you concentrate your planning on the areas you still need to address to ensure the success of your organisation.
But if you’re starting from scratch, read on to find out what you need to consider:
5: What’s in a name?
Will the name you chose for your group as it responded to the pandemic be suitable in the new normal?
The name you choose is potentially going to stick with your organisation for many years so you need to spend some time finding a descriptive name that is easy to remember, suits what you do and feels comfortable.
You could start by coming up with ideas around the following statements: “My group will…”, “My group helps…” or “Our members are…”
Use descriptive words, make up an acronym or try combining two words into one. Don’t be afraid to be creative. Pretend you’re answering the phone and saying the name as an introduction. Does it roll off the tongue easily or do you feel silly saying it? Does it sound too stiff, or too jingly?
6: What do you want to achieve?
At this point, you should already have a firm idea of the changes you want to bring about and how such changes will benefit the community. This is your mission. Now it’s time to form your idea into the aims that will give your new group direction. As a group, you may find it useful to carry out one or both of the following analyses:
- A SWOT analysis – a detailed description of your organisation’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (For the majority of small groups, this could be all that is required)
- A PEST analysis – an analysis of the political, environmental, social and technical factors currently affecting the organisation (If you are review planning for an existing group, it can be very useful to carry this analysis out too)
It’s important to keep your aims broad and general so that you don’t limit your activities. Two or three general aims are plenty, and the more simply worded they are, the better – this is no time for jargon and complication.
7: How can you narrow things down?
Once you have a set of aims that are broad and general, they will no doubt feel a bit big and unwieldy. Now is the time to define those aims into something more manageable by setting some initial parameters and identifying themes. For instance:
- Do you want to help people affected by a specific issue in a defined area?
- Are you going to work with the residents of a particular town or village?
- Or with a vulnerable minority group that has special needs over a much wider area?
All of these considerations will have implications for your resources that will need to be taken into account in your service and funding plans, so it’s a good idea to be realistic right from the start.
8: How can you decide your activities?
Objectives are organisational goals that help to convert your broad aims into something more specific by linking your activities to your overall mission and aims.
Consider the themes you have identified and list activities that will have the greatest impact and make the best use of your resources to help achieve your aims. These can become your objectives. Once your group is set up properly, you can review these objectives and set up some firm activity milestones – targets you want to achieve within a given timeframe.
9: Will you need to form a management committee?
Management Committee, Trustee Board, Executive Committee or Steering Group - whatever you want to call it, they are the people (elected by and from within your membership) who manage your group and who are legally and financially responsible for it. It is important to have a committee to ensure the smooth running of your group.
You will need at least three people on your committee to take on the specific roles of Chair, Treasurer and Secretary, which every organisation should have. These ‘honorary’ officers have additional duties to carry out on behalf of the committee, although they do not have any more power than any other committee members. Our factsheet: Roles & Responsibilities lists the key responsibilities of these roles. Find out who can and can’t be a trustee in our factsheet: Who Can Be a Trustee
10: What does the rest of the committee do?
Everyone on the management committee is responsible for ensuring that everything your group does supports its mission and aims, that all money, property and resources are properly used, managed and accounted for and that your group follows the law. They are responsible too for managing any staff and volunteers. Our Roles & Responsibilities factsheet also lists the legal and managerial duties of all trustees.
11: What sort of legal structure is best for your group?
There are several different types of legal structures available to community groups, although most begin with the simplest possible structure – an ‘unincorporated association’.
Unincorporated associations are quick and usually free to set up – ideal for small groups with low incomes and that do not intend to employ staff or acquire property. However, an unincorporated association has no separate legal existence and remains essentially a collection of individuals, so any legal proceedings taken against the group would be taken against the individuals themselves.
Setting up with an incorporated structure such as a Company Limited by Guarantee or a Charitable Incorporated Organisation gives the individuals protection in some circumstances but is a more bureaucratic process to set up. Many groups start with a simple unincorporated group before moving to a more complex structure when the time is right.
12: Will you need a governing document?
Even small groups should have a governing document. A constitution is a type of governing document that sets out the rules of the organisation and details the group's aims, obligations and powers. It is a statement of what your group is going to do and how it is going to do it.
Being formally constituted is often one of the basic eligibility criteria of funding bodies. It shows that your organisation is sustainable and set up correctly so other organisations can have confidence in what you do. It makes your group accountable and ensures that members make decisions in a democratic way. The type of governing document you adopt will depend upon the legal structure your group takes, so you can only write your governing document once you have agreed the structure of your group.
13: When should you hold your first official meeting and how can you meet?
The committee becomes official at your group's Inaugural General Meeting. At this meeting, the proposed committee members will adopt the constitution. The people who adopt the constitution become the first committee members. After that, the management committee is elected annually.
Having been going for some time now as a pandemic response group, you might already have had somewhere to meet, but will this still be available once things get back to normal?
One thing that has become an issue for many community groups and charities during lockdown is that their constitution does not have a clause that allows virtual meetings, therefore it is important that you set up your own constitution so that it includes a clause that allows you to meet virtually or to use telephone facilities. That way, you are covered for all eventualities.
Wherever and however your committee meetings take place, they do need to include certain points of business and so it is useful to set a format for all meetings and to have an agenda that will help ensure that each point is covered and meetings are kept on track.
14: Do you need an action plan?
Action plan, business plan; in the early days of your group it amounts to the same thing since your concentration is likely to be focused initially on getting through the first year rather on detailed planning for the long-term. An action plan is where you can look again at the basic objectives you have already formed and set milestones and targets to keep on track.
It’s a good idea to make your targets SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound. For instance, if you want to raise money to fund your activities, try changing ‘Raise more money for our services’ to something much more specific like ‘Raise £10,000 to fund our full 2020-21 service through voluntary income by 31/08/2020’. This will give you something solid to aim for and you can then break your targets down into smaller milestones so you can measure your progress as you go along.
Do make sure you consider costings, cash flow and how much you’ll need to spend to get the organisation up and running. You don’t need to be an expert to do this – anyone organising a family budget knows about cost and expenditure.
15: Do you need policies and procedures?
Policies and procedures set out how a community organisation should be run. One of the most important ways a management committee can oversee the delegation of its work is via written policies and procedures. Some are required by law. They can help to demonstrate a group’s professionalism. They can ensure fairness and resolve disputes, and they allow new people to know how things are done in the group.
16: How will you generate funds?
How much money you need to raise will depend very much on what you want to do. Cash flow is a significant factor for your charity and having enough income over the first 12 months is vital.
Some smaller groups are happy to rely simply on asking their members to pay a small weekly or monthly fee. Some add to this income by taking part in organised sponsored activities. Others carry out street collections (which need the permission of the local licencing authority), organise pub quizzes or raffles or host their own sponsored events (Permission and licenses may be required).
To fund more costly activities or to purchase necessary equipment, you may be able to apply for grant funding. But before you start applying for grants, you need to make sure that you have the basics in place; funders need to know that they can trust you with their money, and that your project or organisation is well managed and likely to succeed.
17: Do you need a bank account?
Your community group will almost certainly need a bank account. Most high street banks offer accounts for not-for-profit organisations, which will allow your group to start depositing funds and authorise signatories who will have access to them. Instead of going for a ‘standard’ account, look at the many ethical accounts available and try to find one that aligns with your group's constitution. The first step though is to decide who on your committee will be responsible for signing cheques/withdrawing money and make sure that this decision is recorded in the minutes at your meeting. It is common practice to authorise two committee members to sign cheques and take money out of the account on behalf of the group.
The bank will want to see your Governing Document and the minutes of the meeting that authorised the signatories. They will also need to see at least two forms of identification for each of them. Opening a bank account can take up to four weeks so bear this in mind when making decisions.
18: Do you already have the skills you need, or will you need some training?
Every community group needs a variety of skills to keep it moving ahead. In appointing your committee, people will no doubt have come forward who possess some or all of the skills needed for the specific roles of Chair, Treasurer and Secretary, but it is still a good idea to carry out a skills audit to capture the current skills of your board as well as to highlight possible gaps and points where professional guidance may be useful.
You may be lucky enough to find that a committee member has marketing or business development skills for instance, or someone may possess well-developed IT or customer care skills. Finding even one of these skills amongst your members could be an invaluable asset to your group.
If you plan to serve food, you’ll need to have up-to-date Food Safety certificates (There are a number of private sector providers for this, or you could see what’s available through Northumberland College).
Depending on your activities, it could be a good idea to get a good basic grounding in Health & Safety too – again, look at local providers for this.
19: How can you keep in touch with people?
For very small community groups, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem but as a group grows, or if the group operates over a wide area, it can be more difficult to maintain communication with members and other stakeholders. And, of course, the methods you use need to be sympathetic of the needs of the individual members – for instance, many older members still may not use email or social media.
Some other dos and don’ts: do use plain English to get your message across clearly and do ask people how they prefer to be contacted; don’t overwhelm people with too many communications and, if you provide an e-bulletin, do make sure you also provide paper copies and post them out to those who prefer it.
Beware: under Data Protection legislation you must be careful never to use people’s personal data for anything other than the purposes they have given you consent for.
20: How can you keep up to date with changes?
Northumberland CVA produces a regular fortnightly VCS Support Services e-bulletin full of information on news, governance updates, views, events, training opportunities and funding opportunities. You can subscribe via the website: www.northumberlandcva.org.uk.
If your group is a member of Northumberland CVA, your trustees can also receive an additional Trustees’ Network monthly e-bulletin with information on governance issues, legal updates, consultations and links to new resources. Find out how your group can become a member of Northumberland CVA at: www.northumberlandcva.org.uk/about/membership, and about the network at www.northumberlandtrustees.org.uk.
Northumberland VCS Assembly offers an inclusive, independent and influential voice for the VCS in the county. Members come together to define common concerns, to speak with one collective voice and to take a stand on important issues. There are four geographical networks across Northumberland that all meet regularly and offer the chance for voluntary and community organisations to get together, share ideas and good practice and raise concerns. Find out more about the Assembly at vcsassemblynorthumberland.co.uk/.
Once you’ve addressed all of these points, it’s time to put your hard work into action. You can launch your new or reviewed services secure in the knowledge that you have everything in place to ensure your group is operating safely and legally.