Our 2020 Progress | A Year of Obstacles & Opportunities
COVID created many obstacles for business and the VCSE sector. This gave rise to much uncertainty on how we best serve beneficiaries, whilst meeting the challenges of restrictions and lockdowns and ensuring COVID safety. With a frequently changing situation, it became somewhat difficult to plan, and has brought an added level of financial uncertainty.
In many respects the COVID crisis has added even more importance to what we do as an organisation in supporting community and workplace wellbeing, and promoting positive mental health. Indeed as we emerge out from COVID new opportunities will arise out of the need for a COVID recovery response, especially for those most deeply affected by the impact of COVID. Over this pandemic period there will have undoubtedly been worsening levels of stress and burnout in workforces like the NHS and key workers, and for the wider community increasing levels of anxiety and depression from issues like job insecurity, reduced earnings, or loss of livelihood. Equally there will be those in community adversely impacted by COVID through bereavement loss, with generally increasing levels of social isolation. Those that have been shielding may become very anxious and fearful as things start to open up.
During lockdowns, the wellbeing, social isolation and mental health challenges have touched each and everyone the world over. We however saw some interesting trends on how people reacted in response to personal wellbeing challenges and perhaps more fundamentally in how they live their lives, how they work, and what is truly important — perhaps that they will not want a return to the ‘old normal’ and maybe a ‘different normal’ is emerging. That might not be a bad thing.
Some of the ways people coped and responded in lockdowns, was not far removed from our own ‘Nature’s Ways to Wellbeing’ philosophy — regular exercise in a local green space, valuing noticing nature, spending time in the garden, seeking a distraction from a new hobby or creative activity, realising the importance of social bonds to friends and family and connecting to nature. For many the pandemic and lockdown periods will have been a ‘wake-up call’ to re-evaluate their lives and lifestyles, and perhaps slow down, and appreciate life’s simple things. In a way, this very much endorses what our project is about and how it can support wellbeing, recovery and resilience.
Photo – Front page of ‘Self Care-Wellbeing Guide’ created as part of our COVID response.
Whilst the pandemic presented problems for us to deliver our face-to-face wellbeing activities, it also presented new opportunities. Like many other social enterprises and community groups we were able to pivot our offering – one of the benefits of being relatively small and agile.
We decided not to take up the government’s Furlough Scheme as this prevented any furloughed staff from continuing to work for their current employer, even in a volunteer capacity. We therefore applied for and were successfully granted new funding under the Government’s Coronavirus Community Support Fund, distributed through The National Lottery Community Fund, which was targeted at helping VCSE organisations through the financially challenging times, but also allowing them to continue to support their communities through COVID. Even these plans, under this new funding, were in a continual state of flux, due to changing lockdown restrictions, forcing us to quickly find a new direction to achieve the same aims of COVID wellbeing support for NHS/key workers and the wider community.
We continued to offer our outdoor wellbeing activities in max group sizes of 6 while restrictions allowed, but as lockdowns tightened we offered the following as alternatives:
- weekly wellbeing Zoom calls to our regular participants
- home visits (at social distance from outside) to those people known to us who were living alone and at particular risk of feeling isolated, also with the offer of collecting food/supplies if needed.
- offering ‘1-2-One with Nature’ walks and/or bike rides to people in community known to us potentially at risk from social isolation.
Photo – Example of one of a series of the ‘NatureFun’ Seasonal Creative Activity Guides
COVID Solutions (Going Digital)
Like many other support organisations we were also forced to look to non face-to-face (COVID-safe) solutions, providing new and innovative ways of offering wellbeing services and support. We pivoted our planned ‘NatureFix’/‘NatureFit’ as physically delivered programmes to newly developed ‘NatureFun’ on-line activities and ‘Virtual Nature Escapes’ digital wellbeing resources:
- Creation of a simple to use ‘Self-Care Wellbeing Guide’ at the start of the pandemic outbreak to help people stay positive and use elements of our ‘Nature’s Ways’ approach.
- Seasonal ‘NatureFun’ creative activities/video instructions, that our regular participants could enjoy independently or on Zoom.
- Co-creating a digital e-book with local and UK-wide with 18 contributors, called ‘A Moment’s Notice’ (6 themed video chapters with a mindful photography focus promoting relaxation and mindful escape).
- Co-creating a follow-up digital e-book with local and UK-wide with 23 contributors, called ‘Uplifting Angels’ (8 themed video chapters with a landscape focus). Creation of this book encouraged contributors to explore and photograph their local landscapes (in compliance with restrictions) and add uplifting messages of support for NHS/key workers. Both e-books resulted in multi-layer beneficiaries — those contributing and those reading the e-books, resulting in many hundreds of beneficiaries.
- We also shared all these above resources (for free) via social medial and website links to other wellbeing support groups and green space organisations to spread the benefit more widely.
Photo – Front cover of ‘A Moment’s Notice’ mindful photography co-created e-book
In many respects the pandemic and our dynamic problem solving approach, has actually worked in our favour. We’ve reached out to many new beneficiaries and contributors by going digital – reaching much wider geographies right across the UK and way beyond are normal local beneficiaries in the North Staffordshire and East Cheshire area. In many ways this has presented us with a new route to growing our reach and impact beyond our locality, through providing digital wellbeing support. This has the advantages of being COVID-safe, far reaching, and efficient to deliver. It draws a contrast to our usual wellbeing impact work, which until now has been local, to a relatively small number of beneficiaries, but deeply and personally impactful. Moving forwards it may be nice to maintain a healthy balance between local physical wellbeing delivery and virtual wellbeing delivery which is perhaps less impactful, but reaches many more beneficiaries.
Photo – Front cover of ‘Uplifting Angels’ (#SnapForHeroes) landscape photography co-created e-book
As with most businesses and especially VCSE organisations, financially things have been tough, with our trading income practically eradicated. This has made is entirely reliant on our ‘Reaching Communities’ funding and CCSF funding to cover our main costs of salary and other essential costs like insurance. We realise for the short/medium term we are likely to remain heavily funding dependent.
However the need for what we do, particularly in the post-pandemic COVID recovery phase, has never been greater.
Staying Connected to Community & Stakeholders
We continued to play and active role in the development of social enterprise locally in North Staffordshire, and also sharing our own learning journey to help others who are following in our footsteps. Whilst physical networking with social enterprise colleagues, beneficiaries and stakeholders has been limited, we’ve remained pro-active via Zoom and Teams meetings developing our project, helping others to develop theirs, and sharing learning experiences. We’re actively engaged in a number of initiatives to develop social enterprise and encourage community engagement locally, and have continued to weekly engage with the local Social Enterprise Matters network, following our locality’s success in securing ‘Place of Social Enterprise’ recognition.
Photo – Flyer for Event/Workshop Human-Nature hosted for funder UnLtd
We’re hopefully cementing a reputation as one of the most forward thinking organisations on community ‘health creation’ and linking our human wellbeing work to the environment. We’ve grown our networking links with like-minded environmental and green space organisations through securing a place on the prestigious School of Social Enterprise ‘Environmental Entrepreneur’ Learning Programme, connecting to more than a dozen other enterprises in the Midlands, North West and north East areas of the UK. This programme encouraged us to look right back to our mission, vision and values, and gave an opportunity to consult with our regular participants and steering group members on how to achieve a more even balance between our human wellbeing and environmental ambitions, whilst remaining true to our founding values.
Photo – Consortium & Programme Delivery Partners for ‘Create Place’ Leadership Learning Programme
More recently we’ve started a further learning programme, securing a place on the ‘Create Place’ Place-making and Cultural Leadership Programme. This is giving us new networking and learning opportunities within the local creative and cultural/heritage sector in North Staffordshire and East Cheshire, with new coaching/mentoring and project development opportunities tapping into expertise of the consortium partners delivering that programme, which includes arts/heritage organisations, local authorities and local universities. Many of the people on the programme are young creatives, which gives us an opportunity to network and explore the needs and aspirations of younger people and how we might develop our services to improve our interactions with community right across the full age range and embrace better diversity and harder to reach audiences. Also it might help us to engage better with the local creative community to help us deliver and expand what we do in terms of arts for wellbeing.
Our connection with young people will be further enhanced as we’re set to embark on a project with Staffordshire University to work with students in a consultancy capacity to investigate the potential of a ‘15 Minute City’ model. This project will see us engage with students to explore and digitally map green space and cultural assets surrounding the campus, as part of a wider project to see whether all neighbourhood services are accessible on foot or by cycling within a 15 minute travel time.
We’ve also been listening to the likely wellbeing and recovery needs of other organisations and potential beneficiaries as we exit the pandemic – including the health/NHS, education and community sector, including a number of on-line presentations and meetings with organisations covering other regions and UK-wide, who are starting to show an interest in our work. Likewise we’ve tried hard to develop new relationships with potential partner organisations where there is synergy with our own work.
We’ve started to be recognised for the work we do, with appearances on local BBC radio interviews, and mentions in local newspapers. We were also invited to host and present an on-line learning session with funders UnLtd to inspire discussion and break-out session work on green wellbeing.
We’ve also connected to a number of local MP’s in relation to our work and aspirations to become a canal-based community project, and have now done a number of visits to other similar projects in the Midlands area, to learn from them, and talk to their volunteers. We remain a community partner with Canal & River Trust and Groundwork West Midlands/The Land Trust, although volunteer work with them has had to be curtailed due to the pandemic restrictions.
Throughout the pandemic, and despite the difficulties of face-to-face meetings (and our usual weekly group meetings for outdoor wellbeing activities), we’ve remained in weekly contact with our regular participants to support them through the pandemic. Many of our regular ‘Friends with Human-Nature’ group have been with us now for over 4 years — so we’re definitely doing something right! They continue to inform the direction of our project, and have been stimulating ideas for on-line activities and how we achieve greater reach to new participants through digital and on-line opportunities, while the pandemic has limited our usual interactions.
We’ve remained pro-active with our local communities in supporting them on campaigning about risk of loss of local green space to new housing development. This includes offering our support on the importance of nearby accessible green space for wellbeing and positive mental health of local residents, by helping and publicising the campaigns of Save Berryhill Fields Action Group (Stoke-on-Trent) and more recently Save Bradwell Field Action (Newcastle-under-Lyme).
We continued to grow our social media presence, now with 2400+ followers. Our 2 e-book projects have helped us gain interest and positive contributions from many other parts of the UK. This more digital approach has enabled us to trigger feedback via on-line survey tools to collect data and testimonials on the effectiveness of our digital wellbeing resources, which we have openly shared (free of charge) to the wider community and other wellbeing/green space groups. Also these surveys provide an ability for participants and contributors to share their thoughts on how we might develop and improve what we offer. For example the survey feedback is informing how we might use music or therapeutic nature sound recordings to accompany and enhance the nature imagery to enhance the overall virtual nature experience. We’ve also triggered surveys on how NHS/key-worker staff have coped during the pandemic to inform how we might best support their wellbeing and mental health recovery needs.
Photo – New ‘Human-Nature’ Logo and refreshed/simplified icons for ‘Nature’s Ways to Wellbeing’
We are in the process of updating, refreshing and simplifying our website, including a new organisation logo, new ‘Nature’s Ways to Wellbeing’ icons, new photographic and written content. We continue to use only photographic imagery and content provided through our project and it’s contributors and never use stock photos or outside professional expertise to design our website. We hope this gives an authentic look and feel to our website, which is true to who we are, where we’ve come from, and our future direction.
(The above post represents our written CIC34 Annual Report which we will in due course submit as part of our statutory annual return and accounts submission.)