Leadership diaries: A charity CEO on re-opening a key income source post-lockdown

Life is a science village in Newcastle upon Tyne. It employs around 500 people from 35 countries, uniting researchers, clinicians, business people, and educationalists in a quest to advance the life sciences and engage the public in science and technology.

Since lockdown, much of its income disappeared overnight and its key offer to the public – an interactive, hands-on experience, where the mantra has been ‘please touch everything’ – became almost toxic. This diary charts my work of the chief executive, Linda Conlon, in the run up to the reopening of Life Science Centre in early August.


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Monday

It’s now 18 weeks since I left Life with a lump in my throat, but the firm belief that everything would return to normal within a couple of months. Now, ‘normal’ means carrying a face covering as well as a mobile phone as we navigate a different world. It feels weird going into the Life building for the first time after months of closure.

Life is responsible for an extensive property portfolio, and we‘ve had staff working throughout the lockdown to maintain facilities and keep them secure. The first bit of good news today is confirmation that all our systems have been given a clean bill of health: no legionella present! There are not many staff in the building, but it’s good to catch up with those who are – thankfully, they all seem genuinely pleased to be back.

This afternoon I ‘attend’ a board meeting of the Association of Science and Discovery Centres – the body representing the sector UK-wide. It’s a sombre meeting. Colleagues are keeping cards close to their chests, but it’s obvious many are getting increasingly desperate, especially now the furlough scheme is nearing an end. Science centres are not eligible to apply for funding from the government’s whopping £1.6 billion cultural fund.

Despite pleading our case to the government and others, it appears to be falling on deaf ears. Life is luckier than many because our trustees have agreed to drawdown reserves. But it’s increasingly obvious the crisis will go beyond this financial year.

Tuesday

We have an extended management meeting. Life has an all-women senior team and a female chair, so our gender balance is somewhat skewed, but it works. Our finance director says that never in her 30 years as a professional accountant has she had to deal with such uncertainty – it’s like pinning jelly to the wall as the figures constantly shift. But we are making gradual progress in keeping our planned deficit under control.

Our science engagement director is based in Manchester and this is the first time we have managed a face-to-face meeting. Zoom is great, but there is no substitute for in the flesh, so to speak, when it really matters. We have a long session about adapting to a Covid-19 world. It’s plain that our existing model isn’t going to cut it, so we are heading for a hybrid, blending in-science centre experiences with virtual engagement with visitors.

Wednesday

A heavy day. We are in the middle of a consultation exercise with staff and it’s a heartbreaking process. About 20 jobs are currently at risk, and many more face reduced hours. We have to work out what that means moving forward at the same time as heading for a reopening at the weekend. My senior team does a wonderful job of steering the meetings in a skilful and sympathetic way. The staff understand, but it’s still gut-wrenching and not something I ever thought I would have to do.

Thursday

As well as my job as chief executive of Life, I sit on several boards and, by chance, they all have something for me to do today. I take a Zoom call with the Laidlaw Schools Trust, a multi-academy educational trust; another Zoom with an historic body promoting medieval Newcastle; and a virtual get-together with local cultural colleagues to share news. Then it’s time to take part in a webinar alongside the director of The Alnwick Garden as we outline our respective plans for reopening.

Finally, I have to stay awake for a 9pm call with colleagues in the United States. I sit on an international task force that is looking at what operating in a post-COVID world means. I’m horrified to hear that several US centres are making redundancies of 70% plus. I stagger to bed at 11.30pm. The dog comes with me.

Friday

Next, it’s time to meet Warren Elsmore, the creator of the LEGO® dinosaur exhibition that is the star of the show of our new programme. He’s really upbeat and delighted with how our technical team has curated his exhibition. During a photo shoot, our effervescent marketing director bursts in to tell us that Boris has made wearing face coverings mandatory inside venues like ours, and why don’t we mask-up a dinosaur as it would make a great photo for the media. After the photo shoot, it’s time for media interviews, including one for television. It’s the first time I have been interviewed wearing a face covering – a very odd experience! The only bleak note in an otherwise upbeat day is a lobbying call on funding with UK colleagues in which I learn there’s no progress. Where do we go from here?

Saturday

Opening day dawns bright and clear. It feels like we’ve turned back the clock and Life is opening for the first time. It’s very difficult to achieve a positive atmosphere in a large building with a trickle of people (with capacity significantly reduced as a safety measure), but visitors seem incredibly grateful for our efforts to reopen at all. They praise our safety procedures and understand that we cannot provide the full offer just yet. Looking ahead to the online bookings, they are gradually increasing and it looks like we will achieve around 300 people per day in the second week of operation. It’s a long way off numbers for a normal busy August, but the signs are encouraging.

People are essentially social animals and love to enjoy things with families and friends. It’s going to take a lot more than a virus to change that. ■

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Got a diary to share?

If you’re a charity leader – CEO, COO, chair, trustee or department head – and would like to document a typical work day, week, or project, please get in touch with the Charity Times editor, Lauren Weymouth at lauren.weymouth@charitytimes.com.

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