Mark Russell: Constant communication has carried our charity through lockdown – and tragedy

My first year at the Children's Society has involved a global pandemic and dealing with the public loss of a much-loved young trustee

Mark Russell
Mark Russell

I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago and a colleague said: “I bet you didn’t imagine your first year as chief executive would be like this?”  

She couldn’t have been more right. 

I was in the middle of my first year when Covid-19 hit.

In the space of a few days we had to ask most of our staff to work from home, close all of our 106 shops and move tens of thousands of pounds of IT kit across the country so we could carry on supporting the children who need us. 

Many of those young people were already experiencing significant disadvantage, and we knew that Covid-19 would make things even harder. It was crucial our team had the support it needed.

To make this a reality, we reshaped every single service we provide: I think we saw five years of digital transformation in five days. 

With our shops closed we knew Covid-19 would blow a significant hole in our budget, losing about £1m a month. With the reality looming that children and young people needed us more than ever, the team mobilised our Lifeline Emergency Appeal in just a few days. 

The one thing I have learned in this crisis is that you cannot over-communicate.

For the first weeks, the executive leadership team took turns to send a daily email to all staff, with all the updates they needed.

They were couched in the unique style and personality of that leader, something I feel is vitally important in all leadership, but especially at a time like this.  

I’m also a big believer in getting out and about, meeting as many people as I can, so through the crisis I have been dropping into online team meetings all over the organisation just to say hi and ask people how they are.

I have seen members of my team affected directly by the virus. That has been hard.  

President Obama’s chief of staff famously said to never waste a crisis. A small team within the Children’s Society has helped us to reflect on our learning through this situation.

We’ve been proactive about recording that learning, so we can adapt and change because of it. We have shared that learning in a series of blogs in the hope that it will benefit the wider sector. 

However, in May our lockdown was hit by a tragic event none of us could have foreseen. I have never wished to be in the office more than at that moment, just to be there to support my team. 

Our wonderful young trustee, Aya Hachem, was tragically killed. She was just nineteen and a wonderful asset to the charity: dedicated, driven and an inspiring voice for children and young people.

We have five young trustees who take part in our board meetings, and to lose Aya in such a devastating and public way was just awful. Aya was studying law, and when I think of the future she could have had it breaks my heart. 

I have to be honest, I wavered a bit at this time.

We were, and still are, devastated. Sometimes even charity leaders are left at a loss for words, but the warmth and kindness shown by everyone at that time, from inside our organisation and across the sector, was overwhelming.

Her loss sent shockwaves through the organisation. We are all still feeling them. 

If I’m honest, it has been a rollercoaster leading a charity through such difficult times. Lockdown has been tough for vulnerable children and most of us expect an explosion of safeguarding referrals when this is over.

But as we look to the other side of this crisis we are are determined to ensure that the Children’s Society uses every sinew of our effort and energy to focus on rebuilding our society, to ensure that this time it really is a society built for all children.

I have never been as proud of my team and of the sector as I am today. More difficult times might be looming, this I know, but I have faith and hope that brighter days are coming. 

Mark Russell is chief executive of the Children’s Society

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