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Seven things I've learned in leading a charity through a pandemic.




I'm the director of a singing and performing project in schools which focuses on teaching a set of songs and bringing communities together in celebration. In February 2020, we had the privilege of putting together a choir of over 300 children to perform at the Westminster CEFEL (Church of England's Foundation for Educational Leaders) Conference.

Little did we know that the first "super spreader" event (Bus Fest UK) was taking place in the neighbouring building. You may remember that some MPs had to go into isolation that day. Pretty much straight away, the evidence pointed to our charitable organisation being enemy number 1 for spreading the virus. Singing and bringing people together in a crowded space – usually a packed local church – was about the worst thing you could do!

We were initially left reeling; how could a project which is all about bringing joy to communities become a project that had the potential to bring so much sadness and sorrow? It was devastating! We are a close team (our WhatsApp group is called "The iSingPOP family") and we were growing. Suddenly, almost overnight, we were unable to be together and unable to work. So how on earth do you lead a group of people and an organisation through a pandemic? And not just to survive but to thrive!

1) "Yes, It's Total Rubbish!"

The value of acknowledgement

It was so important to acknowledge the loss; we felt it emotionally, not to say financially. Yes, it's total rubbish but processing the fact that the whole situation was awful and acknowledging the potential devastation it would have on our organisation helped me emotionally. I remember that our chairman of trustees said, "Miz, you can't save everyone." I love our team, so the remark stung, but it was essential to realise that I wasn't Superwoman.

My faith, as a Christian, helped. There's story in Exodus, in the Bible, where the Israelites are standing by the Red Sea after trying to escape slavery in Egypt. They're facing the sea in front of them, cliffs all around them and the Egyptian Army behind them. In short, they're hemmed in with seemingly no way forward; they are quite literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Yet, that is the moment in which Moses says, "Don't be afraid; stand still and watch the Lord rescue you; just stay calm!" It's this verse which I have held onto during the pandemic.

Remembering that I didn't need to be Superwoman all the time wasn't the easiest of tasks, but it helped to hold onto these words and to my faith, trusting that God would be there through this storm.

Questions, thoughts and priorities:

2) "Jelly Through a Slotted Spoon"

Learning to be nimble & flexible

We all realised very quickly that planning anything in an ever-changing pandemic was nearly impossible. For the type-A personalities in our team, this was frustrating - we likened it to eating jelly through a slotted spoon. On top of this, we had lost £90,000 worth of revenue and still had bills to pay.

We needed to be nimble; we prioritised people over places. We wasted no time in saying goodbye to regional lockups, our office, and in doing so took advantage of our newfound reliance on Zoom and Teams. However, being a national organisation, this had the positive knock-on effect of making our regional staff feel more valued and engaged within the wider organisational structure.

As a team, we wanted to make a difference to children and help bring them joy. It became apparent that we would need to move into a virtual space. We already had a healthy YouTube presence, so we galvanised our creative teams and redeployed them to work on a virtual YouTube Show. They blew us away with their creativity, bringing talents we didn't even know existed to the fore.

Questions, thoughts and priorities:

What is your core value as an organisation?

Where can you make savings?

Who are your team members, and what can they bring to the table?

Can you give them the freedom to shine?

3) "You've Got a Friend in Me"

The power of asking for help

At the start of the pandemic, we felt it was essential to contact all our supporters, explaining our initial plans, and we were blown away by the response. We found that the friends and grant-making organisations we had partnered and built relationships with wanted to know how we were faring, both emotionally and financially. They were keen to understand how we were planning to operate, and they wanted to help. We are on a journey together with key supporters, celebrating the highs and reflecting on the lows.

If key funders ask for details of your cash flow, it is important to be honest (however scary it may seem!) Prepare a budget to survive but don't be afraid to budget to thrive. People want to see initiative and positivity.

Questions, thoughts and priorities:

Allocate time in your week to catch up with key supporters.

Be open and honest with your support network.

Budget to survive, but don't be afraid to budget to thrive!

4) "We're Not Alone"

The importance of connectivity

People are essential; they are your organisation. We made sure to put in place from the get-go a weekly coffee and catch-up for the whole team, furloughed or not. Sometimes we share thoughts and prayers. Periodically, we update the entire team on recent developments. But the main reason for the catch-up is to check in with each other.

It's so wonderful to stay connected as a work family. We all know that we have each other to turn to - to pray for, grieve with and celebrate with, among other things. We teach the children a song called "We're Not Alone", and this rings true in both our relationships with each other and in our reliance on God to guide us through. Keeping connected is crucial!

Questions, thoughts and priorities:

Make time every week to catch up with your whole team.

Have a communication system such as WhatsApp to chat and share joy, sadness, and prayer.

Appoint someone to connect individually with each team member.

5) "The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry"

Taking a moment to breathe

"Zoom fatigue" is a real thing. With video calls, we are not just chatting with our colleagues. We are continually evaluating ourselves and how we appear to others. It's an effort to exaggerate our facial expressions to look engaged and focused. The saying "Silence is Golden" is precious; we need time away from screens to process our thoughts and feelings.

We no longer have travel time to sit and think. We can launch ourselves into the day and be online from 9am to 5pm. We can fit in more meetings than ever before. At the start of the pandemic, I was one of the few people not furloughed. I found myself throwing all my energy into work, meeting after meeting, rushing to try and save the organisation. Then in the evening, I would be video calling family and friends. I found I wasn't sleeping well. I couldn't shut down , and I was getting headaches.

My son pointed out that I should slow down and introduced me to John Mark Comer's "The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry", in which the writer stresses the need for time to breathe. This quotation struck me to the core: "Love, peace and joy are not compatible with hurry!"

What was I doing? Our organisation teaches children about love, peace, and joy! To love others, you need to love and look after yourself and your emotional and spiritual well-being. I needed to cut out areas of hurry in my life.

I decided to walk and think as part of my working day, take time away from social media and Zoom, prioritise health and fitness and say "no" to unnecessary evening meetings.

Questions, thoughts and priorities:

Are you in a hurry? It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Take time to breathe and be conscious of how much time you spend each day in meetings.

Go for a walk and take time away from communication devices within your working day.

Don't be afraid to say "no".

In the evening, stop working! This takes discipline and is something I am still working on.

6) "Necessity is the Mother of Invention"

Knowing when it's time to try something new.

Plato famously wrote, "our need will be the real creator", the source of the English proverb, 'Necessity is the mother of invention'. However, as I am a pop lover, you're more like to find me quoting Billy Ocean's "When the going gets tough, the tough get going".

When the schools closed and we could no longer operate as before, we had a decision to make. Do we hibernate to survive (if we had, we now realise, we wouldn't have survived!), or do we try something new? Having the opportunity to take a break from our regular school programme gave us time and space to try something new.

For us, that journey started as a "YouTube Series" during the first lockdown. As the schools returned, we launched a digital collective worship resource designed for use in classroom bubbles. Classroom Worship has exceeded all our expectations and is fast becoming a significant part of our school provision. The great news now is that we will have a much more substantial project when we finally go back to school.

Questions, thoughts and priorities:

"Necessity is the force of invention." Have you or your team always had an idea but never had the time or mental energy to investigate it? Why not schedule time and space to try something new?

7) "Preparing the Ground Now"

Coming out of the pandemic may be more challenging than going in

As an organisation, we have changed and developed by adding digital resources to our programme. Our reach has grown from 32,000 children every year to approximately 150,000 every week! So, as we come out of this awful year, how do we prepare for a potential increase?

Many organisations have spent time reworking their digital provision. Recently, at a church leadership conference, the most popular question asked was, "How do we continue to stream our services when we are back in church?" For me, it comes back to your team and timing. Make sure you are preparing the ground now.

Go through your activities, the old and the new. What works? What now feels outdated in this new digital age? When it comes to having a perfectly tidy wardrobe, the one in, one out principle works; the same applies to your organisation. See that one idea you tried which never quite took off? Or that one thing that worked fine in its time, but today feels so outdated? Now is a great time to cut it out of your programme.

For me, this is the hardest thing to do, as it may well include people, but it all goes back to the earlier message from my chair of trustees – "You can't save everyone". In leadership, you must look at the right thing for your organisation. However, you also need to do the best for the people you employ. Look at the new jobs you have created and look at your existing team. There are bound to be people you can help upskill. The government is running loads of free online courses, so why not take advantage?

The tricky thing is that some people may no longer have a role, and as challenging as it is, you have to remember the saying, "round pegs need to be in round holes". If you try and do otherwise, you just hurt them in the end, as they won't feel valued, fulfilled and appreciated in their job. Be kind and compassionate. You need to be honest, firstly with yourself and then with your colleagues. Show them the respect they deserve.

Innervation Trust (iSingPOP) is smack in the middle of this process right now, and it's exciting to see a "new-look" trust emerging. We know it's not going to be plain sailing, but we look forward to seeing the results for us as we seek to see our trust's aims continue to bless schools, churches, and families across the UK.

Questions, thoughts and priorities:

Go through your activities, the old and the new. What works?

Upskill and redeploy your team where you can, but remember you need to fit round pegs in round holes.

Miriam Porter

Director

www.isingpop.com

March 2021


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