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  • Writer's pictureEamonn Seydak

The 'New Normal' - reflecting on the virtual summit

As we continue our blog series here at S3, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on our recent virtual summit for the community and voluntary sector.

It’s fair to say we were overwhelmed by the initial response, more than 100 registrations in the first 24 hours left us slightly apprehensive at the potential scale of the event, but a final total of 306 registrations including organisations of all shapes and sizes from across the UK and Ireland was a massive success from our perspective.

We’ve talked to lots of clients recently about the phrase that everyone kept hearing: ‘the new normal’. Most are anxious about what that actually means for the community and voluntary sector and continue to worry about short term survival, but many are enthusiastic about the opportunity to do new things or do old things ‘better’.

Those conversations were the motivation behind the event in the first place and looking back now, I think that the three summit topics of 1) funding 2) connecting digitally and 3) engaging beneficiaries digitally in the new normal, resonated with people.

The feelings in the immediate aftermath of the event were achievement and relief in equal measure (we definitely felt relief that the event ran smoothly and without any technical difficulties!). Achievement because we connected with so many people from so many different organisations and because we felt that the event provided some really interesting insights and value. Personally, I was delighted for Patricia Magee and the rest of our brilliant team who put so much work into it.

I thought that the speakers brought a real unique mix of experience and insight and offered real value for those tuning in (I know I’m biased). I watched the recording back a couple of days later and a few things jumped out for me above all others.

1. The openness of the funders on our discussion panel (Community Foundation NI, National Lottery Community Fund and Rethink Ireland) was so encouraging. I loved the relaxed approach and they made it absolutely clear that they are open for business, they want to connect with organisations, to have conversations and to listen and hear what groups have to say. Many of our clients are apprehensive about approaching funders, and this shouldn’t be the case. This situation is new for all of us and we are all learning, so honest engagement and conversation is what’s required. This message came through loud and clear from our panel and I took great encouragement from this and I hope the listeners did too.

2. In the past few months, Funders priorities have inevitably shifted towards COVID related and emergency responses – and rightly so. As we start to emerge from COVID or enter a new phase, some of the new needs within communities will become more enduring challenges whilst some of the pre-existing and established issues have been intensified by the pandemic and will require more attention. There are no easy solutions but what is clear is that now more than ever, organisations need to connect with people in their community. The need consult widely to identify needs and developing a plan to tackle and address them is crucial, this includes talking to funders about how you can respond. There are many local, grass roots organisations that have been leading the way in terms of COVID responses and community engagement, you can’t help but be inspired by some of the work that goes on – now is an opportunity to connect with others to share learning and methods.

3. A lot of the groups we speak to feel lost in the digital world, there are so many tools, devices and software’s out there and it’s hard to navigate them. For others, embracing online methods has enabled them to engage more people than ever before. Accessing a meeting from your own living room can help overcome time, childcare and travel barriers and for community consultations this can help drive up participation. We also heard that digital approaches can’t become all consuming, and that a positive blend of online engagements and face to face human engagements could be very effective in the new normal. We heard from Care Merseyside and Elemental about the huge impact that a combined digital and personal approach can have. Those informal conversations over coffee or scones is often where the magic happens and we don’t want to lose that.

Overall, I came away with many more questions than when I started, which I always think is the sign of a good event. My colleague Simon recently reflected in a blog that it’s important to develop a plan, doesn’t have to be fancy or glossy, but having a plan is key – I think this was reinforced during the summit. We learned lots as well for future events, discussion based format seemed to work really well based on feedback and we hope to pick this up further with new initiatives in the future.

For me, I think that right now is both a great time to step back and reflect, but also to try new things. If you don’t know where to start, I would suggest starting with conversations – with people in your organisation, people in the communities you support, with funders and with others like those organisations who presented at our summit, who are happy to chat, no obligations.

Watching the summit recording and writing this blog reminded me of the saying ‘Nothing is permanent except change’, and I think those organisations that embrace change, even subtle ones will be the organisations that flourish and as a result communities and people too, will flourish.

From the discussion, it was evident that funders (like groups working in the sector) have been struggling to adapt and respond to the Covid-19 crisis period. They acknowledge change is required in the future and they will have to change their thinking in terms of what they fund / support. They are open to new thinking and solutions but the challenge to groups is to ensure that any new ideas / thinking reflects the communities and individuals they work with. From our perspective, this is a good challenge for our clients and for S3 Solutions!


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