Sarah Woolnough: Leading a respiratory charity during the Covid-19 pandemic 

01 Dec 2021 Voices

When Sarah Woolnough became CEO of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, the charities were still integrating after a recent merger and dealing with a huge increase in Covid-related demand. Sarah reflects on the challenges the organisation has faced. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has no doubt been a challenging and difficult time for charities. With in-person fundraising events cancelled and demand for some support services soaring, charities have had to adapt and innovate, in some cases just to stay afloat. On top of all this, when the pandemic took hold in early 2020, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation was in its first 100 days of a merger.

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation joined forces in January 2020, creating a stronger, unified and sustained voice for the one in five people living with lung disease in the UK. Merging is tricky: backend systems need to be carefully integrated, as well as workforces, office space, strategies, equipment, fundraising streams and cultures. 

But the Covid-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works almost immediately. We were propelled to the frontline of the crisis because people with lung disease were terrified of catching Covid-19 and anxious to find out from us what they could do to protect themselves. Calls into our helplines were nearly four times higher during the first month of lockdown compared to a similar period in 2019, and website traffic experienced a fivefold increase.

At the same time, we saw an unprecedented drop in our income. Dealing with this was made all the more difficult because we were still navigating two separate finance systems, which made it hard to build a clear picture of our financial position.

Saving on running costs

One of our key reasons for merging in the first place was to save significant running costs, freeing up more funding for more world-leading research, support services and campaigning. With demand up and fundraising down, the pandemic provided an even greater incentive to slash costs. One obvious step was to accelerate our move from two headquarter offices to one in the face of the government’s advice to work from home.

A merger isn’t all about systems, but creating a single, consistent voice for people with lung conditions. In a strange way, the pandemic actually helped here. When Covid-19 hit and our call numbers reached 1,500 a day, we knew we had to club together to be there for our beneficiaries at the time they needed us the most.

The merger meant that we were now a bigger ship in a stormy sea, and our collective experience meant we could offer a more complete service to our beneficiaries. For example, staff on the British Lung Foundation helpline were able to share learnings with the Asthma UK helpline on advising on a variety of lung conditions, while staff from Asthma UK had more experience dealing with younger callers.

Joining at a tumultuous time

I came into post in December 2020, during yet another time of increased stress and anxiety for our beneficiaries. Not only were we in the middle of winter, Covid-19 cases were rising and we’d entered a second national lockdown. 

Throughout this tumultuous time, the charity has provided stronger support than ever. We have helped more than 1.8 million people over the past year with clear, accurate and up-to-date health advice through our website, and our helpline teams have provided a listening ear to more than 30,000 callers. This wouldn’t have been possible without our staff being so flexible, with many people temporarily redeployed to help with the increase in demand caused by Covid-19.

Looking to the future

Now it is the time to look to the future, to shape Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation as the UK’s lung charity that best supports the millions of people living with the day-to-day realities of lung disease, and helps keep the nation’s lungs healthy through a strong focus on clean air. 

During my first year in post, I’ve been reminded again and again of what a raw deal people living with lung disease get. Research and investment pales when compared to other conditions, there’s a huge backlog in respiratory services and no dedicated national plan to address this, and rates of diagnoses for some conditions are so bad there could be a million people living with deadly lung disease COPD who don’t even know it.

The pandemic has shown the devastating affect that lung problems can have on not just people’s health, but their wellbeing, livelihoods and families. The government needs to build back better. 

We know the charity has a pivotal role to play here. We’re doing all we can to make life better for our beneficiaries, providing vital support services and lobbying stakeholders to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a springboard to invest in proper research and treatment into lung conditions. Our new strategy, which we’ve developed this year and will be releasing shortly, sets out our vision to ensure respiratory services get the attention they so desperately deserve.

Sarah Woolnough is chief executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation

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