Geethika Jayatilaka: Why we launched a new five-year strategy in the middle of a pandemic

Change is never easy, but an agile response to the Covid-19 crisis pushed us to think about the long term

Like so many charities, the past 18 months has been a blur of activity for us at Chance UK – a struggle to continue delivering our services amid a pandemic and continually changing restrictions, while balancing the needs of the families we support with the needs of staff and volunteers.

There were so many challenges when Covid-19 hit: figuring out how to get everyone to work successfully from home, moving more than 100 mentoring relationships with children online overnight, making alternative plans to manage the massive shock to our funding pipeline.

At the same time I, like so many others, was managing my own challenges around family needs and homeschooling.

It became apparent fairly quickly that despite the positive headlines about community spirit and the huge numbers volunteering for the NHS, at Chance UK we were seeing a sudden and dramatic decline in the number of volunteers willing to sign up for the long-term commitment needed to mentor a vulnerable child.

While it should not have come as a shock that, in the face of crisis and uncertainty, people were not as able to commit in the long term, we were also seeing demand for our services soar.

We knew we needed to connect children with mentors and that dedicated time, attention and positive influence would be more important than ever.

Our solution was to roll out something we were already piloting more quickly and in larger numbers than planned: the introduction of paid youth worker mentors who were able to hit the ground running in terms of building relationships online and being available to children throughout the pandemic.

The improvement we saw in outcomes really made us think about the volunteer model we were using, which had been in place for 25 years, and pushed us to rethink our organisational strategy.

But how do you make big changes in the middle of a pandemic? Even in ‘normal’ times, successfully leading organisational change is hard. People thought I was crazy to plan a five-year strategy when none of us knew what we would be allowed to do in two weeks' time.

In February this year, the enormity of what we were trying to achieve really hit home – combining our financial year end with taking the new strategy to the board and the budget for the new financial year.

There were definitely some head-in-hands moments when we wondered whether we could really make it all happen.

But the longer-term impact of Covid-19, as well as the fundamental inequalities that the past year amplified so clearly, meant we could not wait for the storm to pass.

As an organisation we gained confidence in the ways in which we can adapt our service and this spurred us on to be more ambitious: doing more and doing things differently.

Despite the challenges, we need to be ready to support our young people and families, now more than ever. Looking at the next five years has helped us see the way ahead and get ready to address the level of need that we know is coming.

But it has not been easy. The new strategy meant a restructure that has been incredibly hard, especially on those who have had to leave us. Our team were already exhausted because of the impact of Covid-19 and were yearning for a return to normality.

Trying to support them to engage with new ways of working, and make some really tough decisions about brilliant members of staff, some of whom had been with us a long time, was hard and emotional.

And we are not there – yet. I still have sleepless nights, knowing that it has been incredibly hard for those directly affected by the changes we have made.

It has helped that most of those affected have found new opportunities and that some, despite the personal impact, understood the direction of travel and why we needed to do this.

Now we are starting to see the new team coming together and delivering some of the changes we had hoped for.

Changing direction is never easy, and is almost certainly more difficult during a time like this – but we have done so knowing this is the right decision for the children and families we work with.

Geethika Jayatilaka is chief executive of Chance UK, which provides mentors to children with behavioural difficulties in order to prevent crime and antisocial behaviour

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