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Leading and learning through lockdown

11 August 2020

The pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time for children in care and young care leavers  – and for us at Become that has meant demand for our services is up 75%.

At an organisational level we’ve had to make adjustments to continue and increase our service delivery, whilst coming to terms with a decrease in income. It’s been challenging, but there’s a lot of valuable lessons I’ve learned about leading through lockdown, lessons which will continue to be useful to us as an organisation in future too. Here’s my top three:

Don’t underestimate the value of being agile

An unprecedented challenge like a global pandemic can throw your plans out of the window – or bring them forward! Supporting young people through online service delivery was always part of our vision for the future, but the lockdown prompted us to implement this immediately. We knew young people would be needing our support more than ever so we made sure we did everything we could to deliver it.

We adapted face-to-face services to a digital equivalent, using Zoom and WhatsApp, and regularly sought feedback from the young people we were supporting about how they felt about these different ways of doing things and used that feedback to refine our offer. For example, after we had to cancel an in-person meeting of our Young People’s Advisory Group and knew some members were struggling with the lockdown, we started a weekly Zoom meet up. After a few weeks, those participating told us that they wanted to keep this setup, and that meeting in this way had enabled them to get to know each other and support each other much more. The weekly meet-up is now a mainstay and has reinforced the importance and value of consulting and involving young people meaningfully in our work.

We also developed weekly online ‘link-ups’ hosted over Zoom – and a promotion plan focused on social media and signposting from our other services. Based on feedback from young people, we made joining easy by providing a number to text or WhatsApp for the joining details. One of the young people who got involved with the ‘link-ups’ told us that at a time of feeling isolated and alone, the ’link-ups’ helped fill a gap left by a lack of family support or contact.

Understand the importance of being decisive

During the pandemic, the fundraising team has also had to plan how to mitigate the estimated loss of up to a third of our income. Marathons, university fundraisers, and school events all fell through, so we needed a different approach and quick! Fostering a culture of creativity and innovation with a remote workforce was key to achieving this with the whole staff team involved in creative fundraising brainstorms. A really positive outcome of this period is that colleagues have been incredibly generous, contributing their skills, expertise, and ideas outside of their regular areas of work and we absolutely will continue to encourage and value this way of working.

Our emergency appeal took two weeks to plan, started in March and was digital-led for the first time. We took decisive calls about doing things differently, like investing in paid-for social media posts and decided against including suggested donation amounts as we had done previously as we knew many of our supporters’ circumstances may have changed and others may want to give more than they usually would. Being decisive about doing things differently worked; we reached more new supporters (45% having never donated to Become before) and amongst those who had supported us before, many donated 3-4 times more than their largest previous gift.

The appeal was supplemented with Become Players – a new gaming challenge event we set up which saw us hit our target of £5k and reach a new audience of young gamers and their families. This was another example of a future idea that we fast-tracked because of the pandemic – my advice to other charity leaders is that using this period to dust off, refine or reconsider ideas has been really fruitful, and taught us that sometimes, there’s no time like the present.

Being opportunistic can pay off

At such a challenging time for care-experienced young people, it’s been more important than ever to make sure their voices and experiences are being heard and acted on by decision-makers.

Using video calls has provided an opportunity to secure more engagement between decision-makers and young people. It’s much easier now to offer and arrange a virtual briefing meeting with me and a group of young people from across England, and it’s been encouraging how keen decision-makers are to talk directly to young people. Last month, for example, a group of young people we work with discussed their lockdown experiences with the Education Secretary by video call. We’ll continue to ensure our influencing strategy has virtual elements like this which have been well-received and effective.

Keep being optimistic

Despite the challenges, leading Become through this time has left me even more ambitious about what we can achieve for care-experienced young people. So much needs to change and more urgently than ever. Young care-experienced people are facing increased isolation, mental health problems, hardship and homelessness. We like all charities simply have to continue to be optimistic that change is possible and that we can bring it about by continuing to be agile, decisive and opportunistic – with young people’s views and voices at the heart of everything we do.

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Image: Sheri Hooley on Unsplash

Katharine Sacks-Jones

Chief Executive, Become

Katharine has over 15 years’ experience working across policy, campaigns, public affairs and Parliament and has worked in the charity sector for the last 10 years. Her focus has been on disadvantage and inequality – she has worked on issues including homelessness, unemployment, multiple disadvantage, mental health and domestic and sexual abuse. Before joining Become Katharine was the inaugural Chief Executive of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.