Virtual Summit 2020: Recap

Posted on
28 May 2020
by Emily Bourke, Communications and Marketing Officer for The Wheel
Virtual Summit Logo

Yesterday marked the first session of The Wheel’s Virtual Summit 2020.  

Over the course of two hours, a series of distinguished guests offered insights into the past, the present, and — most pressingly — the future of our sector. Their discussion was rich and fruitful, and painted a vivid picture of the concerns and opportunities that have arisen as a result of COVID-19.  

Where we would normally gather as a sector in Croke Park for a full day’s activities, circumstances necessitated a new format, and we were delighted to welcome over 500 people to our online event and livestream. 

We are working to produce a collective vision paper based on the event, but in the meantime have endeavoured to capture the most salient discussion points below. 

Opening Address by The Wheel’s CEO, Deirdre Garvey

Opening the event, Deirdre Garvey offered thanks to all present, remarking that coming together is a precious opportunity right now. Our thoughts, she noted, must be with those we have lost to COVID-19, as well as their loved ones, even as we acknowledge the great efforts that Ireland has made in its response to the crisis. 

#CommunityResponseIRL Video

Sarah Monaghan, Campaigns Manager for The Wheel, introduced a short video about the sector’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, produced as part of the #CommunityResponseIRL campaign. 

Watch the video.

An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar

In a short video address, the Taoiseach praised the value of volunteers, community action, and social enterprise to Irish society in recent times. He thanked all present for helping those who need help the most, and noted that there had been over 1,000 applications to the Government’s €35m Stability Fund to help nonprofit orgnisations to “keep the lights on” in the short-term.  

Watch the video.

Panel Discussion with Sector Leaders: Challenges and Opportunities for the Sector

Featuring Anna Shakespeare (CEO, Pobal), Alison Harnett (Interim Manager, National Federation of Voluntary Service Providers), Suzanne Connolly (CEO, Barnardos), and Tracey Monson (Director of Services, Daughters of Charity). 

Our four panellists, facilitated by The Wheel’s Director of Policy, Ivan Cooper, focused on challenges and opportunities on both a macro and micro level — those faced by the sector as a whole, as well as more specific issues facing individual organisations.  

Anna Shakespeare raised four key challenges for the sector:  

  • Ensuring that it adapts to the needs of a changing Ireland;  

  • Ensuring best value for public funds;  

  • Supporting good governance and volunteering within a changing regulatory environment; and 

  • Demonstrating the effectiveness of work delivered.  

She proposed that organic development from local roots has led to a sector that is not as unified as it could be, and that the future should be driven by harmonisation of standards and outcomes, the development of a shared reporting framework, and a focus on data-driven work.  

At the same time, she noted that COVID-19 has challenged current ideas of what constitutes an “essential service” and also highlighted areas of society in need of development (e.g. youth unemployment and mortality rates among disadvantaged communities). 

Alison Harnett offered her views on emergent opportunities for the sector, namely: 

  • A spotlight on social solidarity; 

  • The redefinition of “essential services”; and 

  • The potential for service and funding redesign. 

She stressed that we are a society, not an economy — and a diverse society, at that. We are citizens first, not consumers. Communities and services are dependent on one another (e.g. frontline healthcare needs childcare to operate) and we are all interconnected.  

Our sector stood up quickly when the need arose, and demonstrated our strengths and the fact that we provide genuinely essential services. And if we are providing essential services, she observed, we should be funded accordingly. Services that are so essential should not be dependent on arbitrary funder relationships, she argued, noting that employees of organisations funded under Section 38 may now be on COVID-19 Leave, while those funded under Section 39 must use their annual leave. 

She concluded by observing that although we are in a crisis, there have been some valuable opportunities to learn and move services in new directions. She gave the example of disability services’ clients, some of whom have stressed the benefits of online support over having to get an early-morning bus to travel to a centre. There is the chance to develop a more person-centred approach to services using new technologies and approaches that have suddenly become widespread. 

Suzanne Connolly focused on the challenges faced by Barnardos, its service-users, and its volunteers.  

Barnardos’ services have had to change fundamentally, moving to digital supports over in-person sessions. Although there are some positives, online communication can limit the understanding of what’s going on for other people — we lose nonverbal cues and diminish nuance. At the same time, anxiety is high across society. Social and emotional wellbeing is a challenge. With the obvious Government focus on physical health, there is a risk that policy decisions may not take holistic wellbeing into consideration sufficiently, she suggested. 

There is also a challenge around the wellbeing of staff and volunteers. These individuals have shown flexibility and adapted to new circumstances admirably, but how long can they keep giving their all? When there is no break between work and life, emotional boundaries are put at risk as well. It is already hard to retain high-quality staff, so what effect will new environments and working conditions have on this? 

She also observed that the sector struggles with a lack of political champions. Unlike other sectors, we must constantly justify our very existence, both to statutory funders and the public on whose donations many of us heavily rely. We must also dedicate a lot of resources to varied and manifold reporting requirements, which would benefit from streamlining. 

Finally, she noted the challenges inherent in sticking together when we must compete for resources. How do we remain unified under these circumstances? 

Tracey Monson, as the final speaker, reiterated many of the concerns raised, particularly around the tsunami of need that is still to come in the wake of the crisis, but also pointed to emerging opportunities. 

We have seen, she observed, that when other structures crumble, our sector and its values remain. When the chips are down, we step up, even as our staff and volunteers are trying to manage their own lives. COVID-19 has pared everything back to reveal the values underneath, and there is now an opportunity to reactivate the values within each organisation as well as within wider society. 

Despite competition between organisations, we have come together to learn and to grow, and there has been a total bedding-down of our sector’s values. This is not just the case in Ireland, but globally. We are all facing the same challenge, so there is an opportunity to learn at a global level right now. 

She asked whether there may be opportunities to pool our data with regard to effectiveness and outcomes. Whether we can put aside funding anxieties and see what we can share. We must present a united voice to Government, ensuring that there is a recognition of local need as well as value and efficiency. Leadership in this respect is crucial right now, as a sector and as individual organisations. 

Panel Wrap-Up by Ivan Cooper

Asked to give one final message to Government representatives present at the event, the panellists responded as follows: 

  • Anna Shakespeare stressed that we must work with Government if we are to enact policy successfully. 

  • Alison Harnett asked how we can ensure that nobody is left behind as our country recovers. Our sector must be valued and recognised, and there must be authentic engagement from the Government. 

  • Suzanne Connolly called on the Government to put money behind their praise for the sector. 

  • Tracy Monson emphasised that Government is transitory, but our sector is not. We must be paid what we are worth. 

A word from The Wheel’s Chair, Paul O’Sullivan

Paul O’Sullivan, Chairperson of The Wheel, again highlighted the essential nature of our sector’s work. He observed that none of us are working for financial gain or shareholder dividends, and that any loss felt by our sector will ultimately be felt by the most marginalised in society. 

He quoted Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, saying that “we need to invest the rich endowment of social capital created by the crisis by rethinking and rebuilding the institutional immune system that is our social sector.” 

You can read Paul’s address in full here.  

Conversation with the Secretary General of the Department of Rural and Community Development, Kevin McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy, Secretary General for the Department of Rural and Community Development, began by praising the togetherness of the national response to COVID-19 and reflecting on how it has affected departmental priorities. 

The situation required quick responses and engagement with sector representatives, and recovery is now a key challenge. We must figure out how to apply learnings from recent weeks and ensure that these principles inform recovery. 

The core, overriding objective of the DRCD, he said, is to keep social inclusion at the heart of Ireland’s recovery from the current crisis. We have had a reappraisal of what’s important in society, and must accordingly reappraise the values that inform policy. 

In response, Deirdre Garvey asked how that might become institutionalised. 

Kevin McCarthy replied that, like the nonprofit sector, Government departments have experienced a similar coming-together, and this has enabled things to happen that might not usually. There is a collective consensus on priorities. 

There is now a need to reflect on how to harness the potential of communities that has been unleashed by the crisis. Community spirit has been rejuvenated, he observed, and has generated widespread enthusiasm for a reevaluation of our core values. He noted that he would not be surprised if the new Government puts these new values at the heart of its administration.  

The DRCD sees its role as integrating these across departments and organisations, and making sure that it all works. 

Deirdre Garvey responded with an observation that community spirit doesn’t grow in a vacuum, but must be nurtured. It is charities, community and voluntary groups and social enterprises which do this and they need significantly more funding if many of them are to survive. She asked where, from the Department’s perspective, the sector might go next? 

Kevin McCarthy stated that the world has changed, and it isn’t going back. A coproduction ethos is what will sustain us. It has worked well in developing existing policy frameworks, and will work will into the future. 

There are so many questions that must still be clarified. We will be in an uncertain environment for some time, and must work together to answer them. We must ensure an enabling and empowering framework, and there is also a huge opportunity in the social enterprise space — economic development will look different in the future. 

These opportunities are a wonderful story out of a dark period. 

To close, he paid tribute to everyone in the sector involved in the crisis response, thanking them for their Trojan efforts. 

Closing Remarks, Deirdre Garvey

In closing, Deirdre Garvey also profusely thanked everyone present from the sector.  

We all share a common goal of a better world, she noted, and have begun the story of our future at this event.  

A full discussion paper from this event is being prepared by The Wheel’s policy team and will be available soon. 

Watch a full recording of the event on YouTube.