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A Year of Change: How Sheffield organisations are coping with Covid

We spoke to organisations across three key sectors – independent business, arts and culture, and the voluntary and community sector – to understand the pressures of Covid-19, restrictions on trading, and hopes for 2021 and beyond.

2020 will go on record as one of the hardest years in living memory.

Here at Now Then we’ve taken time out to listen to some of the organisations the pandemic has hit the hardest, having conversations with people from different sectors across the city in a bid to understand how the pandemic has affected them and their response to the ever-changing landscape.

Treehouse boardgame cafe

Treehouse board game cafe.

Independent Trade

Our conversations started with a small group of independent businesses, who all feel they are on a rollercoaster, in light of miscommunication and a lack of organisation from central government. There’s a real sense of apprehension, especially when the conversation turns to the ‘furlough’ scheme, which is due to end in April 2021.

The year-end is a time when businesses are usually planning, ordering and forecasting for next Christmas. With January so uncertain, Christmas 2021 seems such a long way off. Some businesses have products that they are able to move online, but if you often visit independents, you’ll know that when you buy from one, you come away with much more than a physical product.

It’s the experience, it’s the chat, it’s the unique knowledge these business owners offer which sets them apart from multinationals. The lockdowns we’ve endured have driven people to their local high streets, informed by a sense that independent shops are less bustling and that more care is put into Covid safety, because the attention of the business owner is so first-hand and immediate.

Business owners also told us that there had been a marked increase in collaboration, and even collective purchasing, between independent traders. Has the pandemic in some way offered opportunities for independents to recognise their shared experiences and collectivise, to seek greater surplus through volume?

Time will tell. We hope when we come out of this pandemic and people have less time on their hands, the small independents and their shops, services and goods aren’t forgotten.

Naomi atherton at sunrise 1

Music in the Round's Chamber Music Festival.

Arts & Culture

There’s a similar feeling among arts organisations in the city, with poor communication having a huge impact.

There is an understandable anxiety around government guidelines and the risk of getting things wrong. The lack of knowledge within the Council on these guidelines means venues are having discussions between themselves about what should be put in place to keep people safe. As with the collectivising of indie traders, this cohesion between venues in Sheffield is a really positive step and something they hope will continue.

The communities surrounding our cultural organisations have come together to show their overwhelming support, with some reporting online auctions raising £30,000 and others telling us that many people donated ticket costs when events were cancelled.

The biggest obstacle arts organisations are facing is that they are totally unable to prepare for the short and long-term impacts. With little to no notice when new rules come into place or when restrictions are lifted, nobody knows how, or even if, to plan for next year.

Looking forward and discussing the innovations of the year gone, arts and cultural organisations spoke about the importance of digital delivery and the challenges faced in upskilling team members and practitioners to create compelling online experiences which also contribute towards a financially sustainable model. On the flipside, however, it was also highlighted how online work had been effective in expanding audiences beyond ‘normal’ bubbles of influence, a ray of potential sunshine in an otherwise difficult year for the sector.

The Circle reception 800x530

The Circle, home of Voluntary Action Sheffield.

Voluntary & Community Sector

The last group of organisations we met with were from the voluntary and community sector (VCS). While many businesses and arts organisations have had to go into hibernation, this sector is firefighting on the front line, so is understandably feeling totally exhausted. In contrast with other sectors, resilience within the VCS is threatened by over-delivery, by working far beyond capacity and often without the financial backing to do so. This necessity has left many voluntary organisations in Sheffield concerned about their sustainability in 2021 and beyond.

All VCS organisations are having to change the way they deliver their service, sometimes radically, and with phone calls and online delivery methods now the norm many won’t go back to the old ways of working. And yet the necessity of human contact, especially in a sector that often works to address mental health problems and social isolation, can’t be underestimated.

The stresses and strains on this sector are enormous. Tasked with a daily balancing act between their mission, their funding and their staff capacity, what they are up against is disheartening and yet what is being achieved is truly inspirational.

Looking forward, organisations noted the importance of better collaboration within the voluntary sector. We spoke about how new cross-sector partnerships needed to address the wider systemic issues we face around mental health, poverty and gender and racial equality as a city, while at the same time giving a platform to the distinct voices of communities and individuals, to be heard and acted on.

With demand increasing and capacity being reached and breached, we hope there's some light soon at the end of the tunnel, because voluntary organisations are the backbone of our communities and they should be recognised for the critical work they have done in Sheffield this year.

Learn more

Now Then will continue these cross-sector discussions in the New Year. If your organisation would like to be a part of them, please get in touch with Emma. We welcome any contributions.

If you are interested in finding out more about Sheffield organisations and their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have collaborated with Make Yourself At Home to create content which unpicks the difficulties faced by these three sectors, as well as celebrating their successes and innovations.

A huge thank you to Small Stuff, Makers, Treehouse Cafe, Cupola Gallery, Art House, Music in the Round, Tickets for Good, CADS, Corporation, Voluntary Action Sheffield, Citizens Advice Sheffield, Manor & Castle Development Trust, and Burton Street Foundation.

Filed under: #Coronavirus

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