Guest Blog: Cross-Border Charities and COVID-19

This guest blog is brought to you by James Jopling, Head of British Heart Foundation Scotland who reflects on the key themes which emerged during ACOSVO's COVID-19 & Cross-Border Charities Zoom Check-In.


ACOSVO has been hosting weekly themed Zoom calls since the Covid-19 crisis took hold across a range of thematic areas. Working with Pat Armstrong and her team, we ran a session for those people in senior positions in ‘cross-border’ charities – those typically with a presence in at least two nations of the UK. Here are some emerging themes – not all universally shared experiences but an attempt to capture a flavour of the discussion.


From then till now

It seemed for a lot of us that immediately following the crisis there had been a centralisation of control to head offices and away from nations, as charities took stock of the impact on income and services as well as public messaging. This didn’t always allow for a more nuanced approach that reflected our own operating environment here.

For those affected by furloughing, it seemed to have a more severe effect on capacity given the smaller teams here e.g. if your sole policy/comms colleague is furloughed you are left with a much larger challenge than if you lose half a team of six. This was mirrored by some in their battles to get a good shared understanding of why those influencing and communications activities might need to be different here – even at a time when there is currently a broad UK-wide consensus on societal response to Covid-19.

There were encouraging signs that organisations were moving from this crisis response mode to thinking more broadly about how to respond to the needs of beneficiaries in all the countries where they operate.


Necessary change with a lasting positive legacy

A positive change from the crisis is that for many, participation in decisions and discussions is now no longer limited to ‘being in the room’. The only room available is a virtual room. And that equity of access and process is of real value. We aren’t missing out on the pre-meeting socialising or chat that can shape subsequent discussions when before we were the only attendee on the phone/video call. This was a welcome change from necessary change.

Whilst there may have been a loss for some in Scotland teams of cross-border charities in terms of face-to-face contact here across teams, there were considerable advantages in working practice in the new environment. These included more person -centred working practices as well as opportunities to use our skills beyond our tartan. With more stretched workforces across our charities, many of us were working thematically rather than just nationally.


Culture and practice

Some noted that there was a challenge engaging colleagues in country specific topics in a world where the focus can be on a one-organisation response e.g. Scottish Parliamentary elections and manifestos not that far away, Scottish specific partnership and funding opportunities. Getting our voices heard on relevant issues to us was sometimes more difficult.

Some organisations have struggled with the need for new ways to communicate and engage and the way that cross-border colleagues have been involved in shaping these models. More thought is needed on how to avoid centralisation being seen as the way to be quickest to respond with the best result.


Looking to the future

There was a lot of positive reflection on the experiences of those on the call. There was a strong appreciation of the strengths of being part of a wider organisation at such a troubling time. And some great points of practical and cultural learning that would stand our charities in Scotland and the UK in good stead, as our world continues to change in ways we couldn’t have imagined three months ago.