‘The largest global pandemic for 100 years that will completely change our plans? That wasn’t on our risk register.’ How we have persevered at Lighthouse despite Covid-19.

On the 1st of January 2020, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be spending Christmas day 2020 in our brand-new children’s home, sipping warm cocoa and opening presents with the first young people to live there. Well, I am now eating my hat – what a difference a year makes.

The start of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown brought with it a great deal of uncertainty for us. However, after an initial rocky period, we managed to make a lot of progress. We incorporated as a charity, recruited a brilliant advisory board, and pushed ahead with designing our recruitment and training plans. We spent many hours writing bids for grants and secured most of the funding we needed. We worked closely with our architects on completing the designs for our first home and after a lot of back and forth, finally purchased our first building in the summer (hats off to anyone who has ever bought a property!), so we were able to begin the first phase of our long-overdue building works. We even managed to work on additional projects with other organisations.

Within weeks our team more than doubled. We set ourselves a target of opening in the summer of 2021 and got stuck into turning our research and ideas into reality. Our first recruitment event to attract the 15 new staff we needed was booked for December. We were on a roll.

Then, a few weeks ago I got a disappointing email from our architect in which he outlined that the combination of the pandemic and the uncertainty caused by a lack of Brexit deal was having an impact on construction, which was going set back our opening date by a few months. We now had no choice but to cancel our recruitment events and do our best to limit the impact of an extended timeline.

This felt like yet another obstacle in a year full of hurdles. However, as I have done several times before, I realised that these challenges are part and parcel of working in a charity start-up, especially in the care sector. By no means, managing coronavirus is the most significant challenge we’ve faced, but it is unlikely to be our last setback. If 2020 has proven anything, one must expect the unexpected and be prepared for scenarios that haven’t quite made it onto the risk analysis. The largest global pandemic in the last 100 years certainly wasn’t on ours.

Thankfully, earlier in the year, we had put together a plan for a situation in which our building work was delayed, so we were able to put our contingency plan into effect. Despite this, the earliest we are now likely to open is autumn 2021.

Charities are often inclined to share achievements but are also likely to hide setbacks. It’s understandable why: our existence often relies on telling the story of success. But at Lighthouse, we recognise that life is not always a series of success stories, especially not for children in care.

Many looked after children experience major setbacks early in life and often continue to do so at school and work. Setbacks can be isolating and depressing; but at Lighthouse, we know they are far from the end of the story. It is the main reason for writing this blog: we want to openly model how to be resilient in times of adversity and recognise that setbacks are a part of learning.

There were many false starts and failures when I was trying to get Lighthouse started. I wrote, spoke to and met with almost 80 organisations before we received our first major grant. Those who followed our journey from our earliest days have often asked how and why we kept going. Our answer: it’s only failure if you don’t learn from it. We intend to continue sharing our failures, mistakes, and the things that we get wrong in the future and by doing this, we hope to encourage it elsewhere so that we can all learn from them.

At Lighthouse, we also have implemented a process called Human Learning Systems as a way to ensure we continue learning. Human Learning Systems is an alternative management approach for organisations that work in the public sector, which embraces complexity. Human Learning Systems accept that the world is complex and unexpected things are going to happen. Things can change quickly, and much of it is out of our control. This approach has steered us through previous challenges and will see us through challenges to come.

HLS has three main components:

  1. We focus on the ‘human’ – we ask different questions of ourselves when planning our work, to focus on the lived human experience, the nature of the relationships we wish to have with others and how we can make space for reflection, learning and participation.
  2. Values – we regularly reflect together critically on our practice and progress as a team using our values as a practical set of compass points to evaluate whether what we are doing is aligned with our values.
  3. Relationships and co-design – the commitment to empowering relationships with all stakeholders and a participatory approach to designing our services means that we hold our plans lightly and remain open to changing and adapting what we plan to do, how and when, to allow space for others to shape our work.

This has been a very challenging time for children in care and those who support them. It’s been a challenging time for everyone. However, as an organisation, we are even more ambitious and more humbled by the events of 2020. It has only reiterated the importance of relationships, values and the community of funders, experts and young people we have brought together to create Lighthouse.

My resolution for 2021 is that by the end of this year I’ll be sipping warm cocoa with marshmallows in our new children’s home by Christmas 2021, a little wiser, more humble and ever more grateful for the privilege of the work we do at Lighthouse.