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Maddy Desforges "The ability of the voluntary sector to absorb and adapt has been truly inspiring"

As she prepared to move on from her role at Voluntary Action Sheffield, Chief Executive Maddy Desforges gave us her thoughts on achievements and learning from Sheffield’s voluntary sector since 2016.

Maddy Desforges

Maddy Desforges.

Voluntary Action Sheffield (VAS) is the organisation which supports and represents the voluntary and community sector in the city.

Maddy Desforges has been the organisation’s Chief Executive since 2016, leading VAS through a period that has included austerity policies, Black Lives Matter and the Covid-19 pandemic.

As Maddy prepared to move to another role in the voluntary sector, Now Then took the opportunity to reflect with her on the achievements and challenges of the last five years.

How would you explain what VAS does?

The simplest way of describing VAS would be to say that we bring people and organisations together. You could say we are the ‘glue’ for the voluntary and community sector in Sheffield.

We use our understanding and knowledge of what groups and organisations provide to bring people together to collaborate and have greater impact, such as our work with the SPRING Project, co-ordinating and enhancing the assistance available for refugees. Another example would be the Healthy Holidays programme, bringing together support for children eligible for free school meals over the school holidays. Alongside this work, we also provide training and other support for local organisations and groups.

With the pressure on the sector’s finances over the last few years, we have had to constantly ask ourselves whether we are doing the right things, the most effective things. Our mantra has become, ‘Doing For, Doing With, Stepping Back,’ – initiating action to identify assets but making sure that we give organisations the space to get on with the work.

One of the major initiatives over the last few years has been the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. What impact has this had on VAS?

As with many organisations, Black Lives Matter has compelled us to take a good look at ourselves and ask, ‘How can we do better?’ One of the first changes that we have made is to be more proactive, reaching out to community organisations across the city, and using our position to open doors and bring more voices in.

As part of this we have looked at some structures and started again – for example, setting up a new Voluntary and Community Leadership Forum, with a membership that is much more representative of communities across the city. We have also looked at how programmes like the Move More healthy living project can be made more relevant and attractive to different communities in Sheffield.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen an unprecedented series of challenges for the city, both in terms of public health and economic impact. How has this affected VAS and Sheffield’s voluntary sector?

It has been an immensely challenging time. The demand for support from VAS and the voluntary sector in general has risen exponentially. At the same time we have all had to cope with reductions in funding whilst implementing new ways of working, with staff working from home and sometimes being unavailable because of shielding or self-isolating requirements.

I am immensely proud of the way that VAS and the sector have responded in this crisis. In a situation where everything was constantly changing, we were able to provide up-to-date and accurate information and signposting as to where vulnerable individuals and families could get support. We coordinated a Covid-19 network for voluntary and community organisation across the city, with a weekly Zoom call where organisations could share information and collaborate around specific issues and escalate them where necessary.

In this most challenging of times, the ability of the voluntary sector to absorb and adapt, as well as to transform itself for the next stage of recovery, has been truly inspiring.

Organisations have responded effectively to the shock of lockdown and the pandemic and adapted effectively, innovating to make sure they identify and meet demand. To give a couple of examples, the BAMER Covid-19 Action Group quickly formed and brought organisations together to provide food and other support, identifying need, supporting communities and keeping people safe before city structures were established.

Similarly, the versatility of organisations like Shipshape meant they worked with people to understand the support available and were key to the setting up of initiatives such as the Sharrow testing site. Shipshape is known and trusted by the local community, and the organisation has been able to use this relationship to ensure that the key messages regarding the pandemic made sense and connected with local people.

The relationship with Sheffield City Council is an important dimension to VAS’s work. How have you seen this relationship develop and what has been the impact of the pandemic on this?

Over the last year, the voluntary sector has demonstrated its critical importance for the city’s wellbeing. My hope is that the Council’s recognition of the role that the sector has played will lead to a really effective partnership as the city navigates its way out of the pandemic and the associated public health and economic challenges. With a new Leader of the Council in Bob Johnson and a new Chief Executive in Kate Josephs, there are significant changes to the Council’s leadership, and VAS is engaging with them to discuss how the voluntary sector can play its fullest role in the city’s future direction.

If you could grant one wish for your successor, what would that be?

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On a more serious note, Sheffield has a vibrant and thriving voluntary and community sector, which has really stepped up during the pandemic. As a city we’re going to need that strength as we move into recovery, but individuals and organisations are exhausted.

My wish would be for the city – all its institutions, public and private sector – to put its arms around its community organisations and really support, encourage and celebrate their work as we look to a post-pandemic future.

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