30 June, 2020

Planning for the New World: A Q&A with Mark Atkinson

“We need to acknowledge that the world has changed - charities must be entrepreneurial and prepare to do things differently”.

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. This week we speak with Mark Atkinson, Chief Executive at Action on Hearing Loss, who shares his view in response to the crisis.

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.

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. As 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, I am pleased to shine a light on how coronavirus has impacted this sector and thank Mark for sharing his experience.

{{imageAltText(storage/images/Mark-Atkinson.jpg)}}Mark Atkinson
Chief Executive
Action on Hearing Loss

How have the effects of Covid-19 impacted your organisation?

Like many organisations, Action on Hearing Loss has experienced considerable disruption over the past few months. That said, we have also seen examples of innovation and agility. I am really proud of how we have adapted our ways of working and strategy delivery. Looking back over the past few weeks we have started to offer our information and advice via video conference with British Sign Language interpreters; ran our first Facebook Live broadcast providing expert information; rolled out a live online service directory to provide localised information about support that is still accessible during COVID-19; and launched a volunteering search facility to help recruit virtual volunteers during COVID-19.

How have you ensured that disabled people’s priorities are at the heart of the wider industry’s policies and practices during the pandemic?

We are working hard to ensure we listen, involve and engage deaf people and those with hearing loss and tinnitus in everything we do. We need to get even better at this as I recognise that we can only remain relevant if we co-produce and reflect our community brilliantly well.

How will this crisis shift the Disability Inclusion Agenda - is there a need for your organisation to adjust and how?

Disabled people have largely been forgotten by Government through this pandemic. There has been very little thought to how this crisis affects disabled people and how we avoid greater inequality. I am worried that the progress we have seen in recent years around disability rights and inclusion could be lost unless there is an explicit commitment to disabled people being central to the economic recovery. Just one example: with millions of people likely to be unemployed by the autumn, we need to ensure that future employment support programmes are bespoke and personalised to support disabled people to access work and remain in the labour market. I worry that the needs and views of disabled people may get lost and that’s why charities including Action on Hearing Loss must continue to campaign.

What will be your main leadership and governance priorities going forwards?

We are operating in an uncertain and volatile environment which is changing extremely quickly. One of my conclusions is that we need to move faster that we have been used to. That means our leadership and governance needs to be more agile and we need to be prepared to experiment more. There is no question that the size and shape of the social sector is changing. There should be more consolidation and integration and as leaders we should embrace this if it helps us deliver our mission quicker.

What lessons have you learned about yourself as a leader and how will your thinking change?

I enjoy working in a fast-changing environment and I tend to work well under pressure. Reflecting on the leadership challenge of the past few months, I guess I have come to terms with the fact that I do like detail and I like to be personally involved in managing risk. All too often we tell ourselves that we must be ‘strategic’ – and of course we must – but equally, I’ve learnt that add value in asking questions about how well the ‘engine room’ is working and probing what more we can do accelerate our work.  

What reflections would you want to share with other organisations in the voluntary sector?

Charities must be entrepreneurial and prepare to do things differently. There is too much “conservative” (small ‘c’) thinking within our sector. Too much wanting to keep things the same. Too much fear of rocking the boat. We need to acknowledge the world has changed and will continue to change at an ever-increasing pace. Our job is not to try and slow things down but to accelerate and pivot the way we work as social sector organisations. To do otherwise will make our organisations irrelevant and redundant.

Smita Rai

Written By

Smita Rai

Senior Consultant

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