Winter is coming – take a break

Now is the time to gather energy for a long haul in an uncertain and precarious post-pandemic world

Paul Streets

This article first appeared in Third Sector

Recently I returned to a socially-distanced office with some real people in it for the first time in 16 months. What a joy to see colleagues in 3D.

It reminded me just how important that is for anyone who leads an organisation or a team. You get very little sense of how people feel when you only see them in a small rectangular box.

London was still deserted. Every day looks like a Sunday: more the relaxed, 'long lunch and chat' atmosphere than the usually frenetic, 'everyone in a rush' whirlwind. Nice.

It’s like starting a new job in a new place. Like all new jobs, there will be a honeymoon period.

But I fear it won’t last long. Whatever the new normal is to be, it will start to emerge. And we need to be prepared.

Those of us who run charities that reach issues and people through others have not had as challenging a time as those who continued to operate face-to-face services.

In many cases those organisations did not just step up what they do to meet basic needs, but doubled up by providing face-to-face and online support.

I recently spoke with six chief executives of small charities, hosted by the impressive South London Refugee Association. They were buoyed up and energised by what they have done and felt an even greater sense of being needed.

SLRA created a food bank for refugees, who have grown in number as the Home Office has dispensed with its dispersal policy and concentrated new arrivals in neighbouring boroughs. Local people have been happy to donate food, reflecting a higher and renewed sense of empathy.

But winter is just around the corner, and it feels like we are headed for austerity mark II. If the debate on international aid and the removal of the additional Universal Credit payments is anything to go by, we can expect a very tough funding settlement for local authorities.

This will have significant repercussions on charities both large and small. And while we may think we have been noticed, a recent survey of 101 MPs by the consultancy nfpSynergy found almost two-thirds could not name a charity that had responded to Covid-19.

We have a lot of work to do if we are to improve our reputation with decision-makers, and not enough time to be high on the list of special cases.

It is possible that 'levelling up' and investment in net zero will provide a partial rescue in some places. But the indications from my local authority contacts are that any extra central government funding will be hypothecated with little flexibility to do other than what they are told.

And with NHS pressures heralded – but yet to be seen – it is unlikely we will get much of a look in.

I’m not seeking to be a prophet of doom, but I do have a take-home message.

It has been a tough 18 months for all of us. To be prepared for what is to come we need to take a break and gather energy for what will be a long haul in an uncertain and precarious post-pandemic world.

If you are a leader, set an example by doing this and telling people to do the same.

Consider your own mental health and that of those you employ as staff and volunteers. Just before Covid-19 landed on our shores I wrote about the resources that are available for charities through Mind and others. It seems especially apposite now.

We should expect to be in the centre of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s fiscal storm, much as we might hope Boris Johnson's boundless benevolence wins the day. As Eddard Stark from Game of Thrones once said: "Winter is coming.”

Be prepared.

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