Mhairi Sharp: Lockdown legacies could create a more equitable sector

For all the challenges of Covid-19, the pandemic has catalysed progress towards a fairer sector and society. It’s critical for that progress to continue

Mhairi Sharp

Two years ago this week, the UK went into its first pandemic lockdown and within weeks it was clear that Covid-19 would affect different people’s lives in very different ways.

Inequities that have long existed in our society, and our sector, would be further exacerbated; bubbling to the surface for all to see.

There was an urgent need for action, and the sector stepped up.

We’re still in awe of what Barnardo’s achieved with Boloh: the first helpline offering dedicated support to Black, Asian and minority ethnic children and families negatively affected by Covid-19.

The service launched in 2020 as research showed the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on these communities.

Boloh went from concept to reality in just seven weeks, with 40 Black, Asian and minority ethnic therapists offering support in 13 different languages.

Within months it was experiencing thousands of interactions and today has links with more than 250 voluntary sector bodies.

In 2021, The Ubele Initiative, Mind, Young Minds and Best Beginnings came together to launch Bayo – a platform that provides information about initiatives, communities and mental health services created by and for the Black community.

Bayo was funded by The National Emergencies Trust and is run by The Ubele Initiative. It’s another brilliant example of sector collaboration in the face of unmet needs, one that could bring benefits long beyond the pandemic.

It was a privilege to partner with Comic Relief on the Global Majority Fund, thanks to support from Barclays. Working with intermediary technical partners, the fund has distributed grants totalling more than £5.5m so far, to projects led by and for communities facing racial inequalities. 

By centring lived experience in funding decisions, the Global Majority Fund is creating a model that could have a lasting, positive footprint on the sector.

I hope we will see a similar legacy from UK Community Foundations BAME Infrastructure Fund, which was launched at the height of the pandemic. 

For another of our partners, the LGBT Consortium, pandemic funding streams enabled it to assess the risks within LGBTQIA+ communities, and be braver and more inclusive as a funder. 

After realising that organisations supporting bisexual people were not applying for funding at the same rate as others, for example, The LGBT Consortium commissioned community research into the issue – and also used funding to dip deeper into intersectionality in the sector. 

Paul Roberts, chief executive of the LGBT Consortium, refers to this work as one of the richest exercises his team has undertaken, because it leveraged the consortium’s ability to push forward their grants programme.

Today the LGBT+ Futures Equity Fund, in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund, is a lasting positive legacy of pandemic investment.

For thousands of charities and groups, the pandemic created a critical impetus to embrace digital technology, leaving a legacy of more inclusive and accessible services.

UKCF and its network of community foundations awarded more than 14,000 grants from our coronavirus appeal, and just over a quarter of these supported technology and connectivity needs.

For example, ASD Helping Hands, which supports people across Norfolk with autism spectrum disorders, applied for funds to create a live chat befriending system to alleviate social isolation, while Belfast Friendship Club purchased equipment to set up a weekly feelgood podcast for its communities.

Meanwhile, our national charity partners used funding to expand their existing remote services across multiple platforms, including web chat, email and text.

They also invested in accessibility support, rolling out freephone numbers, launching translation services and offering audio support technology to help reach all communities. 

For all the challenges it has created, there’s no doubt that Covid-19 catalysed progress that will contribute to a fairer sector and society.

It’s now critical for that progress to continue. We are coping with the impact of Covid-19 while facing conflict, a cost of living crisis and the growing impacts of climate change. 

Now is the time to work even harder to create a sector that works for everyone – and Covid-19 has shown what is possible when we all work together.

Mhairi Sharp is chief executive of the National Emergencies Trust

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