Five reflections on community building during COVID-19

As we enter the fourth month of social distancing, Lab Community Manager Naomi Alexander Naidoo shares how we’ve adapted our community programme to be fully remote, and shares insights on community building in this time of crisis.

The Lab community is a network of changemakers working to transform finance, including innovators, intrapreneurs and influencers. Our community programme involves events and activities that support community members in their work to build a financial system which is democratic, responsible and fair. In the past few months, like everyone, we’ve pivoted our work and practices to adapt to the unfolding pandemic and its impacts. As our COO Rebecca has noted, community has been central to our response and will continue to be as we strive to build back better. Here are some of the ways we’ve continued to strengthen and support our community through the COVID-19 crisis:

1. Creating space

The first step I took to supporting our community when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK was to prioritise creating time and space to do just that. Like all small and ambitious charities, workload is an ongoing challenge for us, and this can result in some pretty strict constraints on the time available to speak to individual community members. But in the first weeks of lockdown, it felt important to create space to check-in with community members who felt that would be useful to them. In doing so, I learnt a lot about the work that community members were doing in response to COVID-19, but also how they were doing on a human level and what support they needed.

2. Seizing learning opportunities

Another key element of supporting our community during this time has been seizing learning opportunities – both for us as a team, and for community members. A huge amount of training has become available online, and much of it is free or significantly cheaper than standard costs for in-person workshops.

Personally, I have benefitted hugely from making use of some of learning on offer. Notably, Mozilla Foundation’s Movement Building from Home course was invaluable in equipping me with the tools and confidence I needed to start running community events online. Equally, many of our community and partner organisations are offering exciting remote training. See, for example, the fantastic range of webinars on new economy topics and learning from international leaders from our friends at Stir to Action, and the online workshops offered by the brilliant team at Space4.

3. Harnessing the appetite for collaboration

Collaboration is central to everything we do at the Lab – it is one of our three organisational values, a core component of our theory of change and the rationale behind our community programme. We’re proud that our community is a space where people across the financial system – from mainstream finance, fintech, civil society, academia and activism – come together to collaborate for change. Even though collaboration is the norm for our community, it has been remarkable to see how the appetite for it has grown even greater during this time.

For example, one of our key community activities is matchmaking – connecting community members that have similar goals and shared interests or where there is potential for collaboration. Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve prioritised matchmaking that supports work community members are doing in response to COVID-19, and have seen great enthusiasm from community members to work together to share and pool resources, help each other’s projects and more.

Another example comes from the Transforming Finance Network, a coalition of civil society organisations campaigning on finance, which we convene with Positive Money and Stamp Out Poverty. Usually, the network meets several times a year to share updates and align strategies, but in this new context there has been demand to work together more closely to analyse economic policy responses to COVID-19, develop a vision for the financial system we want to build post-crisis, and identify opportunities for strategic collaboration.

I have also been exploring how we can collaborate more with other impact-focused tech communities during this time, and have started to convene other community managers to explore how we can cross-refer, cross-promote and share evaluation and learning more effectively.

4. Transitioning to digital

When we launched the Lab community in 2019, we made the decision to focus on in-person engagements for our events and community cluster meetings. This decision was made on the basis of feedback from our community about the value of face-to-face interactions, but has always had its limitations in regards to resource-intensity, scalability and accessibility to community members based outside of London.

During lockdown, we’ve moved all our meetings and events online. As a result, we have seen a marked increase in participation from community members outside of London: our community event in April attracted participants from Manchester, Warwick, Gateshead and Dublin, and an online gathering we held for our Senior Fellows included attendees based in Germany and Spain. At the same time, it’s important to remember that online events do not equate to inclusion for everyone – digital exclusion, internet connectivity issues and caring and home schooling responsibilities (which are often gendered) pose barriers to participation for many. Whenever we are able to meet in-person again, I hope to build a hybrid community programme of online and offline activities which includes as many people as possible.

Moreover, as a team we are grappling with finding tech tools that are convenient and affordable but also align with our values. We are really appreciative of organisations such as Ada Lovelace Institute for their leadership in transparently reflecting on striking the right balance here. I am also still working on how to replicate the organic connection building through networking and conversation at events – often when the magic happens – in a digital context. If you have any ideas or advice, please get in touch.

5. Staying true to our purpose

Finally, core to community building through the crisis has been staying true to our purpose. The purpose of the Lab community is to bring together people who believe in a better financial system and support them to create change. While we may now be in a radically different and fast-changing context – that hasn’t changed. As our CEO Jesse has written, transforming finance is more important than ever. Our community is vital to this transformation and, whatever the next months may bring, we remain committed to supporting them to make it a reality.


If you’re in the Lab community and would like to check-in with how the Lab can support you during this time, please email naomi@financeinnovationlab.org. To join the Lab community, sign up here.