Collaboration during the pandemic
England September 1 2021 Ian Dodds and Ingrid Hall
One of the most consistent themes that has emerged over the course of our research is the importance of collaboration and partnership working throughout the pandemic. In some cases new partnerships have emerged and in other cases existing relationships have been strengthened, with organisations working together to play to their strengths and support their communities. This article explores one example of partnership working during the pandemic between VODA and Dreamshine.
Introduction to VODA
VODA is a registered charity that passionately believes in the power of volunteers and community groups to change people’s lives for the better. For nearly 30 years VODA has been the ‘beating heart’ of the voluntary and community sector in North Tyneside, providing essential support to hundreds of volunteers and community groups each year. VODA’s dedicated staff team goes above and beyond to offer the voluntary and community sector in North Tyneside a full range of free core services to ensure that local groups have good governance and training in place to secure funding, and to find and retain staff and volunteers.
Introduction to Dreamshine
Dreamshine is a Community Interest Company, our primary aim is to help improve the living standards and life chances of people living in North- East England. Our Telephone Befriending Service was introduced at the start of the pandemic, and thanks to the support of our amazing staff and volunteers we now have over 420 registered service users. We have recently opened our Well Bee-Ing Hub & Café in Wallsend Town Centre, and are expanding our Befriending Service to include hub-based face to face, group, and peer support. Creating conditions and an environment where people feel relaxed, safe, valued, and listened to is at the heart of everything that we do.
Responding to the pandemic
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, all of Dreamshine’s face to face work on supporting loneliness had to stop and they began to concentrate on telephone befriending.
“Our immediate reaction was ‘how can we help?’ We quickly realised that organisations like VODA were better placed to do emergency food and medication drops, and that there was a gap for a Telephone Befriending Service. Drawing on a lifetime of random skills, and what we had previously thought of as ‘useless knowledge’ we were able to set up an 0300 number and ‘virtual call-centre’ within around 48 hours. We also reached out to everyone that we knew that we thought might be able to pool together their connections and random skills and knowledge and began mobilising the first volunteers for our phone lines. We were immediately struck by the fact that doors that would probably have previously been closed to us were suddenly flung wide open and that there was a collective willingness to listen to what we wanted to achieve and see if it was feasible to help facilitate that. This was not a time for egos – it was about doing what was needed for the greater good/the national interest. It was about helping people who would be hurting and suffering. It was time to rip up the rule book and hit the ground running”.
Offering telephone befriending as a response to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns that followed enabled Dreamshine to support some of the most isolated and vulnerable members of the local community in a time of real crisis. Setting up a telephone befriending service from scratch was to be a considerable undertaking. Dreamshine had been made aware of VODA’s support services at a Networking meeting in 2019 and so turned to VODA for advice.
One of the biggest challenges that we (Dreamshine) identified very early on was the need for a database/CRM – not only did we need to have one done, but we needed it up and running, and fully functional within around 48 hours! Without Ian Dodds at VODA this would have been impossible – and he reached out to Tony at Rain Data who worked flat out with us to make it happen. Tony is still providing ongoing support to us free of charge – the generosity of people throughout the pandemic has been really humbling.
The other challenge was recruiting a regular stream of volunteers as the Befriending Service grew. VODA have absolutely excelled in this area, proactively advertising on our behalf, and then speaking to potential volunteers before then introducing them to us. That joined up, collaborative approach to volunteer recruitment is something that we would like to continue in the future. We are excited rather than apprehensive about the future – and look forward to further strengthening our relationship.
“VODA supported by sharing example volunteer role descriptions that could be amended as appropriate, as well as access to newly developed COVID response training resources for volunteers. In order for Dreamshine to be able to effectively co-ordinate and match volunteer befrienders to beneficiaries in the community they would require an appropriate Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) database. Through VODA’s Sector Connector project, they were put in touch with software engineers Raindata in Wallsend, who offered to make adjustments on a pro bono basis to an open source CRM in order to make it suitable to manage Dreamshine’s client calls. The CRM was a great success and is still in use. This was to be the start of successful partnership working across the months of the pandemic”.
What contributed to successful collaboration?
Open communication from the very start of the pandemic supported both VODA and Dreamshine to not only really understand what each organisation was focusing their work on, but ensured that referral routes between each organisation were clear and easy to navigate for residents and stakeholders. There was a sense of community between organisations in that each partner felt they were playing a part in something bigger. This enabled VODA to then act as the intermediary between the North Tyneside COVID hub (co-ordinated by North Tyneside Council) and Dreamshine in terms of referrals of people who were isolated and in need of telephone befriending. This intermediary role also allowed Dreamshine to refer back to VODA when additional support was needed for the clients in receipt of telephone befriending. As a relatively new organisation, Dreamshine did not have VODA’s extensive knowledge of the voluntary sector and public sector services in North Tyneside and through the collaboration Dreamshine was able to get the required support for their beneficiaries quickly and effectively. VODA was also able to advise Dreamshine on areas such as professional boundaries and training for volunteers, as well as helping to promote opportunities and secure volunteers as the number of beneficiaries and calls that Dreamshine had to make increased exponentially. The ability of staff from the two organisations to contact each other whenever a problem arose and the trust that was built up to speak openly about issues – whether it was regarding clients where there were concerns about safeguarding, the need for hot meals, or lack of money for food – the collaboration was able to act in a sensitive but practical way.
“VODA have been incredible. They provided constant phone and email support from early morning until late at night, 7 days per week, for months. It was a time of very little sleep. If we hit a glitch, or had a ‘I have no idea how we are going to get past this moment,’ they were right there with us, talking it through, bouncing ideas around, ‘what if we do this, how about we try that?’ By simply being there for us and proactively trouble shooting and helping to keep us safe, they have made what frequently felt impossible, suddenly possible”.
Collaborating into the future
As government restrictions continue to be relaxed across the country; Dreamshine and VODA communicated about the best way to support the community to recover from the impacts of COVID-19. As part of these conversations, it was agreed that both organisations, alongside others, would continue to promote social distancing, face coverings and regular sanitising when carrying out work in the community. This collaborative response to community protection means that residents who have been affected by the pandemic feel supported by their local voluntary sector when re-entering society after many months of shielding. Moving into the coming months, the partnership work continues as Dreamshine and VODA’s Ending Loneliness Partnership will collaborate on the delivery of ‘Happy to Chat’ sessions. These informal, but COVID secure spaces will ensure that residents have a safe and supportive environment to create new connections and rebuild their confidence.
* This article was written in July/August 2021 and the content was accurate at the time of writing.