Martin Edwards: In a time of crisis the right communication can demonstrate how much you care

However big or small your charity, the frequency and personal touch of communication matters

Living in Dorset, I used to take my son to the football stadium when AFC Bournemouth were playing a major team so we could seek star players’ autographs as they boarded their bus home. It was an interesting insight into human nature, with parallels for charity leaders in the current situation.

In the days before Covid-19, the visiting players would walk within two metres of the autograph hunters waiting patiently behind barriers with their pads and pens held out. You were more likely to get an autograph if the visiting players had won. Even so, many still affected a level of myopia normally only attributed to referees.

Some, Wayne Rooney notable among them, smirked while walking straight past and sitting on the bus for several minutes with little else to do before it eventually departed. Others, like Paul Pogba, Sadio Mane and Jordan Pickford, quickly signed a few before a scrum happened. Manager Jose Mourinho made a point of signing for young children.

The best by far was Jamie Vardy: the striker from humble non-league roots signed everything, no matter how long it took, sending all fans away beaming. He really made a difference to my son and I have never forgotten it.      

Charity managers during Covid-19 are like the visiting players: in demand. Besides the pressure on us to get results in a fast-moving situation, our constituencies need to hear from us more often – and that means service users, supporters, donors, staff and volunteers. Under heightened pressure it is easy to make excuses, but if you go the extra mile people will never forget it.

When our shops were closed, I phoned nearly 100 of our mostly elderly and isolated volunteers. They were surprised that the chief executive had bothered to ask how they were, whether they had enough food supplies and if they had friends or relatives looking after them. During one of those phone calls, an elderly volunteer told me they had recently lost their spouse. What we do in such situations is surely remembered for years to come.

There have been many other examples of communicating across the crisis. Besides providing care, our nurses and carers have delivered parcels and medicines to families isolating at home, talked through front doors, sent virtual hugs online and hosted children’s gaming competitions. Our celebrity patrons have recorded stories for the children and hosted an online ‘Thank-a-thon’ for supporters.  

As our shops prepared to reopen, our retail manager filmed a cheerful tour of the new safety measures we were taking; despite ours being a local charity, the film was viewed 40,000 times on Facebook.

Normally I would write four staff bulletins a year – during Covid-19 I have written 12 in 16 weeks. A number of us have been more active on LinkedIn in the last four months than over the previous 10 years, keeping the charity’s profile high in the corporate community.

We have sent many handwritten notes to adults and children in the general public who have been kind to the charity. We have phoned major donors, not always to ask for money but to keep them in the picture. We have also given our supporters regular insights into what working during the pandemic has been like for our nurses on the front line.

However big or small your charity, the frequency and personal touch of communication matters – and however much, or little, you have done in this stage of the storm, we are not out of it yet. There is still time to be Jamie Vardy. 

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, which runs children's hospices in Wiltshire and Dorset

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