‘Charities are trying to sprint through what has become a marathon,’ says Mencap CEO 

08 Mar 2021 News

The charity sector stepped up at the beginning of the pandemic, but people are now exhausted, Mencap’s chief executive said last week. 

Edel Harris was speaking at an event organised by the think tank NPC to launch its Rethink Rebuild programme. 

Harris described the last year as “incredibly challenging”, especially as it highlighted inequalities that were exacerbated by the pandemic. But added: “I think it has brought out and exposed some of the best things that our sector has to offer.”

She explained: “We have seen certainly within Mencap and across the wider sector, charities and funders have proved to be hugely resilient, very agile, creative and committed.” 

She highlighted how Mencap frontline staff had gone the extra mile. “We've had colleagues who've slept on put-me-out beds, on hospital floors to stay with the person that's dying. We have four colleagues who literally gave their lives. We've got colleagues who came into work over Christmas,” she said. 

‘Leaders stepped up’ 

Harris said that leaders had stepped up, but warned that people risk becoming burnt out. 

“We saw leaders at all levels in the organisations that that we represent, really stepped up to the challenge,” she said. 

However, she said the “adrenaline rush” from the beginning of the crisis has “faded”. 

She explained: “I think the sector is now trying to sprint through was become a marathon at an unsustainable pace. And as a result, we find ourselves in a potentially prolonged period of disillusionment, grief and exhaustion.

"If you layer on top of that forces that are fundamentally reshaping our society, things like technology, innovation, business model disruption, social inequality, workforce automation, many of us I think, have a sense that we aren't likely to simply just bounce back to how things were before."

New strategy 

Mencap will launch its new strategy next month, which “brings an opportunity to ground a new narrative within our charitable purpose and our newly articulated vision”, Harris said.  

She said the aim is “for the UK to be the best place in the world to live if you have a learning disability”.

She added: “We hope this repurposing will help colleagues to make sense of what is a new reality and regain a sense of stability. And we also hope it will reignite individual motivation and wellbeing and productivity.” 

Harris said Mencap aimed to be less hierarchical. 

“Our response to the pandemic has also challenged us as an organisation to rethink and rebuild, how we organise ourselves how we spend our charitable resource says, and where we decide to make investments for the future,” she said. 

This means “taking our organisation and our traditional hierarchical structure and ways of working into a completely new model that's led by individuals with a learning disability that's focused on communities”.

NPC: ‘Small window of opportunity’ 

Last week NPC launched a new programme, Rethink Rebuild. 

Vaughn Lindsay, chair of NPC, said: “It's about exploring new ideas of how charities funders and others in the social sector could be part of rebuilding our economic and social fabric after the damage caused by Covid-19.” 

The think tank has published more information on a new platform called NPC Labs

Leah Davis, head of policy and external affairs at NPC, added: “The reason that we're doing this project now is because we think we've got a real opportunity, a window of opportunity to make some change.” 

She said that the pandemic had exposed a number of challenges in the sector, which motivated people to consider doing things differently, but said the window of opportunity could be “quite short”.

The aim of the programme is to come up with “transformational and practical ideas” and work with charities and funders to test them. 

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