'This moment is making leaders of people' - Alex Smith, The Cares Family

There's no guide to steering a social venture through a global pandemic. In this series, we hear how some of those navigating uncharted waters are shoring up cash, keeping customers on side and guiding staff and volunteers through one of the biggest upheavals they've ever faced. This time: Alex Smith, founder and CEO of The Cares Family – a group of charities that brings together older and younger neighbours to reduce loneliness and build community – on emergency fundraising, facing down imposter syndrome and why long-term priorities remain unchanged.

Two weeks ago, my team, board and I shut down programmes we’d spent the previous nine years creating. For all of us, it was heartbreaking.

Stuck at home and isolated from one another, we were frantic on calls, searching for answers to weighty questions. Were we making the right decision? With all the heavy work we were doing to suspend activity as the Covid-19 crisis took hold, would we ever have the energy, the money or the relevance to reboot our organisation whenever that time may come? What on earth would happen next?

These are questions that charity and business leaders all over the world are grappling with. But for us at The Cares Family, there was an extra dimension. The older people we work with are the group most vulnerable to the awful effects of both the new Coronavirus and social isolation. Working at that interface showed us the way: at a time of disconnection, we would find new ways to help people stay connected.

Immediately, we got to work reinventing our programmes. Social Clubs, which normally bring older and younger people together to share time, laughter and new experiences in groups would move online for the first time, and we’d put to work scores of volunteers to help as many older people as we could to get set up digitally.

Our first ever emergency appeal has brought in £30,000 of new donations in a fortnight

Our Love Your Neighbour friendship programme, which in normal times helps people from across the generations to share time one-to-one, would move to the phones.

Outreach, which is how we normally identify and invite people to join our activities, would be converted into efforts to help older people get the food and prescription deliveries they need, and to refer older neighbours onto other local services, with a little help from their younger friends.

All of this would be communicated by posting 3,800 activity packs to older neighbours in our communities – containing poems, recipes, quizzes and messages of hope across the generations.

Meanwhile, as fundraising races and events were being cancelled into the indefinite future, we’d get to work on new ways of generating income; our first ever emergency appeal has brought in £30,000 of new donations from over 500 people in a fortnight, buying us time to re-plan.

Hope and rediscovery

Even for a group passionate about the human and social consequences of isolation and loneliness, the energy, entrepreneurialism and creativity that have poured from each one of the 35 people in our team has been inspiring. I’ve never felt prouder to work with my colleagues than I do now.

Imposter syndrome looms large – are we the right people to lean into a global health crisis, even at the local level?

There have been challenges, of course. Everyone is anxious – worried about friends and family and our communities at large. Imposter syndrome looms large – are we the right people with the right experience to lean into a global health crisis, even at the local level? Working hours are brutal – I’m at a desk from 7am to 11pm every day and many of our team are doing the same. We’re all feeling the same mental health challenges that a frightened population are enduring, and the path to normal times looks long and layered with more grief and challenge. This is a worldwide trauma, experienced – even if unevenly – by everyone.

But while fear is temporary, hope is permanent.

We may not all feel it yet, but this moment is making leaders of people. More importantly, we are seeing qualities in our society that for too long have gone undervalued: kindness, empathy, community, togetherness. Our task in The Cares Family, as in the world, is to recognise that this is a time not only to prioritise what matters most – people – but also to reimagine how we can expand those lost qualities to create a better future for everyone.

We have to keep going, because our work is more important than ever

So the short term priority is to do what we came here to do: reduce social isolation, and help people who in this terrible crisis are more impacted than ever by the cruelties of disconnection. That will take a mammoth effort made more painful by the times we live in.

But in the long term, our values, our philosophy and our strategy remain the same – to amplify and expand the action, voices and power in community and to distribute equity through the meaning in our relationships. For social leaders around the world, as we navigate the challenges of the organisational and interpersonal, that has to be the message: we have to keep going, because our work is more important than ever.

We're looking for more stories from the frontline of running a social business through the Covid-19 crisis. If you'd like to share yours, email us at news@pioneerspost.com

Header photo: Older and younger neighbours enjoying South London Cares' first birthday party in 2015. Through The Cares Family, older and younger neighbours build connection and solidarity across the generations (credit: The Cares Family).