It was an unusual start to an interim role. Far from the ordinary meet and greet with the team, I found myself travelling up to Leamington Spa on 19 March 2020 to have coffee with the Chair on my first day because London was struggling with the early outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That was the first – and last – time I ever met anyone from the Trust face-to-face!
Shannon Trust is a truly inspirational national charity supporting thousands of prisoners a year to transform their lives by unlocking the power of reading. The charity inspires and trains prisoners who can read to teach prisoners who can’t.
At the time of my appointment, prisons had just been shut down and prisoners were locked in their cells for 23 out of 24 hours a day. Our team of nearly 140 volunteers had already been told to stay home, and the staff team was just beginning to grapple with the challenge of how to access prisoners when there were little to no digital means of communication, and no way to reach them face-to-face. The programme is peer-based but, in almost all prisons, even our learners and mentors couldn’t meet for sessions. The challenge also wasn’t just around those already learning to read in prisons – around half the prison population struggles with literacy, and all of these people wouldn’t be able to distract themselves by reading during the lockdown. We needed to offer them something that they could access.
As a team, we were also implementing new ways of working as everyone moved to work from home. Thankfully, Teams had already been installed to support our remote members of staff, so the transition was relatively smooth. I implemented new SMT meeting arrangements and ensured that we adapted how we communicated to keep the team and volunteers informed.
When the furlough scheme was announced, I had to recommend the best way forward to the Board – shut the charity down (as it couldn’t really do its usual work) and play it safe, or strive to find a way to help our beneficiaries. It wasn’t a simple decision: although the Trust started the year in a very strong financial position, at the time everything had been thrown in the air by the impact of the pandemic, and we didn’t know what would happen with our funding pipeline. We have since learned that many prison-based charities decided to furlough all staff over the lockdown period.
I recommended that we stay open and strive to do the best for our beneficiaries. I led a full cost-cutting review, developed an interim fundraising and communications strategy, and furloughed one staff member, then the remainder of the team focused on adapting our programme to reach our beneficiaries and make the most of the shutdown period.
While we moved swiftly to adapt our operational delivery to develop activity packs and collaborate with other charities on new ideas to reach our beneficiaries, I also moved forward with a full health check of the organisation. In a short time, I was able to present the Board with my findings highlighting the next organisational development steps for the charity – both those that I could do while in post, and others that were longer term that could be taken up by the permanent CEO.
The shutdown period also gave me an opportunity to lead the charity forward with some of its longer term strategic goals, including a pilot project plan for expanding our work into the community, and a digital scoping activity and strategy incorporating a range of new digital tools to increase the avenues towards reading offered by the charity. We quickly experienced some strong successes with this work, releasing a CD-based training tool to ensure each prison-based bubble could train new mentors without needing volunteers, and designing a DVD-based programme for self-study. Through the initiation of these new programmes, the charity was able to access £250,000 in new funding to support new initiatives within the period of my appointment. The CDs are already in prison and the DVDs are being developed now. It’s been a thrill to see this achieved so quickly.
I also worked with the team to develop a Theory of Change and accompanying monitoring and evaluation framework, reviewed and updated a wide range of policies and procedures, and consulted with staff and volunteers on a potential structure review.
The appointment has been exciting, challenging and very rewarding, and I’m so proud of what the team has achieved together throughout these six months. It is such an important cause, and it is has been a real privilege to lead the organisation through these past six months.
I hope that one day, I’ll be able to meet the Shannon Trust team face-to-face!
Sue O’Hara, Chair of Trustees said “You were recruited to “keep the ship steady” at the start of the COVID pandemic when none of us knew how it would affect the work of the Trust. You have been able to do so much more than that, enabling us to develop our offer to learners so that our work could continue when many other organisations were obliged to suspend activity in prisons. Facilitating the development of a community-based pilot and secured the funding to allow it to go ahead is a fantastic achievement in such a short space of time. You have managed to combine that with the development of systems and procedures and work with members of the staff team to get the best from them and I really enjoyed working alongside you.”
John Benstead, Trustee, said: “You have made such an impact in your time with us that that I think the past few months will come to be seen as a key watershed period in the history of the Shannon Trust , so thank you for all you have done in a such a short space of time.”
Barry Porter, Trustee, said “Your leadership during these past most challenging and difficult of times has been quite outstanding and ST owes you a real debt of gratitude for enabling us to be in a position to move forwards with confidence.”
Kerryn Huck, National Service Delivery Manager said “Felicia has made the world of difference to our organisation since stepping in as our interim six months ago. Initially holding the fort until we recruited a new CEO, she found herself leading the organisation just as the pandemic unfolded. Not only has she guided us through the uncertainty of Covid-19, but she’s helped the senior management team work more effectively together and encouraged a new wave of innovation and energy. Working practices have improved, policies & processes have been reviewed, and we’re back on track with our strategic aims. She’s incredibly thorough and has moved the organisation forward 10 steps. She’s shown a genuine care and commitment to helping the organisation run more effectively on every level.”