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Tuesday, 19 October 2021
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Looking after those who do the looking after

Written by Julia Mirkin, Funding Manager at City Bridge Trust – the City of London Corporation’s charity funder, which distributes £25million a year to charities across the capital 

Why do people respond differently to tragedy, adversity and pressure? 

When I was seconded to the Grenfell fire relief effort in 2017, distributing grants from the London Emergencies Trust to those who had been injured, bereaved or left homeless, I noticed that people’s ability to cope with the crisis thrust upon them was to a large extent determined by their levels of personal resilience. 

It’s a topic that is even more pertinent now as we approach the one-year mark in the COVID-19 pandemic – a global crisis unprecedented in the physical, psychological and financial toll it has taken on the lives of billions of people around the world. 

Frontline charity workers are often the first point of contact for people in crisis, especially during Covid, when voluntary sector-led services such as food banks, mental health support and social activities have provided a lifeline – literally in some cases – to people struggling to cope with the impact of coronavirus and the resultant lockdown. 

However, the charities we fund at City Bridge Trust tell us their frontline teams –  who deal on a daily basis with trauma and crisis in their communities and the resultant physical and psychological knock-on impact it has on their own lives –  often don’t have access to the kind of formal support which may be offered in clinical and other settings.

It’s an issue we were concerned about even before Covid struck, given the increasing pressures many charities were already facing, and which prompted me in 2019 to launch the research project Responding to the Resilience Risk, funding five London charities to design and deliver resilience-building pilot projects for their staff and volunteers. 

At this point, perhaps it would be helpful to explain what we mean by ‘resilience’. There are a number of different definitions, but for the purposes of our research project, we focused on the one defined by expert Dr Carole Pemberton as ‘the ability to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings and behaviours when faced by a life disruption or extended periods of pressure so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser and more able’. 

It soon became clear that the topic of resilience within the sector had not been extensively explored. London Funders had got the ball rolling in April 2019 with their publication of a discussion paper about the role of funders in supporting the resilience of people in community-facing organisations, but what types of interventions work best and how funders like us could support them remained unclear.

The pilot projects we funded included group workshops peer mentoring, reflective practice, one-to-one counselling and self-care sessions, with almost nine out of 10 participants finding the activities useful. Overall, the results show resilience ‘scores’ increased during the project, although some techniques proved more successful than others. 

Evaluation of the pilot projects by our learning partner, Renaisi, identified three areas that need further exploration: how resilience interventions can be delivered, so everyone feels comfortable to participate; looking at the relationship between individual and team resilience and how they support each other and; establishing whether certain features can be ‘packaged’ to make it easier for organisations to develop interventions that work in their context.

Our research suggested that organisations who want to design and deliver resilience activities should consider offering a mix of activities tailored to meet the varying needs of staff, combining information sharing and practical exercises, which could help staff step back, reflect and implement change in their lives. 

It may be beneficial to ensure sessions fit around staff workload and are delivered during working hours; to bring in external facilitators who can offer valuable insight and expertise; and, more broadly, to embed resilience activities within the very fibre of the organisation, rather than viewing it as a useful add-on. 

Of course, that may sound easier said than done at a time when charities are under more pressure than ever, faced with soaring demand for their services at a time when Covid restrictions have reduced, or cut off completely, many of their regular income streams, and that’s where funding organisations like ours come in. 

Most funders want to support organisations that care about and support their staff and volunteers, and our learning suggests they can do this by making funding available for resilience interventions and ensuring charities know it’s available for that purpose; by helping them build their capacity to deliver such schemes; and by offering advice and guidance on how to do this effectively. 

Our work in this field continues, and the second phase of Responding to the Resilience Risk will test one resilience intervention on a larger group of people and, in line with our mission to tackle inequality, focus on charities that support homeless people in the capital. 

Resilience is an issue that has not received the attention it deserves but is more important than ever at a time when the burden of providing on-the-ground support to the most vulnerable in our society falls more heavily than ever on our charities and the staff and volunteers who are their lifeblood. 

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