Becoming a CEO During Covid-19
22nd May by Stephanie Smith
Stephanie Smith has held some of the biggest fundraising roles in the charity world working at the Alzheimer’s Society, RNIB and Mencap. For 14 years, Stephanie was Director of Income Generation and Marketing at St Barnabas Hospices.
A brilliant and inspiring Leader, it was inevitable that Stephanie’s next career move would be as a CEO and in February this year she did just that – joining Raystede, the local animal welfare and sanctuary centre in Sussex. She joined as CEO just as the COVID 19 crisis was deepening.
The experience of being a ‘first time CEO’ in a new organisation is not without its challenges and learning curves, so chucking COVID 19 into the pot naturally turns the pressure up to 11! But as expected, Stephanie rose to the challenge admirably. Here she reflects on her first 100 days at Raystede which have inevitably been shaped by the crisis.
I have just ticked off 100 days in my new role as CEO at Raystede, the local animal welfare and sanctuary centre for Sussex.
When I was leaving my old job as a Fundraising Director in the hospice sector, Imogen Ward told me that being a CEO is easier than being a Director of Fundraising. As a fundraiser for over 30 years, I took this comment to heart - it gave me a real boost as I had not worked as a CEO before. Nor had I worked in the animal welfare sector previously. And I’m not someone who believes that I can do anything.
It seems like years ago but in my first fortnight, we had storms and terrible weather leading to flooded fields and damaged buildings. Raystede is a unique and much-loved 45 acre site with over 400 animals including a wide variety of species from tortoises and parrots to dogs, cats, rabbits, donkeys, geese and horses. We are open to visitors 7 days a week which is also very unusual.
Just after my first Trustee meeting and during my second month in post, the COVID19 crisis began and we had to make a series of fast and difficult decisions about closing the site and lockdown. We closed to visitors on 18 March and sixty days later, we are still closed. By changing the way we work, animal welfare services have been maintained while other staff have been working remotely through huge and overnight steps in our IT capability. Currently 40% of our staff are furloughed including our Commercial teams and our Education staff.
Like most of the animal welfare sector, money is not great at the moment. Income is now mainly just donations and fundraising. Legacies have completely dried up and our commercial income is gone. The animal welfare sector is entirely voluntary funded and is not able to access any of the new government funds for charities. We have even been refused for the Local Authority grant. However, I have learned that donors of animal welfare causes are truly incredible, thousands of local supporters have responded to Raystede appeals. Our charity has fundraised and appealed like never before and there is so much to develop for the future.
So was Imogen right? Is it easier to be a CEO than a Fundraising Director? Probably yes, even during this really challenging period.
The thing I have enjoyed the most is that I get to decide on key external and internal communications. I have written a lot of these in the past three months and this has been crucial during the lockdown, helping us to raise so much money in a very fast and agile way. No hiding behind jargon or bland statements, from the heart direct communications that bring all of our people on a journey.
It has been interesting getting used to not having a ‘manager’ to report to. A Chair is very different to a CEO boss and I have been fortunate in having a supportive and tolerant Chair. All the Trustees have been helpful and I am very lucky to have a Trustee who is a legend in the fundraising world, he has really helped me to understand the Raystede cause.
Before I joined Raystede, they had a top quality interim CEO and I had a good handover. This included the advice to focus on the SMT as individuals and as a team - ‘they will do all of your work’. I have found that this is true – I throw out problems or challenges and the SMT pick it up and sort it out or make it happen. The lockdown and crisis have forged a solid and united team moving forward together, solving one issue after another – it has been an enjoyable and amazing experience.
I think that income generation and communications is a really solid background for a CEO role. So much of the job is about relationships and building trust – with Trustees, staff, supporters, volunteers and stakeholders. Senior fundraising roles require leadership and strategic skills, a core part of the CEO role. And as any Fundraising Director will know, the buck stops with you when it comes to income, so too the CEO where making decisions, using judgement and taking responsibility is an everyday part of the role. No pressure!
Just before the crisis started, I was able to have a strategy day with the SMT – I had only been at Raystede for five weeks and did not understand all the issues but two months later, I can see the huge value of that day spent exploring strategic themes. I really look forward to the future at Raystede, yes there will be difficult decisions and situations but becoming a new CEO during a crisis really cuts through all the normal processes and politics, creating a situation where an organisation can really move forward and embrace a new world.