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Coronavirus Organising and deciding

Community action: Maintaining motivation and sustaining support

What motivates people to get involved in their community and what makes them continue to do so? To accompany the latest briefing from the Third Sector Research Centre’s research into communities responding to COVID-19, Lekey Leidecker and Angus McCabe examine how community action has changed throughout the pandemic and the challenges it has faced over the past 18 months and faces going forward.

Have you been involved in community-led action over the last 18 months? What sort of initiatives sprang up as COVID locked us down? For many the COVID crisis represented a call to action, spurring people to do what they could for their families, friends, and neighbours. Handing out food parcels, delivering prescriptions, keeping people connected as the feeling of isolation set in. Our research shows that communities’ responses to COVID were often built upon proud histories of community action.

However, what felt like a spontaneously outpouring of community solidarity slowly seemed to evolve into a state of permanency, a feeling that left many feeling burnt out and burdened by responsibility. This blog and the accompanying briefing investigates the issues surrounding community-led action and how motivation might be sustained.

Since those early days, levels of community action in response to COVID-19 have ebbed and flowed.

A lot has been written about formal volunteering as well as more informal community action since the start of the pandemic some 18 months ago. Much of this has focused on the groundswell of activity during the first lockdown in March 2020 – from the responses to NHS calls for volunteers through to individuals supporting their neighbours and people coming together to form mutual aid groups.

Since those early days, levels of community action in response to COVID-19 have ebbed and flowed. Levels of energy have waxed and waned – often only to be revitalised as the nature of the crisis has evolved. Emergency food responses transformed into activities to combat isolation and promote wellbeing and more recently moved on to thinking about how to address growing levels of need around debt, mental illness and unemployment.

Keeping people going

Less attention has been paid to what has kept community action, and community activists, going throughout the crisis. Initial responses may have been spontaneous outpourings of empathy and collective concern but this is likely an over-simplification. Our research shows that, in many cases, responses to COVID-19 built on local histories of community action. Activists often re-directed their energies to the immediate crisis rather than emerging spontaneously. But these histories alone do not explain why action has been sustained over time and in the face of intense challenges.

What has motivated people?

Briefing 14 suggests that there are three interconnected factors that have kept people going. Yes, there are individual factors; a personal desire to respond to the distress of immediate neighbours – to come together in the face of a shared, and very clear and present, danger. There are those that have had the resources either in terms of time or the finances – for example to purchase petrol to deliver emergency food packages – to respond. But often those individualised responses have fallen away as the immediate emergency subsided; people became tired or ill – or returned to work from furlough.

From spontaneity to permanency

So, two other factors have come into play in terms of sustaining action, and these relate both to communities and organisations. Mutual support between activists at a community level has been critical: the understanding that people may become tired or ill and have permission to ‘drop-out’, recuperate, recharge their batteries – or just move on to other things. A sense of collective achievement, beyond personal satisfaction, has also been important – as has celebrating those achievements together. And the image of community action has shifted in policy terms during the pandemic – from being rather chaotic, messy and marginal to being an integral (some might say indispensable) part of responses to COVID-19. Activism has a new legitimacy in the eyes of some that has reinforced the value of sustained action.

Then there are the organisational factors: the resources that have been used to keep the community hub going as a base from which to operate, to co-ordinate and build on individual actions, to provide the anchors that have connected highly local activity with broader, often local authority wide, responses and given those informal actions a higher profile.

Activism has a new legitimacy in the eyes of some that has reinforced the value of sustained action.

COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of community infrastructure both in terms of mobilising and sustaining collective action. This is not a new discovery – but one that has gained a new prominence during the pandemic. Community infrastructure supports not only community groups and organisations capable of building networks and connections – it helps determine a community’s capacity to organise, respond to crises, and to build for long-term change.

Read the briefing