Lynda Thomas: I’m determined for Macmillan to hold on to what we've learned

The Covid crisis has led to difficult decisions, but we’ve managed to do things we wouldn’t have thought possible before

When it became clear that Covid-19 was here to stay, Macmillan, like so many charities, had to work hard to adapt so that we could continue to be there for people with cancer.

At a time when our services were most in demand, our income was dropping sharply. We were in uncharted waters as we tried to navigate how we’d get through the months and years ahead. 

This is an incredibly challenging time to work in the sector and it’s important to share learnings to help each other build back stronger.

We’ve had to move quickly and make difficult decisions that would normally have taken much longer. My leadership team and I did this by asking ourselves: will this support people with cancer, the NHS, and Macmillan staff and professionals?

These three groups were at the heart of every decision, so we tried to respond quickly to their changing needs. This meant simplifying processes, pausing activity that could afford to wait, knowing when to involve our trustees and, as chief executive, judging when I could speed things up by making a quick decision on my own.

Access to the insight needed to inform these decisions was critical. We knew from callers to our Macmillan Support Line that the lack of clear information about Covid-19 and cancer was causing people living with the disease extra anxiety, so we created an information hub on our website.

Support centres were closing, so we moved to help patients online and via the telephone.

We quickly introduced a telephone buddy scheme so our volunteers could safely help to combat the loneliness and isolation of those who were shielding. And we supported Macmillan healthcare professionals who temporarily left their posts to help on the frontline of the pandemic.

As we adapted, we began to see the devastating impact that coronavirus was going to have on our income. We saw fundraising events delayed or cancelled – social distancing and lockdowns took effect and the public’s usual ways of supporting Macmillan dried up.

As a charity that’s 98 per cent funded by the public, we had to act. We took immediate steps: introducing a recruitment freeze, furloughing staff, cutting budgets, closing a number of our offices, and suspending the annual salary review. 

Despite the best efforts of our supporters, these measures were not enough to plug the hole in our income left by Covid-19.

Indeed, we expect to be down by £175m by the end of 2022. It’s with huge sadness that we announced that we are reducing the size of our workforce and proposing to make 310 redundancies.

People are the beating heart of Macmillan and this was a devastating decision to have to make in order to protect our critical cancer services, such as our Macmillan nurses and the Macmillan Support Line. 

Cancer isn’t going anywhere. Covid-19 might be in the spotlight this year but cancer cannot become the "forgotten C".

People are still being diagnosed with cancer every day - we are putting those people at the heart of our future plans to make sure we are here to support them every step of the way. 

There are some learnings that I’m determined for us to hold on to as Macmillan moves forwards. We’ve managed to do things we wouldn’t have thought possible before the pandemic.

The organisation is working more flexibly, efficiently and innovatively. We’re being braver and much more agile, helping us to adapt and respond to the ever-changing external environment.

We’ve created brilliant new fundraising products that have taken off during lockdown and it’s been truly humbling to see the people who love Macmillan come out to support us when so many people are strapped for cash and worried about the future. 

For those charity leaders embarking on similarly difficult decisions for their organisations I would urge you to reach out to your peers.

I have gained invaluable support from the openness of other chief executives and their willingness to share their experiences. I would also encourage you to accept all the help you can get. 

Our sector is absolutely critical and we are needed now more than ever. Whether it’s a charity like Macmillan supporting the NHS, or homelessness charities fighting to protect renters from being evicted, or food banks helping increasing numbers of struggling families, the sector has stepped up - despite the income challenges it faces.

We must be bold in making sure people understand the huge impact we are having now and once we rebuild society after the pandemic. 

Lynda Thomas is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support

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