'We’re settling into the fact that there is no normal' - Mark Simms, P3 Charity

There's no guide to steering a social enterprise through a global pandemic. How do you shore up cash? How do you keep your customers on side? How do you reassure and guide your team, keep everyone healthy, and stay semi-sane yourself? In our new series, we hear from some of those navigating uncharted waters. This time, Mark Simms, CEO of P3 Charity – which supports vulnerable people in England through housing, outreach and other activities – on digging into cash reserves and adapting to constant change.

“If there's one thing I hope that comes out of this, it’s that people might get to grips with what's really important. I’ve seen people on the telly moaning about not being able to lie in the park to have a picnic, for example. But they should see what our street outreach teams have been up to; how they’ve been transferring people who are terminally ill off the streets into a bed space. 

I usually like working from home for a couple of days a week. It feels like a treat, and I love it because I get loads done. But now I’m missing having human contact, I think. I usually intersperse spending time on keyboards and screens with meetings and travelling, but now it’s all keyboards and screens. And it feels unhealthy. 

We called this early. This is our fourth week working from home. We saw what was happening in Spain and Italy – and thought we really need to look after our workforce, because they look after the people that are most vulnerable. 

We called this early. This is our fourth week working from home

So four weeks ago, I started moving 453 colleagues to mobile working in three days. We classed 300 people as key workers: including hostel workers, street outreach workers, and the people who run services for runaway teenagers. But for everyone else, we said we’ll give you the tech to work from home. And if they couldn’t work from home for whatever reason, we said we’d continue to pay 100% of their salary to stay at home. 

Constant change

As a result my colleagues feel looked after, which allows them to get on with the job. We're moving into a phase now where we're settling into constant change. That's an oxymoron, really: but we’re settling into the fact that there is no normal. 

My colleagues are working in more difficult and frightening circumstances than ever, but they’re still doing a great job. We’re currently supporting about 900 people whose housing needs mean that they need to be either in supported accommodation or in hostels [this number is usually around 830, but has gone up due to recent calls from the government to provide homes to people who are living on the streets]. And all of our hostels are full. So what local authorities are doing is taking over hotels for people who can’t get into the hostels. In Gloucestershire, for example, the local authorities contacted our street outreach teams to move 50 people into a hotel in 48 hours. Anyone working in homelessness would know that is remarkable. 

We have to raise millions of pounds a year to stay afloat, but our fundraising has come to a stop because it mainly comes from events. We've got money to last us for a while, but we’re spending our reserves, and we can only spend them once. We’re looking at grants and foundations, but so is everybody else. So eventually, at some point, we’ll need government help. 

Patience – for now

We are absolutely committed to our community and our country. We’re paying for our key workers ourselves. And we’ll do that. But there has to come a point where the government recognises the work we and others like us are doing, with a grant. However, you do have to be mature about it and think right now, do I really want to be taking up a minister’s time when they’re trying to source ventilators? I know this government takes its commitment to the VCSE sector really seriously, and it will get to us eventually. So I can be patient. But – only for so long.

We’re looking at grants and foundations, but so is everybody else. At some point, we’ll need government help

The main thing I’d say during this time is: look after your people. Honestly. I’ve got a good relationship with my colleagues anyway. But never so more have I felt it than right now.

I’ve got people emailing me saying: ‘I hope you’re okay’ and ‘It must be a lot of pressure on you, let us know if we can help’. And these are housing support workers. So, look after your people, and they’ll look after you. Now more than any other time do we need to create this sense of collegiate community where we’re supporting one another.”

Mark Simms was speaking to Caroline Hailstone. Read more about P3 Charity.

If you'd like to share your own story from the frontline of running a social business through the Covid-19 crisis, email us at news@pioneerspost.com