The Voluntary Sector Was ‘Quicker and More Agile’ to Deal With Covid-19

How has the pandemic affected the local voluntary sector? In the last of a three part series, Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Aurora New Dawn’s CEO, Shonagh Dillon. Read parts one and two.

Paris: How have your clients dealt with the changes in service delivery due to the pandemic?

Shonagh: Really well. I think [both we and our] clients have really missed face-to-face visits. We have set aside a budget for that and we have put a risk assessment together, so we are starting back basically from [August]. I sent an email to the team saying face-to-face client visits are a priority, you need to offer every single client a face-to-face visit if they want one. We need to make sure that happens. Not everybody wants one, but face-to-face visits have been the major thing, because that’s one of the things that we love to do. You might not always speak to your client face-to-face in the first contact, but you should always arrange a visit if it’s possible to see them.

That’s one of the things that we’ve missed. You can do virtual meetings but there [are] hidden cues in body language that you miss, even if it’s on Zoom. I think, even virtually, we still all perform like it’s a phone call/meeting. It doesn’t feel natural.

Whether we go back to meetings with our partners straight away, probably not, but for our clients, we’ll just mask up. And as long as they’re okay to wear a mask, they will have a mask; some victims and survivors will not want to wear a mask because that will have been used [in an abusive or violent situation] or they will have experienced suffocation. We’re really mindful of that, but we can wear a mask, make [our working] space clean [and Covid safe] and we’ve got a budget to make sure that people can travel here if they need to. We can [also] make sure that we can travel to them.

If you could send a message to local councillors and MPs to help them understand how to best support the voluntary sector right now, what would it be?

I think to continue listening to the sector. I think everybody has been – and should be – impressed by the third sector and how they have managed Covid, because the charitable sector has been quicker and more agile than most institutions in this pandemic.

I think that’s given a level of respect to the third sector, not that they weren’t respected before. [Our] business models are really quite secure and quite slick, because we don’t run on massive profits [or with] massive reserves, but [despite that] we were really quick to turn our services around and carry on delivering.

Aurora never stopped any of our services and nothing changed. We doubled our referrals instead. I know that other organisations in Portsmouth who have nothing to do with the violence against women sector have done very similar, like the HIVE. It’s just mind blowing and really inspirational.

It’s a listening project, that’s how I would put it to councillors and MPs. It must be hard being a councillor and being an MP, being any kind of politician, because they’re consistently bashed over the head with [demands for] funding that [they] don’t necessarily have. I understand that. But it’s about listening to and watching [the voluntary sector]: asking what those services need and how we can work together in partnership rather than [as] provider and commissioner. It’s that sort of balancing act.

One of the things I hope comes out of the pandemic is that there’s much more cohesive strategizing of where we go next for our communities, because there’s some really untapped resources in the third sector. We’re not just support workers, we tend to be tenacious – otherwise why would we carry on doing what we do on a shoestring?

Let’s take [engagement between the voluntary sector and politicians] out of social media and get to know [each other], [rather than just making] it a photo opportunity. I’m talking to all of us, let’s none of us make this a photo opportunity. Let’s have some conversations that are about getting to know where things are going. [Let’s also share our] planning as well, as we don’t know if there is going to be a second wave.

Politicians’ constituents are our clients. We have a shared agenda and that’s where we should meet.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Just a thank you to Star & Crescent. Because, you’re tiny too and so on behalf of Aurora, we just want to extend a massive thank you to the team at S&C. You were the ones who picked up the ball for us in terms of social media and relentlessly tweeted [our helpline details] at the same time as us and that had a huge impact, and you were doing it for free, so thank you.

A certificate of appreciation sent to the S&C team from Aurora New Dawn.

S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:

  • voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
  • small businesses and self-employed people
  • BAME communities
  • people with disabilities

We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences in any of these areas, get in touch with us over on Facebook and Twitter, or email us at

Image by Caniceus from Pixabay.

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