Craig Jones has been chief executive of the Royal Osteoporosis Society for seven months and in that time, he has visited the charity’s headquarters in Bath precisely twice – the first occasion being for his job interview.
The first-time chief executive, who last worked in the charity sector in 2008, left his role as director of communications at the Advertising Standards Authority and moved from London to Bath to start the role in March – just two days before lockdown came into force.
Jones had a clear ambition for the charity: while its advice and support services and work within the healthcare system to improve care were strong, he firmly believed the society “had a great advocacy message” that it needed to share more vocally.
“I’m all about external affairs, so I want to turn up the volume on public and parliamentary engagement – three million people have osteoporosis and only 25 per cent of adults could tell you what it is,” Jones says.
“If you educate people about it and tell them it’s not an inevitable part of getting older, you can get people protecting themselves earlier.”
With a six-month notice period in his former job, he’d had a long time to think about how he wanted his first three months as chief executive to go.
“You’re conscious of creating the right impressions – you know you’ll never get that time again to build relationships and define yourself as a leader,” he says. “But it all went out the window by day three.”
There was an immediate financial crisis, with Covid putting about £1.2m, or 30 per cent, of the charity’s annual income at risk, and about 150 local and national events were cancelled. At the same time, there was higher demand for its helpline than there had been in a decade.
While his introduction to the team went roughly as he had expected (albeit via video call), the second meeting was altogether different, as Jones had to explain to staff that furloughs and pay cuts would be needed for the charity to survive.
At one point half of the charity’s staff were on furlough, and everyone had to take a 20 per cent pay cut.
“I was struck by how there wasn't any shred of resentment, even though their own lives had been made more complicated” Jones says. “A lot of them were more concerned about the activists and volunteers who would want to get in touch with them, rather than their own jobs.”
But it soon became clear that this would not be enough to safeguard the future of the charity. The Royal Osteoporosis Society was among the first charities to announce redundancies, losing about a third of its 65-strong team. Jones says he chose to make the job cuts early in the crisis to avoid long-running uncertainty for staff, particularly those on furlough.
“It’s quite hard restructuring an organisation you don’t know very well – I wouldn't advise anyone to do it.” But, he adds, at least being new to the charity and “not steeped in the lore of the organisation” allowed him to approach it with fresh eyes.
And having the support of a strong board to scrutinise and “kick the tyres” of his restructure plans was crucial, according to Jones.
One of the major challenges, he says, was maintaining trust at the same time as making difficult decisions, which he tried to do through regular and open communication alongside the formal consultation.
“We had to be really open about the financial pressures, to make the finances everyone’s responsibility over that period and make clear that sometimes there are not easy choices to make, but sometimes you still have to choose,” he says.
In spite of the baptism of fire for Jones and a painful few months for the charity, the majority of its services have been protected and there have been a number of significant successes.
The society's income had previously come largely from donations and legacies, which were stalling amid the coronavirus crisis.
Despite being a relative novice at fundraising, Jones turned his attention to grant applications – and while it was not the awareness-raising campaign he had hoped to spend his first six months focusing on, there were some overlaps.
“It is a different discipline to communications, but is also advocacy under another name,” he says.
As a result, the charity has won three out of four six-figure grants it has applied for, including £250,000 from the government’s £750m emergency funding.
The funding has helped the charity innovate and adapt its services. Its helpline normally receives in-bound calls, but it is now also making outbound calls to check on members.
So far, it has made 7,300 calls, starting with members aged over 100 and working down. Common themes that came up were written into articles and pumped out on the website and social channels, reaching 220,000 people, with pandemic-specific content accounting for 30 per cent of the hits.
The charity has also replaced its local information events with online, on-demand events, featuring some of the UK’s top osteoporosis healthcare practitioners. If done right, Jones says, these changes might be able to make the charity’s services more accessible than ever.
What has been key to the charity’s funding success, he says, has been that its argument has rested on making an economic case, rather than a moral one – elderly people in lockdown were unlikely to be getting the vitamin D they needed to support their bones, leaving them vulnerable to serious injuries from falls, or even coughing or hugs.
“Without support, there’s an impending crisis of falls and fractures,” Jones says.
“The narrative we crafted for government was ‘invest a couple of quid in us now and save money later’.”
The ROS is now “going into a period of healing” he says. “There’s a sense of having been through an ordeal together, and we’re just now getting on our feet again.”
The next step, Jones says, is to return to his advocacy plan. The charity, which before the restructure was already small for a charity serving three million people affected by a major chronic health condition, will have to work even harder to punch above its weight.
“I think that’s all about advocacy,” he says. “We deliver great services; we always have. Now we need to position ROS as an influencer in the health sector.”
From there, he argues, the charity can achieve a triple whammy of greater engagement with its services, an increase in income and the ability to help prevent people’s problems from becoming acute.
For Jones as a leader, what has really made a difference, he says, was having a support network of other leaders.
“It really helped to have other people to bounce ideas off,” he says.
“Everybody was going through the same thing, and if you can compare notes with leaders in other charities who are facing similar questions, you might find that somebody somewhere has got a fantastic model and will let you crib from it.”
Having returned to the charity sector after 15 years in the public sector, what has struck Jones during the crisis has been a lack of a sense of competition, despite the limited pool of funding available.
“I’ve found a network of six chief executives who are being really selfless – even though they’re giving 80-hour weeks to their jobs, they picked up the phone to me and let me ask daft questions,” he says.
“One of them said that she thinks it's her job to get the whole sector through, rather than just her charity.
“I’ve just found it a really communitarian place, where people who are going through similar pressures, have given their time really freely to somebody else who is thrown in at the deep end.
“That speaks quite well of the sector, and I’d hope to pay it forward.”