Planning for the New World: A Q&A with Mark Atkinson
Blogs 15th June 2020 6 minutes read
What does the world of the Disability charity sector look like when a pandemic hits?
Having recently joined the Charities & Social Enterprise team at Green Park, I am delighted to contribute to our “Q&A with Leaders” series with a focus on the voluntary sector.
I am an advocate of the disability movement, with a shared experience and a professional expertise of working with disability organisations throughout my career in executive search. The pandemic has given us all an insight and empathy to assess what changes could and should be made to support the disabled community who live with difficulties.
The purpose of this interview series is to learn and share how leaders are adjusting their business strategies in response to the Covid-19 crisis. As UK regulations are being lifted, we explore how some of the voluntary organisations are adapting to what our “new normal” looks like.
Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive with Ambitious about Autism offers me a candid view of how the pandemic crisis has affected the organisation.
Ambitious about Autism
How have the effects of Covid-19 impacted your organisation?
The pandemic has had an enormous impact on autistic children and young people and their families, and the term ‘their world has been turned upside down” is fully justified.
Ambitious about Autism has had to step up and adapt to the changing needs of our young people and their families. Almost overnight, we have redesigned our schools and college to support young people to continue to learn on site and remotely. We have developed and launched a new on-line learning platform for young people learning at home and provided them with IT equipment. We have developed new services, especially practical support for families and digital support to reach young people and their families nationally. We have had to redeploy staff and resources to the areas of greatest need.
In terms of our central support staff, we were fortunate that having invested in our IT platforms a year ago, we were quickly able to move everything to remote access working.
Our Executive Leadership Team and senior managers have quickly adapted to dealing with the crisis management piece. Our cross-organisational Coronavirus Response Group meets regularly to act immediately to any issue and plan for the longer term management of the pandemic.
We have swiftly moved from a crisis into a recovery phase, and are planning the renewal phase, recognising that we are going to be managing these three phases simultaneously over the coming year.
We have just developed a one-year strategy, which will launch in July. Our service users, staff and partners need and want to see strong leadership and to carve a recovery path for the coming year. Of course the strategy will have lots of caveats (particularly if we have a second wave of infection or face an even more challenging operational climate) but people don’t want to hear “we’re in crisis’, they want to understand “what are we going to do in this new world”.
How have you ensured that disabled people’s priorities are at the heart of the wider industry’s policies and practices, during the pandemic.
I hope that the agenda around the employment of disabled people will continue to be championed by government and employers and that this agenda is not pushed to the back of the queue. We have been lobbying on how we think Covid will impact on disabled employees, including young people coming into the market and there is a real risk of a negative impact, if some intervention isn’t made now.
There is a need to address the issues of people with long-term conditions who remain shielded. These employees need to be assured that, if they need to remain shielded longer term, they will get the right support from government and their employers. Those who are in frontline jobs, where social distancing is not possible, are at greatest risk of either having to risk their lives by returning to work prematurely or losing their jobs. This would be devastating for them and an unjust and costly backward step for society.
For young disabled people who are reliant on internships and apprenticeships as a pathway into work, it is a concern that these opportunities will not be available. It is essential for the government to act now to support them not just from a moral perspective, but because the the financial costs of disabled young people and adults being out of work long-term is far greater than the cost of short term intervention - and the long-term costs of mental-health care will be significant.
The challenges faced by disabled people during the pandemic haven’t had the media coverage and support they should. I hope that the government will take a proactive view and the disability sector needs to unite to get the voices of disabled people heard.
How has the crisis forced your organisation to adjust and how?
Ambitious about Autism has changed operationally overnight following the pandemic. We have also had to redesigned our schools and colleges to support young people to return into a Covid secure environment.
We have invested in our digital provision for our young people, the wider autism community and our staff. Wellbeing and mental health support is an even greater priority for our service users and staff and we have responded creatively with a range of initiates.
What will be your main leadership & governance priorities, and business continuity objectives going forwards?
Our main priority will be to continue to prioritise the needs of our young people as this crisis unfolds and to continue to deliver our high-quality services in a flexible way so that we can adapt to any potential scenarios. We will continue to develop different options and new models of working, with a firm commitment to outcomes for our young people and sustainability.
We have set a budget for next year and have planned a range of scenarios. We are in a stable position and have no concerns about viability at present. However, we need to government to continue to support the education and charity sector longer term to aid our recovery and ensure that we can be there for more young people in their hour of need.
Our fundraising activities have and will remain affected by the cancellation of events and the corporate sector being in distress. We don’t expect any major events or corporate partnerships to recover fully for at least a year. We launched an emergency appeal to fund the new additional work we have had to undertake to support young people and families in this crisis. We have been very grateful to our long-term partners for their support through this crisis. We have also tried to be creative and act differently. For example, we have just launched a new an online book for young children to explain lock-down to them written by children’s author Kes Gray and illustrator Chloe Batchelor. The book was developed in a pro-bono partnership with a number of agencies working together to reach out to our supporters. This has been a great success resulting in thousands of downloads and lots of new people getting in touch with us.
What lessons have you learned about yourself as a leader?
I enjoy change, I'm not scared of change and I've embraced change. I am resilient and creative, so that helps me in this environment. I really benefit from working across sectors with my colleagues and I’ve worked with multiple networks to try and form a view of the longer-term landscape, and also to share challenges and ideas. Networking, collaborating and being visible has been very beneficial as a Chief Executive.
I've enjoyed the flexible working, which has allowed me to balance my work- life better. This is going to be true for a lot of people which will be one of the positive things to come out of this crisis. Hopefully, we will offer more flexible opportunities for ourselves as leaders, and for all of our staff. This is going to be a game-changer - but recognising that it's not going to be right for everybody. We are mindful that some staff will want to be office-based because they don’t have an environment that they can work in effectively or they need the wider team interaction and support. For some of our disabled employees, we understand that working with virtual platforms has not been easy and we have to be fully aware of not excluding anybody as we move into a recovery stage.
What advice would you want to share with other organisations in the disability sector?
The advice I would share with my peers in the disability sector is one word: engagement.
I think staying close to your service users and connecting with their experiences will help to inform your organisation on how to respond directly with your staff and partners.
I think engagement has been key for Ambitious about Autism to do the right thing and to do it better.