New Onward Research: Building a social stimulus to tackle COVID-19

2020-05-11T13:02:59+00:00 May 8th, 2020|Blog, Onward, Repairing our Social Fabric, Research|

On Friday 8th May, Onward launches its latest research report: Building a social stimulus to tackle COVID-19.

Read the Action Research | Read the Social Stimulus

This is a two-part report and is the latest release of Onward’s new research programme Repairing our Social Fabric, a cross party review into the state of community in the UK.

The research consisted of two parts. First, an in-depth research project to look at how communities were responding to the crisis, looking at Glasgow, Grimsby, and Barking and Dagenham. This work involved qualitative research interviews with key civic leaders, including volunteers, local authority staff and charity workers. Secondly, Onward convened a series of exploratory sessions with experts and leaders from the civic and community sector to discuss the challenges organisations were facing and potential solutions. 

The Action Research report finds that there has been an outpouring of neighbourliness and civic-mindedness, epitomised by 750,000 volunteers signing up for the NHS Volunteer Responder scheme almost overnight, but that many communities and civic groups are struggling to manage soaring demand with severe funding and operational restraints.

The report warns of the risk of thousands of local charities and community groups becoming unviable just at the moment when they are needed to support vulnerable and isolated people during lockdown and to bring society together as the immediate crisis abates. Charities and groups interviewed for the research reported being “overwhelmed by volunteers” and told how local people had “stepped up, the community dragging it [the response] forward” but that because volunteers had been redirected “to help the wider community… this will have an effect on our finances down the line.”

Alongside the Action Research, Onward published its 15-point plan for a social stimulus to strengthen society in the short, medium and long-term. Key recommendations include:

  1. Allowing charities to redeploy furloughed front-line workers as time-limited volunteers, with charity directors having to self-declare to the Charity Commission to reduce the risk of charities claiming for non-frontline staff.
  2. Following up the initial £750 million grant support for charities with alternative forms of financing to give charities confidence to continue supporting those in need. This could include zero-interest charitable loans from HM Treasury, bringing together large endowments to release £2.5 billion in assets early, or reforming tax relief to allow corporations to donate to charities more easily. 
  3. Rolling out a nationwide mental health package, including free access to NHS-approved wellbeing apps, a larger role for civic organisations in delivering mental health support in communities, and using the BBC and other public service broadcasters to combat mental illness. 
  4. Prioritising families, parks and informal carers in the emerging plan to end the lockdown. This would mean reopening parks first, allowing contact between family members as a priority and making tests available for informal and family carers after NHS and public sector staff. 
  5. Opening up digital access by asking telecommunication firms to make digital hotspots freely available for community groups and charities and giving vulnerable individuals unlimited data, and re-opening local library networks to give the digitally excluded access to connection.
  6. Turning the NHS Volunteer Army into a long-term civic institution that lasts beyond the pandemic.  One way to do this would be to decentralise the app over time, to allow charities and community groups to post volunteering jobs locally that volunteers could sign up to.
  7. Launching a national fundraising drive to raise a £1 billion ‘Community Recovery Fund’, which would support local areas to rebound after the crisis. This would be modelled on successful initiatives like Live Aid and should include a commitment from the Treasury to match-fund every £1 donated by individuals, corporations or endowments. 
  8. Using the honours system to recognise the contribution of people during the COVID-19 crisis. The Government should canvas the public for coronavirus heroes who should be recognised for their outstanding contribution, including key workers and those supporting communities directly.

Lord O’Shaughnessy, chairman of Onward’s Repairing our Social Fabric programme, and co-author of the report said:

“This crisis has brought out the best of Britain’s spirit. We see it in the daily acts of kindness playing out across the country, whether that’s delivering food parcels, phone calls to those who are lonely and isolated at home, or the amazing response to the NHS Volunteers programme.”

“As the crisis continues, we need to amplify that spirit and make sure everyone across the country can benefit – not just during the crisis, but as the country gets back on its feet too.”

“Our plan for a social stimulus, to sit alongside the extraordinary public health and economic responses from the government, would strengthen Britain’s communities so that we emerge from the crisis a stronger, more connected society.” 


Will Tanner, Director of Onward, said:

“The paradox of the pandemic is that it has divided society physically but brought us together socially. There is such a thing as society and it has proved its value as communities came together during lockdown to support each other and save countless lives.”

“But Britain’s communities are fragile and they will need help as social distancing becomes the new normal in the months to follow. It is essential that ministers apply the same attention to strengthening local communities as they do to the NHS and the economy – not least because both will suffer if society crumbles.”


The full list of experts included:

  • Adam Lent, Director, NLGN
  • Alex Evans, Founder, the Collective Psychology Project
  • Alex Smith, Founder/CEO, The Cares Family
  • Andrew O’Brien, Social Enterprise UK
  • APLE Collective
  • Cassie Robinson, The National Lottery Community Fund
  • Chris Wood, Assistant Director, Research, Policy and Public Affairs, Shelter
  • Clare Mills, Head of Communications and External Affairs, NAVCA
  • Ed Wallis, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Locality
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • Ian Cooke, Director, Development Trust Association Scotland
  • Kitty von Bertele, Luminate
  • Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales
  • Louisa McGeehan, Director of Policy Rights and Advocacy, Child Poverty Action Group
  • Matt Leach, Chief Executive, Local Trust
  • Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive, Power to Change
  • Will Somerville, UK Director, Unbound Philanthropy


For media inquiries please contact Will Tanner at