Shingai Chirimuuta, Impact and Evaluation Manager for Manor House Development Trust shares her five lessons gained from working in community development during a pandemic.

It is now a year since the UK went into national lockdown. And like many other organisations, MHDT had to shift most of its critical projects on the ground to virtual delivery. The pandemic has presented challenges and opportunities for us to think outside the box. The COVID-19 crisis has been unprecedented and has exposed us to challenges we have never faced before. Despite this, we have been able to face these head-on and emerged better than before. We have learned to be flexible and more importantly to embrace challenges as they help us to become innovative thus more effective.  

We have changed the way we deliver our projects and our approaches to gathering data which is crucial for us to demonstrate the impact and build knowledge. While some things remain essential to our work in measuring social impact, we have learned to adjust some practices to ensure we get the results we need. Here are some key lessons we have learned over the past year:  

  1. Data remains key to present an accurate picture – The lockdown restrictions have made it difficult for us to follow up and collect the data we need.  In some instances, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had data gaps as the restrictions were tight; however, we quickly learned to collect data and ensure we have project participants who can report sensitive information while under restricted movement. 
  1. Adapting is a must – As gathering data remains pivotal in this changing fast-changing environment, it has been essential for us to adjust our ways of collecting data. This year we have made more use of digital tools to design online surveys to ensure that we give a voice to those who participate in our projects. However, this has not been easy. We noticed that our survey response rates have not been high during the pandemic, which may be due to several factors. Here are some practical examples of some of the adapted approaches we used: 

Example 1- Acton Gardens Food Distribution Project: In Acton Gardens, where it was (safely) possible, we have asked project staff to capture data one-to-one with our service users who come into the food hub. This has been socially distanced with all safety measures in place to ensure that our data is collected in person.   

Example 2- Hackney Emergency Food Hub: In Woodberry down, our volunteers assisted us in (safely) collecting data in person while they deliver food packages to households.  

For each of the centres, we have had to be adapt our approaches in a context-specific manner to ensure we get the data that we need in the safest way possible.  

  1. The most vulnerable are still being left behind, and more needs to be done -The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant digital divide within communities. The use of digital tools for the collection of data means that we are potentially missing out on data and information from the very people who benefit most from the services we offer. This is usually those who do not access to digital resources and can at times be women and young people. We have come to understand that missing this data in our analyses has a bearing on the quality of our reporting.  We are pleased to share that MHDT is partnering with Notting Hill Genesis (NHG) and Community Fibre to develop a project which will provide digital resources and skills training to those most vulnerable in Woodberry Down. We believe this project will remove some of the barriers to access and increase engagement from a diverse group of people to our projects.  
  1. Focus on learning and sharing knowledge – Stepping in new territories with virtual projects has taught us that monitoring, and evaluation should go further in influencing decision making of our projects. Our experience of implementing the Virtual Community Centres in Acton Gardens and Woodberry Down has helped us to understand the importance of sharing what we have learned from the implementation of the projects to understand what works, what does not, and why. This has been crucial for us as it has helped us to remain focused on ensuring that our community projects deliver on their goals to support our communities.  
  1. Evaluative thinking should be the norm Throughout the pandemic, we have had to put our evaluative hats on to ensure that our plans are thoughtful and that we use evidence to inform our decisions. Going back and looking at our theory of change has never been more important, and we have learnt to have reflective discussions to see how we can move forward in uncertain times.