Understanding the 9 million active neighbours of lockdown

| Immy Robinson

One of the things we’re really interested in at Ideas Alliance is relationships. We see it when we facilitate projects, when we work as a team of associates, and when we write up inspirational stories for the Hub – so often the core of what makes community projects and co-production a success is the enabling of strong relationships based on human connection. That’s why we were excited to come across The Relationship Project, a small team of people working to promote and understand the importance of quality relationships to a happy, healthy society. In this blog, co-lead Immy Robinson discusses what their project The Observatory teaches us about the community activity that emerged during the coronavirus crisis, and offers some thoughts on how we can sustain it. Over to Immy to tell us more…

The Relationships Project is a small team on a mission to build a better society by building better relationships. 

In early March – when the spread of coronavirus gathered pace – we set up The Relationships Observatory: an online collaborative space for gathering examples and insights and using what we learn to help sustain and develop the positives beyond the crisis.

The community response 

Something we’ve discussed a lot in The Observatory is the outpouring of community support that we’ve seen, particularly in the early days of the pandemic. At the end of September 2020, YouGov took a snapshot of the Covid volunteering effort for us. They surveyed 3,478 people to help us get a sense of the scale of the response and the role of socio-economic and demographic factors in determining who stepped forward. They found:

  • 8.95 million people (17% of UK population) got involved in some sort of community activity
  • 39% had done little or no volunteering before the pandemic 
  • 70% plan to continue doing the same amount or more once the pandemic is over (that’s 6.27 million)

Ministers call this a “volunteer army” but few describe themselves as volunteers and they are certainly not an army ready to be redeployed. There is no structure, no formality, no rules. Most weren’t mobilised by an organisation. They are willing citizens making an individual commitment. This is change in a different currency: organic, relational, much more “Me Too” than “Neighbourhood Watch”. 

The forms of care, contribution and involvement that we have seen in community activity over the past couple of years have been underpinned by a set of changing relationships – from top-down hierarchical relationships bound up in slow-moving bureaucracy and formalised support to more horizontal, agile relationships rooted in local place.

These shifting relationships have been underpinned by a new set of behaviours which are principle-led, rather than rules based; cemented by solidarity rather than compliance; less defensive, more can-do; kinder, more emotionally responsive, personal and human. 

Any recovery and attempt to build back better by harnessing this energy must understand this new web of relationships and put them at its heart.

Understanding the 9 million

At the end of 2020, we did a deep dive into the motivations, needs and energy of those who have cared together through lockdown, burrowing into the stories that lie beneath the statistics. Through this research emerged a set of ‘personas’ – clusterings of behaviours, experiences, motivations and needs. 

The persona groups that we present are not meant to be restrictive categories or exclusive boxes in which people are confined, but instead are intended to be indicative typologies. Some people will identify with more than one persona, others will move between groups at different points in time as their circumstances shift and change. 

The 5 Active Neighbour personas that emerged through our research are: 

  1. The Visionary Disruptor: The big-picture-thinkers striving and agitating for a new way of doing things. Visionary Disruptors are excited by the potential of grassroots community organising to generate change beyond the here and now. Curious about new possibilities – new models of coordination and governance – they’re interested in the theoretical and strategic dimension of community organising and challenging the status quo. They see grassroots activism and bottom-up organising as as a way of starting to build a society that works better for everyone and believe that now is the moment to grasp a new future. 
  2. The Everyday Carer: ​​The old hands who provide unwavering care to someone close to them. Looking after others is a core part of the Everyday Carer’s identity. Often stemming from a belief system rooted in upbringing or faith, the Everyday Carers haven’t made new choices in the pandemic, they have done more of what they have always done. Everyday Carer’s don’t seek reward or recognition (indeed such praise would be likely to met with embarrassment). They self-organise, working with those they care for to identify and meet their needs and as such are unreliant on formal structures and schemes.
  3. The Neighbourly Empathizer: The sociable companions who have found meaning in new neighbourhood connections. These sociable neighbours often made their way into volunteering as Practical Taskers but found purpose and fulfilment in the new relationships they formed with those that they supported. A degree of ‘officialdom’ and the sense of ‘permission’ this provides is important in giving Neighbourly Empathizers confidence to push past social reservedness and offer up their support. The satisfaction and reward that they get from supporting others in their community has whetted their appetite and they now seek opportunities to provide longer-term support within their local area. 
  4. The Practical Tasker: The busy doers new to volunteering who thrive on getting tasks done. These busy doers were inspired to offer up their support by (social) media coverage of acute need and heroic acts (here’s to Captain Tom). Looking for tangible, time bound tasks they could fit around existing commitments, they signed up to NHS GoodSam and various local groups, eager to do their bit. They shopped for shielders, baked cakes for overlooked public service people and picked up prescriptions for neighbours. The practical, flexible nature of these tasks opened up a more accessible dimension to volunteering, and any future involvement will rely on these characteristics, for they’re wary of being tied down or being asked more than they can give.
  5. The Community Weavers: The connectors and organisers building platforms for others to get involved. Leading the local response, Community Weavers build the platforms, infrastructure and connections which enable others to get involved in helping their community. Community Weavers are a central figure in their community and know the who’s who and the what’s what. They join the dots between different entities, helping things work smoothly and effectively. Fuelled by self-confidence and an abundance of energy, they’re leaders who aren’t afraid of taking responsibility and trying out new things. They’re full of ideas for strengthening their communities now and in the future.

Nurturing and sustaining community activity

It’s common, in the aftermath of a disaster, to see an upswing in community support. United against a common enemy or by a shared experience, neighbours help one another out and communities come together to rebuild. But experience shows that this so-called honeymoon period is short-lived. Social capital surveys in the US in the months following the 9/11 attack showed a 6-month shift from Me to We. Then, just as quickly, back again.

Our research with YouGov shows that the appetite and energy is there for community support to continue – 70% of those who got involved in the height of the pandemic say they want to carry on in the future – but this energy needs to be carefully nurtured. 

Trying to catch and preserve the spirit of the 9m with systems and structures is like trying to catch a butterfly in a jam jar – there is a likelihood that we kill or damage that which makes it beautiful. We must nurture an ecology that enables it to survive and thrive without owning and constraining. Relationships, not job specifications, are the secret of sustainability. We think there are a few things that can help sustain community support:

  • Information sharing: The needs of communities were often easy to identify at the start of lockdown, but have become increasingly difficult to diagnose and engage with. Safe information sharing between local authorities, local organisations, and local community groups can help surface need and point Active Neighbours in the direction they can be of assistance
  • Removing barriers: The barriers and bureaucracy commonly associated with traditional volunteering were stripped back in the early days of the pandemic. Nimble, new groups rooted firmly in the local community quickly emerged, organising via simple and widely accessible technology. Neighbours could dip in and out, signing up to do simple tasks that fit around their commitments. There were no arduous sign up forms, no minimum levels of commitment, no long-term contracts. This ease of access must be woven into future opportunities to sustain involvement at levels close to what we’ve seen, particularly for Practical Taskers.
  • Peer support: Many Active Neighbours got involved through a sense of obligation, inspired by heroic acts heralded in the media, but stayed involved because of the new connections they formed and the sense of belonging they fostered. Relationships must be at the heart of efforts to sustain community activity. Peer support networks linking up Active Neighbours in different communities would inject new energy and ideas, and generate a powerful – and motivating – sense of being part of a bigger movement of community activity.
  • Hibernating well: Some local areas responded to the social need in their communities much faster and more effectively than others. The most comprehensive and successful social responses have emerged in areas where there were pre-existing structures and relationships. Over the past 18 months, many areas have seen a growth in their connective tissue. Even if community activity recedes in the next stages of the pandemic, this new social fabric can enable a swift and effective response to future crises, providing volunteers hibernate well. To do so, they must feel their contribution has been needed, recognised and valued. Taking time to celebrate and thank all those who have stepped up must therefore be a priority.

Join the journey

In early 2021, we’ll be kicking off a peer support programme for those who help the helpers (community infrastructure organisations, local authorities, and volunteering organisations) to explore how they can help keep the community spark alive. If you’re interested in learning more or joining this journey, please get in touch with immy@relationshipsproject.org 

You can find out more about The Relationships Project on their website, or connect with the team on Twitter.

Image supplied by the Relationships Project.

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