NICVA Conference “COVID-19: Taking Stock at the year end”

On Wednesday 9th December, NICVA hosted a major webinar with Communities Minister Carál Ní Chulín and DfC Permanent Secretary Tracy Meharg who collectively took stock of the impacts and lessons from the Covid-19 crisis.

Opening the event NICVA Chair, Olwen Lyner, set the context for the conference, highlighting the importance of recognising the high value that voluntary and community sector organisations contribute to society in Northern Ireland and recognising their hard work and major contribution during the pandemic.

Seamus McAleavey, NICVA

Speaking about the impact the pandemic had on the sector, Seamus reflected on how immediate and devastating this was recognised. With fundraising events coming to an immediate halt, budgets and funding was major concern for all. However, despite this, the collaboration within and reaction of the sector was one to be commended.

  • Emergency leadership programme

An initiative set up in response to the crisis by Department for Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey, the programme was hectic yet very impressive. The programme set up an emergency helpline and assisted with the logistics of providing food and medicine deliveries to those most vulnerable in our society. Engagement and communication was a major factor to ensure smooth running, with NICVA lead in this area and working to ensure clear communications between those involved. It helped build collaboration and trust between voluntary and community sector organisations and the Department. This must not stop post-Covid; the working relationship needs to be built on and continued.

  • Manifesto for Change

A paper produced by NICVA, at the Minister’s request, the Manifesto for change details recommendations for the public sector to help recognise and utilise the full potential of voluntary action. NICVA highlighted the need to improve Government understanding of and policy on the role of the voluntary and community sector. Unblocking key barriers and creating a supportive environment is also essential going forward for example avoiding excessive and unnecessary bureaucracy which can have a negative and restrictive impact. The voice of the voluntary and community sector needs to be valued in order to help promote change within our society.

  • The flexible role of DfC

Flexibility of the Department with regards to funding organisations and allowing organisations to pivot their aims to target areas of need brought about by the pandemic was vital in enabling the provision of services to continue.

Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister for Communities

Speaking about the importance of collaboration and community leadership from a Ministerial perspective, Minister Ní Chuilín reflected on the ‘masterclass’ response to the pandemic from the voluntary and community sector. Welcoming the engagement between her Department and the sector, the Minister highlighted the areas she saw as key for continuing this positive working relationship and also announced the next phase of the Charities fund, encouraging charities to prepare for the application process which will open on 6 January 2021.

  • Collaboration and leadership demonstrated by voluntary and community sector

The Minister acknowledged the hard work carried out by the organisations within the sector, and how the response of the Department was to assist the sector and the community leaders who were working on the ground, in the best possible way. The collective response to the pandemic was underlined by working together, working more creatively and building alliances.

  • Commitment to not returning to a pre-Covid 19 style of work

It is important to continue this new way of working after covid-19. Against the backdrop of a society that is facing increasing pressures compounded by the uncertainties presented of Brexit, a restrictive overall budget, decades of inequality and poverty, and poor mental health, it is important to continue the collaborative way of working demonstrated over the last few months.

The Minister described three key pillars under which she believes the current work can continue:

  1. Partnership and collaboration

Partnership and collaboration has been a key theme to the response to the pandemic. The Emergency Response programme could not have been delivered in isolation, but it was given strength through the collective working of all those involved.

  1. Co-design and co-production

This element is very important to the Minister and the Department for Communities. The voices and experiences of the sector need to be central in creating public and Government policy. It is about ensuring that new policies brought forward by the public sector clearly reflect the recommendations stated within the Manifesto for Change paper.

  1. Delivery of real improvements and real outcomes

There is commitment within the Department that their work and the development of their policies is based on objective need, real citizenship, empowerment and delivery. The new Programme for Government will be evidence based, open, accessible and build on co-production and co-design.

  • Announcement of £11.7 million for the next phase of the Charities fund

Acknowledging the impact on the sector, the Minister announced the second phase of the Charities Fund with the hope that it will help alleviate the pressures felt by organisations due to the pandemic.

  • Recognition of support provided by NICVA

Thanking Seamus, Olwen and the staff at NICVA, the Minister acknowledged the support and engagement provided not only to the Department but also to the charities with regards to communication and assistance during the previous funding phase.

  • Community wealth building

Working closely with Trademark and the Development Trusts NI, the Minister is hoping to bring forward an evidence-based model with the hope of implementing real change. Community Wealth Building offers an opportunity to tackle poverty and deprivation within our society. Based on equality and human rights, it is hoped that this model will also help build foundations of recovery in a just and equitable way.

  • Where to next?

Bureaucracy is needed however it is made easier when there is trust and respect. This has been lacking in the past between the sectors. However, it is when that trust and respect is felt and internalised, as has been apparent over the past number of months, then the value of it becomes very real. Acknowledging that there is refreshing sense of a ‘coalition of the willing’ within the current Department for Communities, with officials not afraid to get plan in partnership with the sector rather than without. Committing to working with NICVA and the sector, Minister Ní Chuilín described the Manifesto for Change recommendations as empowering, inclusive and having the ability to bring about real outcomes.

Tracy Meharg, Permanent Secretary DfC

Opening her presentation, Tracy acknowledged the change on how the Department of Communities think about policy development and acknowledged the role that Minister Ní Chuilín has played in encouraging this. The public sector has been talking about strategies of co-design and collaboration for some time however the pandemic helped bring the value of them into focus. Tracy thanked the team at NICVA for the support provided to the Department.

  • The role of the Department for Communities going forward

The Department will work alongside the sector as a partner and going forward should be seen as a gateway to Government. Over the past number of months, there has been work to build on existing relationships as well as broker new ones through collaborative work and engagement. Neighbourhood Renewal is an example of a strong partnership way of working for the Department, and the new Emergency Response Programme has been fundamental in changing the approach to engagement. These relationships will also be used not only for work within the Department but also with other Government Departments and local Government as well.

The Department have committed to continuing to work with NICVA and the sector to identify a strategic recovery and renewal agenda for the sector which will be taken forward on the basis of co-design.

  • Evidence based policy development

The Department will strive to listen to what the needs actually are in order to best inform future work. Working alongside the sector have helped the Department develop a greater understanding of need from those who work at a grassroots level. This has helped inform the Department on work they have done and funds they have provided. The approach not only enabled current policy/funding development but also allowed for the Department to anticipate problems that may arise and therefore be proactive in their implementation of work.

  • Acknowledging the role of NICVA

In representing the sector, Tracy acknowledged the work of NICVA and the compelling voice provided by Seamus in his ability to balance a strong challenge on behalf of the sector alongside a willingness to work in a constructive partnership with the Department. This has been instrumental in defining the Department approach both in terms of getting the needed support for the sector as well as encouraging co-design approaches and setting strategic direction

  • The partnerships between the Department and the sector

Tracy described her pride in what the Department for Communities has delivered over the past ten months but highlighted that it was made possible by the partnerships and expertise of those within the voluntary and community sector. These partnerships helped deliver and support many actions, including the provision of emergency funds, a dedicated helpline and the delivery of food and medicine, to help those who are vulnerable within our society during the pandemic. The Department has committed to not going back to old ways of working but rather encouraging the continuation of collaborative working. Minister Ní Chuilín recently launched the Departments five-year strategy which has a strategic priority to “incentivise, support and enhance community empowerment through an innovative and sustainable community and voluntary sector.”


During the question-and-answer session, the panelists provided their input on a range of topics including how the Department will handle a review on the impact covid-19 has had on the sector, clearer guidance for the sector with regards to restrictions, support that will be made available to help counteract burnout within the sector, help and support available to help with the new online way of working, and recognition of the gendered impact of the crisis.

Watch the conference recording



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