Reflections on a crisis

Hard to believe it is only two weeks since the government lockdown took effect and life at the Foundation and beyond took a very different course. In that short time, we have adapted, responded and come together in isolation in ways which you imagine impossible before coronavirus became a fact of life.

Our business continuity plan certainly did not prepare us for this. Each day we have been making major decisions about the Foundation’s staff, services, finances, grant funding and wider community support. 

Homeworking and the impact of ‘furloughing’

Across the organisation, we have quickly become skilled at home working and have been able to function effectively in terms of organisational management and activity. Our investment last year in IT has certainly paid dividends and we are all now adept at video-conferencing and online meetings.

The temporary closure of most of our services and all our venues has been more challenging. For many of these people in our team, it is just not possible to work from home. Because of this, and with demand for some of our services falling, we have now furloughed just under 100 staff. This has been a complex effort trying to interpret exactly what the government’s Job Retention Scheme offers while also communicating and reassuring staff that this doesn’t mean they are less important to the work of the Foundation. It is an equally overwhelming change for those still working. They are having to adapt to ever-changing circumstances and local need as well as listening and responding to the concerns faced by many of our tenants.

Supporting our tenants

We moved swiftly to offer a tenant support package including a rent holiday targeted at those smaller local retail and leisure businesses who we know operate on very tight margins and with limited cash flow. This was the right thing to do and we are continuing to review that and respond to a large volume of enquiries and requests for help from many of our tenants.

The impact of all this for the Foundation is profound. At the time of writing, we have only received half of our expected income for this quarter. Naturally, local businesses are holding on to cash as they are uncertain about their future and the economic impact of the pandemic.

Impact on charitable income

This means that the Foundation faces a challenging financial future. We have already started to forecast what we think that will look like in the longer term and what we need to do to manage a significant fall in income. What will be equally challenging is that we expect the needs of the community to increase in the immediate future – loss of income and increasing debt and poverty, the pressures of isolation resulting in greater mental health needs or an increase in domestic violence as well as coping with the loss of loved ones. We are absolutely committed to maintaining all our grant funding for the year and we will shortly announce some changes to that funding to help focus on new priorities.

Our dedicated staff

As a major funder of local voluntary organisations, we want to do our best to support the vital community infrastructure needed now more than ever. While these worries loom, I never fail to be inspired and humbled by our team. A couple of our nursing staff are now working with the local Primary Care Network to set up Letchworth’s Medical Assessment Centre to be based at our Ernest Gardiner Treatment Centre.  This centre is for North Hertfordshire residents who are referred by their doctors for a face to face consultation. 

Our therapists are now working with Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust (HCT) to provide their services in the community keeping people active and cared for in their homes. The team has also mobilised to set up a local emergency response infrastructure using our transport services, working with other partners such as the North Herts District Council, settle and First Garden Cities Homes amongst others.

Within a week we are already supporting several hundred isolated residents with home deliveries of food and other essentials as well as important information and connections.

I am proud of all that the Foundation team has done and will continue to do, however challenging our future may be. We are stronger because of the people we have.