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VODA Team Q&A: Robin Fry

From the role of the great thinker, to lugging food boxes around the North Tyneside Council support hub, COVID-19 has certainly changed the day to day life of VODA’s Chief Exec Robin. But one thing the pandemic has not changed is his steadfast belief in the vital role the VCS plays in our community.

How has your role changed due to COVID-19?

Significantly! I’ve gone from sitting in my own office with time to ponder and plan, to squatting at North Tyneside Council making decisions on the hoof, lugging around food parcels, working with new partners and meeting some incredible volunteers on a daily basis. My role has changed but my belief remains the same – that the work of volunteers and community organisations is absolutely essential.

What lessons have you learned?

The importance of building an organisation with a clear vision and shared values. Establishing these foundations over the last few years has paid huge dividends in a crisis situation. We have proven to be a resilient organisation with a staff team focussed entirely on the needs of our community. Our quick and clear response to the COVID-19 pandemic required a huge effort from our staff team. Doing nothing, or the bare minimum, would have been far easier – but this was never going to be an option for us.

What do you think you would have done differently?

I should have established regular online team meetings more quickly. In such a fast-moving and ever-changing environment it is important that our staff feel involved, connected and informed. I should have focussed more on providing clarity and certainty to help offset the general confusion and anxiety many of us were feeling. Because we’re such a passionate and determined bunch some staff were left feeling frustrated early on that they did not have a clear role to play. This was resolved over time but could have been done quicker.

Not everything went according to plan, if indeed there was a plan, but we did not allow this to dampen our resolve. Some ideas failed, quickly, but we were able to reflect and adapt our approach to find a better forward.

How do you see your role as we move towards the recovery phase?

My role is to ensure that as an organisation we resist the temptation to try and get ‘back to normal’. Instead we need to build on some of the fantastic new ways of working we have developed out of necessity. These new ways of working will make us more effective in supporting volunteers and community organisations to continue changing lives in North Tyneside.

I believe that, by and large, the VCS has provided an incredible response to supporting vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular some of the smaller neighbourhood groups have demonstrated that local ‘place-based’ action can be incredibly powerful. The support we offer our members as part of the recovery phase will need to recognise the diversity of the sector and that there will not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement during this crisis?

Simply ‘turning up’ us a team of staff. It would have been far easier for us to step back but that would have been at odds with our character as an organisation. We wanted to be part of the solution and to be able to look back and know that we did our bit as best we could. It has been an absolute privilege to be able to support such an incredible community response.

What was your biggest challenge (so far)?

I am immensely proud of the work we have done. The praise and thanks we have received from a range of audiences has been very flattering indeed. A challenge for me has been to use this as a platform to promote the voluntary sector more widely rather than simply basking in our own glory. We have done our best to deflect this praise onto our volunteers and our member organisations. That’s why we produced an animation showcasing the sector’s response using the #NeverMoreNeeded hashtag.

Anything else you would like to add?

Only my thanks to everyone who has offered their support so far. Any doubts I may have had about whether our COVID-19 response was the right one were soon blown away by the positivity of colleagues and sector friends. Meeting our food parcel volunteers on a daily basis and hearing from the beneficiaries reassures me that we’re involved in something very special.