Dogs Trust CEO: We've made a conscious effort to make sure leadership is visible

With every charity facing unique challenges over the past year, Dogs Trust’s chief
executive Owen Sharp speakers to Charity Times senior writer, Melissa Moody, about how it's coped with restrictions whilst keeping tails happily wagging.


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Melissa: How has Dogs Trust fared through Covid-19?
Owen: I’m happy to say that Dogs Trust has fared incredibly well over the past year. Of course, it’s been a challenge – we’ve had to respond to the pandemic, as all organisations have, by developing different ways of working and finding ways to deal with the restrictions. But with challenge comes opportunity. Through necessity we’ve found new ways of working and, crucially, we’ve managed to remain the voice of dogs throughout the crisis. It goes without saying the charity’s faced significant financial pressures, and we’ve yet to see the full impact. But we’re extremely fortunate to have a loyal community of donors who have been very supportive and we’ve taken steps to save money where we can. Ordinarily, face-to-face activity is a core component of our fundraising, for example, so when you have to move away from that you need to find other ways to connect with people. It’s been a tough year, as tough for us as for anybody else. But if you were to ask me, after all we’ve been through as an organisation during the pandemic, would I still have taken the job if I’d known what was around the corner? The answer is an emphatic yes, there is nowhere I would rather be.

Melissa: What have been the biggest challenges for the charity during this time?

Owen: The huge spectrum of what Dogs Trust does as a charity meant we had to make some huge changes in response to the pandemic restrictions. So much of what we did relied on face-to-face interaction so having our interactions with people – dog owners, donors, volunteers, adopters, trainers - ripped away, virtually overnight, was a shock to the system. As we’re a national charity, working to support dogs and dog owners across all four nations of the UK, we had to respond to each nation’s own set of restrictions. This meant ensuring we were looking after staff facing vastly different sets of experiences throughout.

Melissa: How have you been keeping staff motivated?

Owen: I have to be honest – keeping staff motivated during the pandemic hasn’t been that hard! Our staff are a committed, supportive community and they have done a fantastic job of supporting and motivating each other over the past eighteen months. With people working remotely, it’s made us up our game in contemporary communications. We’ve made a conscious effort to reach out to staff and ensure leadership was visible during a challenging time. We’ve held regular briefings for all staff; used more video so that staff could experience some human interaction, shared good news stories, celebrated successes, and tried to inject some fun where we could. Also, though, it’s been a time to have honest conversations about what they’ve been thinking and feeling. It’s been important to acknowledge what a difficult time it’s been for everybody and that all our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing can suffer. We’ve reached out to our community of staff and volunteers to let people know that we understand, and that we’re here to listen and support if they need us.

Melissa: How has Covid-19 impacted the working environment at Dogs Trust?

Owen: I think few would deny that Covid has had a huge impact. But being where we are now, we need to look back and find the positive. In hindsight, I see now that we were too wedded to assuming that people must be in their workplaces for the business to operate efficiently. We’ve learned this simply isn’t the case; we can work differently without a loss of productivity. I don’t want to give the impression this has been an easy journey and we still have a lot to do to get the balance right. Dogs Trust employs lots of people who work giving hands-on care and have been essential frontline workers, this is work that can’t be done from home. Thinking back to the depths of the winter we’ve just lived through, of course it created tensions when some of the workforce were up and out in the dark mornings, knee-deep in mud, while some of their colleagues were cosy at home working from their sofas. We also faced issues with availability of staff, when people needed to take time off work or to self-isolate. Overall, though, people rolled up their sleeves, got on with it and helped each other out. We have a strong community who are passionate about what they do and when all’s said and done – we got through it, together.

Melissa: How has social media changed the way Dogs Trust works?

Owen: Social media is a hugely important tool for. On one level, it’s an effective outlet for our everyday business of re-homing dogs and connecting people with dogs. On another level it’s a way for us to give people an insight into our mission. It’s also a way to connect with dog owners to advise them on the issues that we’re experts in – a continual drumbeat of welfare and behavioural messages, such as tips for dogs in hot weather and dealing with behaviour problems caused by the recent changes. Social media gives us a platform to amplify our voice and reach people without needing to spend money on advertising, which as a charity, is critical.

Melissa: What does the future look like for the Dogs Trust?

Owen: After the pain of the last year, I’m very excited for the future of Dogs Trust. Challenges lie ahead, particularly as we emerge from the pandemic. It’s hard to predict how things will look in a year’s time but we do know the dog population has suddenly increased so we know there will be an impact as people start to adapt back to their ‘real’ lives. Dog welfare will be a huge national concern and we must ensure we’re ready to support dogs who end up relinquished to us. We’ll need the help and generosity of our donors, perhaps like never before. We have some exciting goals to work towards as we begin to understand the impact of the pandemic on the lives of dogs and their owners. One of our goals is to ensure we stop problems as early as we can; the earlier we can be involved to help, the more we can prevent it getting to a point where heartbroken owners are having to give up their dogs. We aim to be there for dog owners every step of the journey. ■

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