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Community challenge and change: lessons and tools from the pandemic

Posted by Alex Smith on 5th September 2020

By Alex Smith

On March 14th, the day after The Cares Family suspended face-to-face programmes amid the surging pandemic, I wrote about how Covid-19 pitches our basic instinct for survival against our human need to connect. The article for The Huffington Post was about the dilemma, the heartbreak, of shutting down programmes that we'd taken ten years to build – and my doubts about whether we'd made the right decision to suspend them.

Six months on, I finally know the answer.

Given that we work with people over 65 – who are 34 times more likely to die of the virus than the younger neighbours we connect them with (younger people who nevertheless carry and spread the disease through no fault of their own) – we really had no choice; eventually, we'd have been forced to pause face-to-face activity by the lockdown that followed ten days later. We made the right call to go early.

But even back then, in those days in mid-March, we carried our dilemma doubly heavily because we knew that those older and younger neighbours were also the people most susceptible to the awful effects of the deep loneliness and isolation that would inevitably follow from sustained social distancing. So it has come to pass – as study after study shows the harsh physical, mental, emotional and relational effects of people missing out on regular human contact.

For six months now, we've lived a pandemic in which people can't hug, where neighbours can't share space intimately, where the simple joys of connection are fewer and further between, and where generations have been pitted against one another once again – by a false choice between economic health and social health. It's a false choice because the reality is that this is a time of deep social isolation for older people and deep economic isolation for younger people.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

The communities of The Cares Family have shown the solace and solidarity in the generations sharing time, laughter and new experiences – even from afar. Rapidly re-invented programmes building connection in disconnecting times – online, on the phone, by post, even through windows – have provided opportunities for neighbours to learn from one another in so many new and unexpected ways, to share joy as well as tears, to offer advice and wisdom and even tips in emotional resilience. As of mid-August, 5,681 people had enjoyed that sense of community through four completely re-invented programmes which, together, they helped shape themselves.

Those connections matter, and they matter doubly in times of challenge and change. And, since we now know that this pandemic is going to continue for some time, and have a long tail of social consequence, we wanted to share some of the lessons we've learned over six months of running programmes bringing people closer, from afar. Those lessons are about leadership, operational change, programmatic transformation and fundraising. They're about holding the balance of challenge and change. And at their heart, they're about the power of people being with people.


At the start of the pandemic, our strategy was to go fast and go big. We felt that this is what we'd come here to do – to reduce loneliness and isolation amongst older and younger people alike, and that this was going to be the loneliest and most isolating period of all our lives. So, from the start, we set out with pace and energy and the commitment to make the biggest difference we possibly could.

Our teams rose to the challenge immediately. Thousands of people were contacted, programmes were transformed, new projects were developed in a week, and we communicated our transformation with coverage in the local and national press. Behind the scenes, our board had risen to the challenge too. In a meeting on March 16th, they gave a clear indication: we could be prouder after a year of a pandemic if we'd spent down on our reserves to make a significant difference to the lives of people in communities, and the aggregate health of the country, than if we played safe, furloughed staff, battened down the hatches and hoarded money for the future. In line with our values, we prioritised social consequence over financial consequence.

That approach was far from painless. During the course of this year, everyone in the team has had tough periods. Our pace was painful, and we've experienced individual and collective frazzling. Concentrations of hurt gathered most acutely from May to July, culminating in necessary soul-searching about our mission, our scaling, disconnection in our own organisation, and years acting timidly on racism. Our philosophy is that loneliness leads to polarisation: for a brief moment, we experienced that ourselves.

Now, it feels like we're coming through that moment. One of my favourite quotes is TS Eliot's "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." At The Cares Family, we will never case from exploration. But it does feel, after six months of challenge and change, that we know the place for the first time.

As we look to the future, here are some lessons on leadership that we've learned:

  • Never waste a crisis. In The Cares Family, as in society, this moment has revealed problems we had long had, but had previously been too slow or too blind to address. From our deep anti-racism work, to our HR support, to updating staff handbooks and reappraising risk as programmes shifted, we have made changes across The Cares Family over the course of 2020. These are changes – and this is a mentality – that will stand us in good stead for the next phase of our development.

  • Survival requires tactics, thriving requires strategy. For the first two months of the pandemic, we had to be short-sighted. We had to get new projects up and running, communications dispatched, new income generated, and expiring contracts extended. But then, we decided to get strategic. We started reviewing our new projects so they could have a bigger impact, through monthly reflections on their progress. We started to make adaptations even to our traditional ways of working that would benefit us for the long term. And we started to push ahead again with our new 'Action, Voice, Power' plan so that we could begin to make impact in new ways.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. As a multi-location family, nevertheless rooted in place, we'd never quite cracked communicating remotely before the pandemic. We still haven't cracked it fully, but through the rapid adoption of Teams on March 14th, to newly instigated All Team Calls every month, to the standardisation of meeting processes and cultures, to the shutting down of noisy and sometimes exclusionary WhatsApp groups, we are making big steps in the right direction.

  • Step up, lean in. Through the course of the pandemic, we have had three phrases that have held us in good stead: sit in your discomfort; be ready to have stamina (which means consider your self care and community care); and nurture generosity and gratitude. These are the responsibilities of leadership for everyone in a team, and the ways in which The Cares Family has stepped up as a group have been remarkable. But there's one thing I wish I'd known earlier and which I'm grateful to know now (courtesy of Sam Conniff's Be More Pirate via Mike Niles): in times of crisis, one coherent voice and decision-maker needs to be heard.

  • Never, never, never give up. Social change comes slow and hard. It requires patience and the perspective of the long view. And while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. Even in times of difficulty – especially in times of difficulty – we all need to locate the things that first motivated us to do the work, and to let that be our driver.


Based on the lessons above, and the work of our fabulous Managing Director, Jane East, we've been making progress on getting our operational house in order too, even amid the pandemic. When Jane joined us in January, steeped in experience, she identified 11 key operational challenges, all of which we've made progress on:

  • Strategy – as above, a crisis requires tactics and strategy. So, after a period of innovation and reflection, it's important to appraise your approach and – if it's still right, and still just – move ahead. A gap in capacity in the present shouldn't be allowed to become a chasm in impact for the future.

  • Governance – Trustees matter more than ever in a crisis: regroup, and hug them close. Expand your advice pool. Meet more often, and don't be afraid to ask for what you need.

  • Human resources – At the start of the year, as Jane joined us, we completed our first ever staff survey. It identified a range of issues which we needed to hear. Four months later, we repeated the exercise, even though it's uncommon to do so as frequently in regular times, because we knew everything had changed. As a result, we created a Staff Engagement Group which is pushing the organisation to be better all the time. And we're less shy about asking our wonderful network for help when we need it.

  • Financial management – Staying on top of financial management is key, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be transparent. Our teams have benefited from helping to shape the organisational budget this year. Now they are clearer on their line budgets, and can therefore be more targeted in their decision making. That participatory process is something we believe will make us more targeted sill in future.

  • Funding base – Again, this requires tactics and strategy. The short term financial challenge to charities is stark, but the longer term could be harder still. So communicate regularly with supporters, don't over-ask, and remember that the key tenet in fundraising, as in life, is relationships.

  • Programmes implementation – People at the heart of programmes know their work best. In times of challenge and change, it's even more important to centralise their voices; that means staff, and also participants. Our decision to suspend programmes early came from the bottom up, not the top down. So did our re-invention of those programmes. As we hope to bring face-to-face work back, slowly and safely over the coming months – and only when the time is right – we are being led by those programmes teams and the relationships they carry with our older and younger neighbours. Nothing could be more important.

  • Evidence – While we have a deep and broad base of evidence that The Cares Family model and programmes work in regular times, we still don't know much about the impact of our remote projects. We evaluated them early, but not often enough. Now, we're moving to a new phase, trialling new ways to evaluate programmes through discussion groups, regular phone calls, and light-touch CRM systems that create data matched to human intelligence and relationships that make meaning from those figures.

  • Communication – As above, communication is fundamental. But over-communicating can be confusing. That's the case on social media, as well as in teams. It's important to meet and share often enough that people feel aligned, but not so often that bureaucracies grow or people get confused or feel decision fatigue.

  • Operations, systems, processes – As well as moving to Teams and improving our staff handbook for a new era, we have also integrated a new HR system to help enable staff to better take their time off, and we're also piloting a new financial tool to help everyone on the teams track their monthly budgets better. These systems should be enabling and create space and time; they should never chip away at them.

  • Diversity, equity and inclusion – Our Anti-Racism Action Group has been fundamental in helping us to better live our shared values, to open vital conversations and to make accelerated progress on a deep systemic issue. It has also led to other changes – improved recruitment processes based on competencies over culture; clearer staff development opportunities; and an accountability process that says 'clarity is kind'.

  • Accountability – In a changing team and a changing world, not everyone knows everyone else's job and that means not everyone knows everyone else's purpose. So as well as sharing frameworks on meeting structures, we've also shared updated senior leadership responsibilities and work plans, and deepened the relationship between the staff and the board teams.

  • Risk management – We have always taken safeguarding seriously, but in the chaos of the pandemic, processes were challenged and required urgent updates. This should be a collaborative process – again because people at the heart of the work know it best.


We re-invented our core programmes quickly, but it took us a while to reflect on them and update them again. So during the course of the summer, we continued to listen, learn and adapt – and we now have a series of tools to help communities like ours to get the most out of their remote programmes. These tools will not work universally. They are far from perfect and they will require continual adaptation. But they may offer some guidance for others trying to bring generations together remotely.

Virtual Social Clubs. Our virtual socials bring older and younger neighbours together to share time, laughter and new experiences. Neighbours can either join via Zoom, or via their landlines or mobiles. Setting people up on Zoom can be a painstaking process, and it takes patience and love to make it work. But it does work: across The Cares Family, 612 older and younger people shared in the fun of our 379 virtual social clubs, a total of 3,383 times, from March to August.

Here are some tools to help get your community connected:

Phone a Friend. This project is about connecting people one-to-one over the phone while they can't meet in person. Those connections have brought solidarity and solace to neighbours across the generations –like Aimee and Val who, through East London Cares, have become close friends during lockdown and are now sharing time in person at a social distance. Across The Cares Family, over 170 older and younger neighbours have offered one another support through this project.

Here is the key tool to help get your community connected:


Our many supporters have been amazing, and we can't thank them enough. 1,048 people donated to our emergency crowdfunders back in March, helping us to raise £150,000 to cover the gaps created by lost challenges and events.

Long term friends in foundations like Nesta, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, The National Lottery Community Fund and UnLtd, and new ones like the Sheinberg Relief Fund, supported us when we needed it most. And our corporate partners have been astounding in their commitment to community, including Marsh, Bank of America and Pernod Ricard. We're so grateful for everyone's support.

In building that coalition of supporters in the midst of a pandemic, we've been reminded of some important lessons:

  • Be powered by people. We're lucky to have a network of so many people who are already part of this community. They are the heart and soul of what we do – so we regularly share the love with them. In doing so, that love has been passed forward, and new and existing donors have come forward to ask how they can help.

  • Partnerships, like all relationships, need nurturing. That means we communicate regularly, we try not to overpromise, and we're honest when we fall short. It also means that we try to spend a lot of time with our partners: sharing updates, getting their people involved in our projects, and constantly sharing ideas and plans, even when it feels like we're sharing too much.
  • Challenge yourselves. With most spring and summer fundraising challenges cancelled, we've had to think again about how we mobilise our networks to get involved. So we've innovated, and tested new approaches, because we've had to. While we were getting ready, we took part in the #5for5 and 26.2 challenges – and then built on those campaigns with our own virtual relay race and Janky Jukebox event online. But we know the biggest challenges may still lie ahead, so we're now building on that work for the long term.
  • Go online. Digital connection isn't the same as face-to-face connection, but in times like this, it really matters. That applies to fundraising too. So as well as online briefings for supporters and crowdfunders, we've also sought to tell our story, intimately, slowly – and in line with our values.
  • Constraints can be enabling. At the start of the pandemic, we developed scores of ideas to connect older and younger people from afar. And when we shared them with partners, they were excited about all of them! It wasn't until we consolidated our new core projects found the most realistic ways that people could be involved, and communicated fewer ideas with more confidence, that we really discovered the difference we could make. Now we know: don't have too many products.
  • Impact matters most. For all the time spent on fundraising and managing funding relationships – for me that's normally about five hours a day – it's important not to forget that impact matters most. So every month, we've been sharing the data, quotes and, most importantly, stories that help partners to understand the real, human value of their support.

We know we have shared challenging times with so many other charities. And we know there will be more difficult times ahead. We hope these lessons and tools will help our wonderful partners, in communities up and down the country, to develop their own ways to meet those challenges – and to help more people feel part of our changing world, rather than left behind by it.

Donate today

Thank you for considering a donation to The Cares Family. Your gift will help to tackle loneliness and build connection and community in a disconnected world. Our work is powered by people – so please chip in if you can.

The Cares Family is a UK registered company (10236615) and registered charity (no. 1180638). North London Cares is a UK registered company (07737818) and registered charity (1153137). South London Cares is a UK registered company (8757344) and registered charity (1157401). Manchester Cares is a UK registered company (10893107) and registered charity (1176902). Liverpool Cares is a UK registered company (11166325) and registered charity (no. 1177749). East London Cares is a UK registered company (11809555) and registered charity (no. 1186012).

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