Learning to sail in a storm: a Charity CEO’s reflections on life during Covid-19

With an annual income of just over £750,000 and a staff team of 12, Khulisa falls into the category of a ‘small’ charity. Over the last 3 years, we have worked hard to diversify our income sources but once schools and prisons were closed, our income forecast dropped by 40% and we could no longer deliver our programmes to young people in the same way. We weren’t alone in facing a serious financial crisis, 1 in 5 charities of our size say permanent closure was likely within the year and over 80% have been forced to reduce service provision (UK Youth, April 2020).

Fast forward four months and I am pleased to say that Khulisa has weathered the storm. The crisis has made our team stronger than ever, we’ve developed new programmes at lightning speed and navigated our way successfully through funding changes and lockdown restrictions. We are all hoping that the worst is behind us and as we enter the relative calm of the month of August, I wanted to share some reflections, things I have learned as the leader of a small charity during a time of such significant change and uncertainty. 

1. Adapt and move quickly

Fast and decisive action was needed, both for the team and for our beneficiaries who we knew needed our support more than ever. We’ve had to reinvent our programmes by taking them online, which we managed to do successfully within 12 weeks. Our digital programmes are now heavily oversubscribed with 10 times the usual number of partners requesting support. We’ve reached 5 times more professionals in the last 3 months than we did in the whole of 2019.  Moving online has given us the ability to support any young person, anywhere and there are huge opportunities here for expansion and growth. We’ve embraced remote working, so much so that we’ve now given notice on our head office space in London and we plan to trial remote working for the foreseeable future. But with these changes come a raft of other challenges: maintaining staff morale, online safeguarding and most importantly, understanding the impact of our new digital interventions. With schools set to re-open soon, we’re in the process of making another set of decisions. We’re trialling our first ever socially distanced programme in a PRU at the end of  August and we will use this experience to decide how and when we will resume face to face delivery in person and to what extent our new digital interventions will remain a part of our offer.

2. Simplify and act with integrity

In the midst of a crisis, particularly a crisis which threatens your organisation’s survival, it is easy to become focused on the needs of the organisation rather than the needs of your beneficiaries. Whilst I accept that preserving the existence of the charity may do more to protect our young people in the longer term, I wanted to be sure we were always acting in their best interests and not our own. New commercial and grant funding opportunities presented to us offered much-needed income but would take us away from our core mission and vision.  Digital delivery was (and still is) an unavoidable feature of our lockdown reality and whilst I celebrate our speed and agility in design, we are still learning about the best way to deliver digital services and their effectiveness.  

3. Take care of people

Khulisa is fortunate to have a brilliant team – made up predominantly of therapists, experts in providing emotional support – and in a crisis, this is the team you want around you. However, no matter how resilient and well prepared we were, the pandemic has tested everyone’s ability to cope with grief and loss, to navigate uncertainty, to support each other through new and daunting experiences. My role here was to provide direction and clarity, to create a sense of safety and togetherness within the team.  Despite the financial pressures we were facing, we increased our wellbeing allowances, maintained commitments for staff supervision and ensured all staff could continue to work safely. We furloughed 50% of the team and rotated some staff in and out to mitigate against burn-out. Roles and responsibilities were reconfigured, staff were doing new things everyday, learning about the inner workings of parts of the organisation they’d never experienced before. This has broken down any stubborn silos and built trust and collaboration across the organisation which will serve us well in the future.

Whilst we seem to be able to recognise that Covid-19 has been a traumatic experience for adults – worthy of a multitude of workplace wellbeing initiatives – we seem less willing to acknowledge that the same is true for younger people.  To ignore the impact that Covid-19 has had on us as a team would be to disregard the learning and the growth that comes from such adversity. As for young people – particularly marginalised groups in prisons and schools – their emotional needs seem hardly to matter at all in the rush to get “back to normal”. We need to recognise and address the grief, loss and anger felt by the Covid generation or risk paying the price for many generations to come. 


4. Re-imagine the future

Recent world events have shone new light on the levels of injustice, racism and inequality in our society.

These events have provoked outrage and greater public scrutiny of some fundamental parts of our society which are broken. The process of awarding students their GCSE/A-Level grades will no doubt ignite further scrutiny over the attainment gaps between children from different backgrounds, between children living in different parts of the country.  I suspect we will see further increases in school exclusions as ‘difficult’ children stand in the way of progress. Youth violence has already returned to pre-Covid levels and I suspect, without proactive, holistic interventions, levels of violent crime will continue to rise.  We hope that with greater scrutiny, there will be greater opportunity for positive policy change and we are currently exploring what Khulisa’s role in this should be.

The sad truth is that those with the least to lose will be hit the hardest in the months and years ahead.  Khulisa – like many other charities – will be needed to help the country cope and recover and yet as I write this, only 25% of the government’s emergency funds (£200m) has been allocated to small charities, 4 months after the plan was announced. With so many small charities on the brink of closure, I wonder what this will mean for the most vulnerable groups.  In contrast, there are a range of funders who have stood by Khulisa, increased and extended their grants, many of these organisations have taken great financial risks to ensure we can still keep going. These vital contributions should be held up as an example to the government, whose comparative disregard for our sector and the work we do, is damning. 

We will do our part in ensuring young people get the emotional support they need during this difficult time – appropriate support from us and from other adults in their lives – and I know I am surrounded by a plethora of like-minded charities who are playing their role in the recovery too. I’d like to finish by saying a special thank you to our brilliant board of Trustees and to Sherry Peck (Safer London), Ben Kernighan (Leap), John Poyton (Redthread), Evan Jones (St Giles) and Lucie Russell (Street Doctors) – all of whom I greatly admire for their relentless commitment to their work and willingness to advise and encourage me. 


Of all the lessons I’ve learned, the key to surviving a storm is the network of people around you, finding strength in a shared purpose and making sure nobody gets left behind. 


Comments are closed.