Karen Chalk, recipient of the 2019 Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary, reflects on her experiences of leading an inclusion charity in Swansea before and during a pandemic.
In mid-April 2020 a friend described the pandemic as being ‘differently difficult for everyone’. I’ve heard other versions of that since, but they boil down to the same thing. The challenges people and organisations face sometimes appear in sharp relief, but equally often are obscured with screens and the heightened privacy of successive lockdowns.
It’s been impossible to second guess what others are going through and it can be difficult to find out; if this is true for individuals, perhaps it’s even more so for organisations. How we are doing and what’s happening around us both personally and organisationally has varied so much from month to month – or even in the course of a day! It’s become so complicated to navigate, communicate and to give and receive support.
In all that, though, has remained the absolute necessity of doing those things. As voluntary sector organisations we have to keep navigating because we do what we do for a reason. We need to keep communicating or we risk failing to support the people who need it most.
At Circus Eruption we create opportunities for people to mix with others on an equal footing, actively promoting inclusion and challenging segregation and stigma. Over the past 30 years we have run circus workshops for children and young people to increase confidence, resilience and sense of belonging. Many of those we work with face challenges like various statements or labels of disability, care experience, refugee / asylum seeker status or being young carers.
Like pretty much everyone else, we had to go online in March 2020 and the creativity and resilience shown by staff and volunteers in keeping going on screens has been incredible to witness. Even to get this going in the first place required a whole new set of training for all staff and volunteers and a digital safeguarding policy which was researched, drafted considered and signed off in less than one week.
Who would have ever thought that circus workshops – which are by nature physical, in person interactions, could successfully continue online for a year and a half?!
TOOLS FOR TENACITY
Some of the reason that carrying on went so well for us was due to the creative thinking of the team; they’re brilliant at thinking on their feet ‘in the room’, and so during zooms they immediately taught juggling with balled up socks, for example – which gained national attention with a couple of videos put out by BBC Children in Need, one of our funders.
By the summer it was becoming clear that things were getting worse rather than better, and with the feeling that we might not be able to see the young people we work with again indoors until the spring (that’s what we feared at the time!), we set about working out how we could meet them outdoors in the autumn.
The short version is that we managed to hire a big top, write and implement COVID-19 risk assessments and training, find a field to put it in and run circus workshops throughout October 2020, outdoors and with full social distancing and COVID protocols in place. It was hard work but great fun and an amazing experience for everyone – quite an achievement as those were in short supply in late 2020.
But these things didn’t come from nowhere. Organisationally we can’t overstate how much our strong foundations came to the fore.
For a start, our existing relationships with funders were crucial. Our connections with funders meant we were also able to adapt existing funds as well as connect with a new funder who knew about our work in order to deliver the big top, and I’m sure that previous connections with funders helped our emergency COVID-19 applications too. We hope that we are open and transparent with everyone and this very much includes those who support us financially.
Secondly, we were already very collaborative. We delivered our Big Top sessions on the Summit Good CIC field in Dunvant – an organisation we’d approached a year or so earlier to see if there were any collaboration opportunities! When our initial big top hire booking fell through, someone knew someone who could help.
Organisationally, too, we work together brilliantly; as my part in this jigsaw is to make sure that the organisation has momentum, sticks to its purpose and that everyone is equipped to do their part, I did my best to support and be supported. Our willingness to work with others and to value one another’s contributions equally within the organisation – developed as cultural norms over decades – stood us in good stead.
Finally, we were organised. While our structure is non-hierarchical, we know our roles! I had very little to do with the day-to-day delivery and focussed on making sure we didn’t fall over financially, despite suddenly losing 100% of our workshop income. We made it – largely through emergency grant funding.
BACK TO LOOKING FORWARD
Later I was able to focus on revisiting our strategy and future – something we had been planning for pre-pandemic. A colleague researched, drafted, wrote, edited and continually revised our risk assessments (especially C-19) and new safeguarding policies and procedures with incredible commitment and attention to detail.
The level of protocol that went with delivering workshops in person outside was eyewatering (quarantining and then cleaning every individually used bit of circus kit between workshops is a lot of work!). The team came up with new ways to run circus online week in, week out… and, of course, we were all facing our own ‘differently difficult’ challenges at the same time.
As I said at the start, we can’t see into one another’s organisations that easily and I’m worried I’ve made it sound as though it was all quite easy for us! It wasn’t; it still isn’t. But we are still here, finally back ‘in the room’ (in our own building at last which is another story!), with a new strategy and a renewed vision for the future, and of course with incredible volunteers, children and young people, trustees and staff.
The foundations of being organised, collaborative and in touch enabled our creativity and tenacity to flourish throughout this unbelievably challenging time and we hope these principles and practices will continue to enable us to grow, change and keep going long into the future.
WALTER DICKIE LEADERSHIP BURSARY
Karen Chalk received the 2019 Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary. The bursary from WCVA aims to help leaders in the voluntary sector to develop their entrepreneurial leadership skills. The annual award grants £2,500 to support an individual in Wales to become a better leader.
The 2021 leadership bursary is now open for applications, to find out more please visit our Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary page.
The deadline for applications is 14 February 2022.