Mike Adamson: The future of the charity sector relies on better collaboration and partnership

Strengthening local relationships is crucial to effectively supporting the most vulnerable over the lifetime of this emergency

Mike Adamson
Mike Adamson

In recent weeks it's become clear that coronavirus is emphasising inequalities and leaving people who were already vulnerable worse off. But what does that mean for charities responding to this crisis?

Insights already emerging from across our sector suggest that, despite the number of coronavirus cases going down, its impact is only worsening.

Since lockdown began, the number of charities asking for help to feed the hungry has tripled, while more people are experiencing poverty, loneliness and worsening mental health.

I believe this is proof that the effects of this crisis will last a long time.

For a humanitarian emergency response organisation such as the British Red Cross, it can be hard to know where to focus your efforts when there’s such a monumental level of need.

Our teams are used to supporting people in the aftermath of floods, fires and earthquakes, but how do you choose how best to use your resources when an emergency is creating new and complex needs on a domestic scale you’ve never dealt with before?

The answer is innovation.

This virus has forced us to take risks. We know that building new relationships and experimenting with new ways of supporting people is the only way to respond to the unprecedented level of need coronavirus has created.

Our new partnership with FareShare has given us an insight into the worsening food poverty sweeping our country and allowed us to pool our volunteer resource with theirs, to ensure more people are able to feed themselves and their families. 

The British Red Cross has also launched a support line for anyone who needs someone to talk to.

This is a great achievement and proof that new systems can be set up at record pace in times of crisis. 

But getting support like this to those who need it most isn't straightforward. By their nature the most vulnerable people in our society are often those who are "hidden" and hard to reach.

We're working hard to ensure BAME communities, for example, know about our helpline and feel able to call it. But we have a long way to go to ensure the support we have on offer is truly accessible to those who need it most. 

So when people ask me what a post-coronavirus world looks like for charities such as the British Red Cross, I say the biggest challenge our sector will face as a result of this virus is yet to come.

When our country starts to recover and life opens up once more, there will be so many people still feeling the effects of coronavirus. But finding those people and getting the right support to them will be even harder when volunteers have gone back to day jobs and mutual-aid groups have closed down.

As chair of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership, I have already seen the way that convening the sector helps us look beyond our own evidence base and the needs of our typical service users to those of less visible groups.

Through the partnership we are bringing together local and national organisations such as the Muslim Charities Forum, Victim Support and Business in the Community, as well as representatives from across government.

Something as simple as engaging in an open dialogue enables more diverse insights on the needs of different communities to be shared and opens new avenues for reaching vulnerable groups.

Crucially, collaborating also allows us to support more people than we would otherwise. Last month the Emergencies Partnership received a request to support 31 food banks across London.

This couldn’t be fulfilled by one organisation alone, so the British Red Cross and Team Rubicon pooled their resources and together were able to support more than 4,000 vulnerable people to access food items and toiletries, something that wouldn’t have been possible if we were working in isolation.

As is so often the case in an emergency, local volunteers have been the bedrock of the response to coronavirus in our communities. So when charities look ahead to where they want to be in six months or a year from now, it must include a vision of better collaboration and partnership.

There’s no doubt that collaboration carries risk. You need to be prepared to invest time and resources without a guarantee that others will do the same. But I believe it’s the best way to truly understand what support people need, avoid fragmentation and harness relationships that multiply impact.

For the most vulnerable, coronavirus is here to stay. Strengthening local relationships will be crucial to improving our ability to effectively support the most vulnerable and marginalised over the lifetime of this emergency.

Mike Adamson is the chief executive of British Red Cross and chair of the VCS Emergencies PartnershipThis is the second in a four-part series of blogs covering the VCS Emergencies Partnership response to Covid-19

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