Dalton Leong: As leaders, we must not be afraid of difficult decisions

Over 18 months on, charities are still reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, with many seeing more work than ever before and with bigger challenges still to overcome. The Children's Trust is no exception, as Dalton Leong tells Melissa Moody.


“It’s been very challenging at The Children’s Trust, but I think we’ve survived incredibly well considering,” Dalton Leong, the charity’s CEO explains. Like nearly every other charity across the country, lockdown rocked operations overnight when it first began in March 2020.

The main priority for the trust became keeping Covid away from both its staff and children at its Tadworth site in Surrey. But that didn’t come without extra costs – roughly £160,000 was spent on PPE.

One of the charity’s biggest challenges, Leong explains, was having to close the charity’s shops overnight and make the choice to furlough staff. Concerns around fundraising were also rife as it, like many charities, was forced into cancelling planned events. As a way of raising money and keeping morale up for the children, it enlisted the help of its celebrity ambassadors, from McFly’s Harry Judd doing sponsored drumming lessons on TikTok, to David Walliams doing a virtual book reading to children on the charity’s residential site.

“Elaine Paige launched a charity single on our behalf and she included young people in the video, which was just amazing,” enthused Leong. “We expected to be down about £1.2million in fundraising and it ended up being less than half of that.”

Staff support

Much of this was down to staff and volunteers, who were at the heart of keeping the charity going during the pandemic, Leong says. With this in mind, during lockdowns, both mental and physical health were heavily prioritised. “We care for children with very complex health and educational needs, so if you can’t care for yourself, then we’re nothing as far as I’m concerned. We absolutely put our staff front and centre and tried to keep motivation going.”

Charity shop staff, who were furloughed, had their pay topped up, which Leong says has paid off in the long-term. “The staff loyalty has been unbelievable. They were so grateful that we looked after them in their time of need and now they are putting that back into the shops.” As a result, they have been able to open all 17 of their shops across the South East.

The trust also implemented virtual coffee mornings by means of keeping motivation going, created an internal newsletter, and Leong began a weekly vlog. “I would be on a different part of the site and sometimes catch a member of staff and would interview them – ask how things are going, how are you coping and then they would have a moment of fame on our intranet.

“That was very good in terms of keeping communications going with staff regularly, and that staff knew what was going on.” Quite quickly he found out that staff who were not child-facing, (those who don’t work in the school, giving rehab or in nursing or therapy roles), wanted to know how the children were doing as much as their colleagues. He adds that sometimes his vlogs involved chatting with the children in the care of the charity, which always went well. “Staff found it really motivational to keep in touch with the reason why we exist.”

Mental health and wellbeing were put at the top of the agenda. “We didn’t want to underestimate how difficult it is with people working from home for 18 months, sometimes in a tiny little bedroom. It’s not easy.” During lockdowns, 40% of staff worked from home, which Leong decided to mirror, spending three days in the office and two from home. “I wanted to understand their pain; you know, when the Wi-Fi goes down, or you get interrupted. In fact, my keyboard was on top of an empty Amstel beer box, and I used to joke that ‘at the beginning of this meeting that was full’.”

But it’s not all been bad, he points out. Leong, like many leaders, has seen the impact of hybrid working within the sector and believes that it will become a long-term solution. “It has its advantages. You can wake up at quarter to nine if you start at nine and can be in your pyjama bottoms and a T-shirt rather than commuting for an hour or so. So when we come out of the pandemic I can anticipate us getting into a truly hybrid model, working two or three days in the office. We won’t return to how it was before Covid.”

Leadership lessons

When asked what lessons he’s learned from the pandemic, Leong ponders. “When Covid first hit us, I wrote a note to our staff, and I said: we will get through this. We will only get through this, though, if we can prove that we’re adaptable, agile and innovative. I can assure you we can come out of the other end of it better and stronger. “That was 18 months ago and I genuinely believe that we’ve done that in abundance.”

Taking action quickly was one of the biggest things he’s taken away from the events of the last 18 months, he says. A week before lockdown, they had a member of staff return from Italy, who was immediately sent home before Leong pulled together the trust’s major incident team and decided staff should work remotely across the board. Since then, they have always tried to stay ahead of the curve.

“The government has said you don’t need to socially distance and actually we still do that. We haven’t been a slave to government announcements; we’ve tried to be safer. “I guess the point I’m trying to make is, as a leader, you have to make quick decisions. You think you’re not always going to be popular, but I think it’s just about making sure that you’re not afraid of those difficult decisions.”

Another thing about the leadership team, Leong adds, is the willingness to embrace digital “and we invested in that quite quickly,” he says, explaining that they made sure staff had laptops for home working and the right programmes to make the transition smooth.

The trust’s head of comms also moved on and was replaced with a head of communications and digital content with “great skills” in the digital space. “It was a very purposeful move for us organisationally and from my point of view, it feels like it has been a major success. I’m very proud of how we’ve adapted quickly digitally.”

Forward thinking

So what is next for the charity now things are returning to a ‘new normal’? Before the pandemic, The Children’s Trust launched a new strategy called Hope and Ambition, with the aim to grow its services.

Covid-19 meant they had to reprioritise, until things got back to normal, but its goals are still the same, meaning more digital evolution is on the map for the charity in the future too. “We’re in a digital world and we have to replace it, and we’re absolutely set to do that in a really strong way,” Leong says, echoing earlier sentiments about the strength of the team he works with.

“I’m often asked why I love my job so much, and actually the first thing I say is it’s because I work with amazing staff.” Despite painting an overly positive picture about the trust and its journey through the pandemic, he doesn’t deny it has been a challenging period. But, as Leong gently concludes: “We’ve survived the challenge” – words many other charities can echo.

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