Talking through a crisis: How charities are managing difficult conversations during coronavirus

In the aftermath of Covid-19, charities are facing significant losses in income, cut services and potential restructures. Kirsty Marrins reports on how charity comms professionals can manage difficult conversations within their own walls

As charity comms professionals, we’re adept at communicating externally with our supporters, those who use our services and those we help in other ways. However, when it comes to communicating internally with staff and volunteers, we’re not always as proficient, particularly when the conversation involves a difficult message that has vast implications. 

Covid-19 has had a catastrophic impact on the sector, affecting our finances, operations, mental health and wellbeing. We’re all having to adapt to working from home and the challenges that brings, as well as having to do more with less. 

According to government figures, a fifth of sector staff have been furloughed. Many have been made redundant, or are facing redundancy, and some charities are rethinking the need for an office. These are all big changes and ones that need careful communicating to staff and volunteers.

“Understanding how to manage and support remote teams, how to boost morale while changing plans, cutting budgets, furloughing staff or talking about redundancies, places an enormous communications burden on chief executives and on those who manage others,” says Adeela Warley, chief executive of CharityComms. “Strong communications skills are more important than ever.”

For Warley, managing these topics in a constructive way means preparing for conversations by thinking about the situation and environment they will take place in, as well as being open and honest about the nature of the conversation. “It’s important to show empathy and kindness,” she says. “To create the time and space to listen and then to offer the space to reflect and react.”

At the children’s charity Barnardo’s, video has become king during the coronavirus crisis. Sarah Odams, head of internal communications, explains: “It’s a vehicle for authentic communications from our senior leaders, and both recorded messages and live-streamed Q&A sessions have been extremely well received.”

The organisation is also using digital channels such as Workplace by Facebook, which allow colleagues to connect and interact with each other easily. “Regular important corporate communications come from the chief executive to all staff by email, but managers also receive a regular email highlighting essential things to communicate to their team members, including key talking points for team meetings and one-to-ones on topics including working arrangements and mental health and wellbeing,” Odams explains. 

One charity that recently communicated a major decision in the wake of the pandemic is Action on Hearing Loss, which announced it was giving up its London HQ and that staff were to work from home for the foreseeable future. Before deciding what to do with its London office, it consulted its staff, Francesca Garforth, head of internal communications and engagement, explains. 

“Survey results and conversations with colleagues revealed that most people wanted us to make the most of opportunities presented by the pandemic and had an appetite to change their ways of working,” she says. “This meant leaders making the decision were well informed and people welcomed the news more because it was informed by them.” 

At the core of the announcement, and the subsequent consultation, was that the charity could listen and take on board the needs of its staff, something it has committed to pursuing throughout the process. “Our chief executive, Mark Atkinson, spoke for only 15 minutes at the online meeting and then spent 45 minutes encouraging discussion and answering everyone’s questions,” Garforth says. 

“We plan to carry on listening as much as we are communicating. There will be challenges, but we hope by doing regular surveys, working with staff champions and giving people every opportunity to share their views, we can identify problems early.”

Ensuring that internal communications focus on listening, understanding and reflecting the needs of staff is crucial to supporting a sense of wellbeing through difficult times, says Laura Pickering, internal communications manager at Mind. “It’s vital that we connect with our employees and act as their champion,” she explains. “That means listening to staff and ensuring feedback is gathered, acted on and reported back. In times of change or uncertainty it’s easy to forget this, but at Mind our regular conversations with staff (both furloughed and non-furloughed) tell us how they’re coping with change, so we can tailor our communications, anticipate issues and show we are listening.”

The mental health charity’s recent pulse survey showed that during coronavirus 85 per cent of staff agreed they felt supported by their managers, and the charity has introduced new resources to ensure they feel supported in turn. “We can celebrate that our managers are doing a fantastic job, but in these times of change we continue to recognise that they’ll need more support and a space to have their voices heard too,” Pickering says. “We have started a series of webinars to assist managers, often managing remotely for the first time, which also highlight the support available for managers themselves, such as a new buddying system and a managers network.” 

While internal communicators across the sector have stepped up to ensure their teams feel supported across the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenge ahead lies in sustaining internal engagement. As Pickering says, by capitalising on this energy, charities can “ensure that communicating change becomes an integral part of decision-making process, and that by listening and responding to the needs of our staff we take them on the journey with us.”

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