Connection Coalition Manager, Zoe Cumberland, reflects on the lessons from 2021 and outstanding questions for the Coalition in 2022.
Image from our June informal get together with Connection Coalition members
The Jo Cox Foundation founded the Connection Coalition in April 2020 as part of the civil society response to Covid-19. Anticipating that the nation was at risk of a crisis of disconnection - and a worsening epidemic of loneliness and social isolation - we created a platform for organisations across the country to work collectively to ensure that communities and the country emerges from Covid-19 ready to build and strengthen social relationships. For more information about our aims, members and overview of the work so far, visit our homepage.
I started in my role as Connection Coalition Manager in May 2021. My background is primarily as a programme manager in youth participation and social action, often working in membership organisations such as the British Youth Council and Youth Access. I know the power of peer support and saw a lot of potential and need for the Connection Coalition members to be able to effectively support each other through such a challenging time. I also know the value and importance of supporting front line practitioners and organisations, whatever the sector, and ensuring their voices are heard when advocating and making policy decisions on a national level. The potential to give our members a national platform to be heard on the importance of their work and the challenges they face remains a priority. I was delighted to get the role and daunted in equal measure - there was no handover from a predecessor or existing plans to start with, so what did I do and what did I learn?
What did I do?
I sent a fortnightly newsletter to members highlighting work and resources of interest, provided space for sharing and conversations on our Facebook group; and convened monthly informal get togethers for members to meet each other and share learning, challenges and connect with each other informally.
Community of Practice
It was important for me to get a deeper understanding of the members of the Coalition and their needs, so after various ideas and conversations, I ran a community of practice for 15 practitioners from within the Coalition on the subject of “how can we keep putting relationships at the heart of what we do”. We ran 6 x 2 hour sessions, initially getting to know each other, establishing why we think it's important to invest in relationships and what does good look like in relationships. Group members then created their personal challenge/question that they wanted the group's help in exploring through the rest of the sessions, using something similar to an action learning set approach.
We were successful in securing some funding to run a youth loneliness theme of work within the Coalition (linking with the Jo Cox Foundation and sector more widely where appropriate), so I spent time researching what already exists and asking members what would be most helpful, and we ran our first event in December 2021, bringing together members to explore the issue and identify the themes that this project could help to address in 2022.
What did I learn?
Trialing, testing, and preparing to ‘fail’
It has been a luxury (and overwhelming at times) to have a blank page and the opportunity to just try some things out. I have spoken to a few people recently with similar experiences - moving from very target and delivery focussed roles, organisations and sectors, to spaces where we have a little more time to think, reflect and embrace iterative approaches. It may be what we want but it still takes adjustment!
The community of practice was a hunch and proved invaluable for me and participants. The monthly informal get togethers work, and I have fought against the need to change the format by adding too much in, or combining them with other ideas - they’re not for everyone, but they are always a warm and friendly space, with smiles and genuine connections, some people return each time and new members are still joining us each month.
As someone who loves a detailed plan, I have built my confidence in just giving something a go without knowing what will emerge. The challenge is to ensure I am capturing learning and implementing it in the next things I try out, ensuring I am confident in knowing what is working to help us move towards our aims, and knowing when to stop things or adapt/move on.
The power and importance of spaces for reflective practice
This is not something that has come as a surprise, but has been reinforced for me through the opportunity to actually carve out spaces for reflective practice for me and others in the Coalition. Participants in the community of practice reflected on the value of having a space “to be, not do”, with others who share similar values. The process threw up some predictable issues and challenges, but also some surprises, and by being intentional about the space being flexible and led by the needs of the group, it allowed more space for the complexities and messiness of the work we’re doing to be acknowledged and reflected on.
“[It enabled us to] generate ideas and realise even more that collaboration is where the 'power' for greater impact lies.”
“[I am grateful for] the way this enabled me to have aha moments and spur me into activism!”
“By having sessions that are not being 'recorded' the community of practice sessions provided a space where we could be 'ourselves' and not the mask that we have to usually put on when undertaking our work - that is a precious gift that I truly believe has the power to inspire and motivate even more.”
Community of practice participants
Building resilience in the sector through these spaces
The phrase “supporting the supporters” has come up a lot as I understand the aims and needs of the individuals and organisations who make up the Coalition. Hearing the news that the Small Charities Coalition (SCC) is being forced to close in the Spring has rightly prompted the sector to think about the value of infrastructure bodies. In a recent article responding to the announcement from the SCC, Maddy Desforges, CEO of NAVCA, says of infrastructure support that “it is the catalyst that allows other organisations to have their impact”. Support can come in many forms, but informal spaces to connect and share have proved valuable for members of the Connection Coalition.
In our monthly get-togethers, our conversation prompts will often be “share something you have read / watched / listened to recently that you would recommend” and “what challenges do you have that group members might be able to help with?”. Sometimes the conversations end up being work related, sometimes we talk about the joy of Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing and give advice to a member who has been struggling to sleep. I sometimes question if this is what I am ‘meant’ to be doing - but if these spaces aren’t ones where we can bring our whole selves, build relationships and connect as humans, then I’m probably missing something essential. Members have talked about the value of taking some time to “walk the walk” and actually connect with others, not always focussing on helping other people. These past two years have been tough in so many ways, and we should not underestimate the power of these weak ties in keeping us going, and now more than ever, we need all these brilliant people and organisations to keep going.
“I personally really enjoyed being able to speak to other people working and supporting their communities and actually take some time out to smile about things as we connect. So thank you for that because I hear so many of us say we feel like we have lost ourselves a little at the moment.” Informal get together participant
“By having a safe space to talk it is relieving pressure, I hadn't anticipated that.”
“It’s been important to realise we’re not alone.”
“I feel a lot of relief from sharing my feelings and experiences. I feel much more motivated to do my work and have a clear focus and confidence to continue with online and alternative working and be able to advocate for the need to do this for others as well as myself.”
Community of practice participants
Of course this work has raised as many questions as it has taught me lessons. Some of the key questions I am taking forward into 2022 are:
How do we give members space to ‘be, not do’, which we have evidenced increases motivation and inspiration, ‘unlocks’ thinking, and gives space for ideas and solutions to be shared, but also respect their time and help ensure these spaces are most useful and stand a chance of being prioritised?
How do we ensure actions we take on behalf of members on a national level are most relevant and representative of the members?
How do we best use our limited resources to give power to the members and facilitate processes for them to take forward their own ideas and solutions?
I think of this quote from one of our members often, and how we can support this approach through the Coalition’s work:
“Start and stay local. Build from the grassroots. Listen to the specifics. Learn from the community experts and their lived experience. The community has known how best to mobilise their support and connect with their neighbours. It's been locally created, locally resourced, locally managed and extremely effective. Empowering, enabling and building from these hyper local responses is the most powerful thing that can be done to build from the crisis response into recovery.” Connection Coalition member
What are the plans for 2022?
The work of 2021 has demonstrated an interest and a need from Connection Coalition members to maintain the network and through a combination of successful funding bids it has been possible to extend my role to December 2022 and with it the work of the Coalition. This gives us an opportunity to build on our learning and think about what’s next. For more information on our plans for 2022 - click here and make sure you are signed up to get the latest.
I’d love to know if anything in this has resonated with you, and if you want to connect on anything raised or the Connection Coalition more widely, please don’t hesitate! Email me: [email protected] or find me on Twitter.