Leading in a crisis: How to navigate your charity through Covid-19

With the threat of Covid-19 pushing many charities to the brink of insolvency, how can leaders navigate their teams, and themselves, through this period of uncertainty?


By the time you read this article, there’s hope that the worst of the coronavirus crisis will be behind us. Unfortunately, even if that is the case, the aftermath of the pandemic will reverberate for a very long time.

In late March, research from the Institute of Fundraising, Charity Finance Group and the NCVO suggested the crisis could cut charities’ fundraising income by 48% and their overall incomes by a third, costing the sector £4.3 billion. The government announced a £750 million rescue package to help the sector out, but leaders from across the sector have warned the funding will merely scratch the service. Many charities have announced furloughing plans – despite the demand for their services being higher than ever – but some may be forced to fold.

Being a charity chief executive or director can be difficult enough at the best of times, but at present, many leaders in the sector are inevitably longing for a return to the stresses and strains of normal life. For now, though, how can leaders possibly lead effectively under these circumstances?

Escaping the panic

Although the coronavirus outbreak presents some unique new problems, there are some principles leaders can follow, based on previous experiences of leading organisations through crises. Acevo has listed them on its website, including the need for leaders to be realistic (take control of what you can control, accept the possibility of failure); to communicate effectively with staff and the board; and to look after their own physical and mental wellbeing.

In practice, of course it can be very difficult for leaders to think clearly as panic and chaos begins to overwhelm an organisation. This is perfectly understandable, says K ate Turner, founder and director of the consultancy Motivational Leadership. “What seems to happen is that people go into that panic space: they’re not thinking, they’re just reacting,” she says. “You have to ask: ‘How do I best work through this? How do I get the best out of my team?’”

Tom Andrews, head of member support at Acevo, suggests that once charity leaders have managed to escape that initial panic, the first step should be to reinforce a clear leadership structure, with well- defined roles and responsibilities. The second step is to create a plan, then communicate it effectively.

Beneficiaries, staff, trustees, funders and other key stakeholders all need to know what is happening; and all need to be consulted to some extent. “Think about the most appropriate method and the most appropriate frequency for communicating with those groups,” says Andrews, “but the other aspect of that is listening to what they have to say.” Leaders must also try to focus on the things they can control, rather than wasting energy worrying about anything beyond their control, he adds.

Keep calm and keep caring

This sentiment is echoed by Girish Menon, CEO of ActionAid UK. At the time of speaking to Menon in late-March, ActionAid UK completed its first complete lockdown. The charity was well- prepared in terms of business continuity planning and prepared for mobile working, with all its documents stored on the cloud, and staff already familiar with collaborative software apps like Microsoft Teams.

“What we didn’t expect was something that was so quickly evolving – and the sheer scale of it,” says Menon. There are, he explains, some unexpected issues to consider when the entire organisation is working from home, including the different ways in which staff can be affected by events.

Some may live alone and be feeling isolated, some have childcare responsibilities, or live with elderly or medically vulnerable family members or friends. Some are worried about family members living in other countries badly affected by the pandemic. “H ow do we support people who might be going through different levels of stress?” Menon asks.

The need to meet the human resources challenge posed by the crisis feels particularly urgent during a period when the sector is recovering from the reputational damage of bullying scandals at some high-profile organisations. “We need to make people feel they are cared for,” says Menon.

He admits he has not been sleeping well, in part because ActionAid UK raises one third of the funding for all of the charity’s international operations. “We are deeply concerned about the impact this can have on our ability to support our programmes,” says Menon. These concerns have been exacerbated by worries that the virus will have a severe impact in at least some of the 35 countries where ActionAid works, where healthcare systems and other infrastructures are much weaker than in wealthy countries.

At the time of speaking, levels of income have been holding up well. “But we can’t say what the situation will be in a month’s time, let alone at the end of the year,” says Menon. “That does worry me quite a lot. But I try to focus on what I can do.”

Kate Bratt-Farrar, chief executive of Heart Research UK – a much smaller organisation with around 25 full-time staff – has been working with her colleagues to analyse the impact the crisis will have on the charity’ s fundraising, on its medical research grant-making programme, which distributes about £1.5 million each year; and on the services it provides, both to people who are living with heart conditions or recovering from surgery; and to healthcare professionals.

But she has also focused on helping staff and other stakeholders to cope with the crisis. There has been a conscious decision to maintain frequent, face-to-face, digital communication, to support staff wellbeing. Individual teams are ‘meeting’ via Zoom or Skype every week. A weekly full team meeting tends to have about 12 participants, with people excused from joining in if it is inconvenient to do so for work or non-work reasons.

Bratt-Farrar has also sought to stop people working more than they should. “It may be that nine to five isn’t going to work, so we’ve said people can be flexible – but we also don’t want them to work really long hours,” she says.

“We’re also encouraging people not to cancel leave, partly because you’ll need a break, but also because when this is over, we’ re guessing we’ll all have to come back full steam.”

Strategic planning

Indeed, as well as looking after current operations and the wellbeing and motivation of staff, leaders also need to keep an eye on the strategy of the organisation and how this may need to be amended in the light of the current crisis.

Strategic planning is one area where an effective board of trustees should be able to make some useful contributions. “Chairs should bring calm, reassurance and encouragement,” says Ros Oakley, chief executive at the Association of Chairs. “I think some chief execs, in the best of times, regard their board and chair as a bit of an annoyance. But they should see them as a fantastic resource,” Oakley says.

Bratt-Farrar appreciates the role the Heart Research UK trustees are playing. “The board are being really supportive,” she says. “They’re asking to see appropriate things, not asking about everything; and they’re offering insight. I speak to my chair every couple of days. They’ve contacted all the staff and made sure communications are open to them. It’ s beneficiaries and staff who have been their priorities and I think that’s admirable.”

Prioritising personal wellbeing

But charity leaders also need to prioritise their own wellbeing. “It’ s not going to help leaders if they don’t take care of themselves,” says Menon. “When you’re working from home there’s a tendency to work all hours. That’s not sustainable. Agree on a schedule for yourself. Have a start time and an end time for the day. Take breaks. Find ways to relax a little bit.” He admits he sometimes finds it difficult to stick to these rules himself.

Sector leaders agree about the value in talking to other people about the challenges of leadership in a crisis. “Maybe talk with your chair and board, or with peers and friends; and with organisations like ourselves,” Andrews suggests. Both Bratt-Farrar and M non have found some solace in speaking to their peers. “You’ re all handling the same sorts of challenges and you feel a sense of solidarity,” says Menon.

For him, effective leadership should also be based on communicating honestly with staff and other stakeholders about what is happening. ActionAid UK is currently running weekly staff briefings, with around 200 people listening in and a Q&A session afterwards.

“With some of those questions, it’ s important to be honest and to say: ‘I don’t have a complete answer, what I think is this – but my answer may change in a month’s time’,” says Menon. “This will not satisfy everybody, but be honest about not having all the answers.”

Leadership is always about looking ahead and somehow charity leaders have to continue to do that, even at a time when it feels impossible to predict what life in the UK will look like over the coming months.

“I can’t see what the rest of the country and the world will look like – how many people are going to be unemployed, how many businesses we’re going to lose,” says Bratt- Farrar. “But it will have an impact, so we’re going to have to keep doing a constant horizon scan.” She is hoping there will also be some positive changes that come out of this experience. “We might have to change the way we work – but we might find lots of different ways of working too,” she says.

We can only hope that the coronavirus crisis seeks not to kill organisations or their leaders, but strengthens them instead. It may be a long time before we really understand the longer-term consequences it will have for charities and for the individuals who lead them. But in the meantime, leaders should keep calm and carry on caring; if not for others, for themselves, too. ■

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