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How peer support helped Willen Hospice leader during 2020

IVAR introduction 

Leaders of smaller voluntary organisations experienced a prolonged period of uncertainty during 2020/21 in the height of Covid-19. Wanting to support the sector in a useful way, we offered sector leaders online peer support sessions called Emergency response support: ‘a space for solidarity and solace’.  From these sessions we built a picture of the challenges they faced and what they needed from funders in response: turning these into regular briefings. 

Following a positive reaction to the series of peer support sessions, our learning, and a clear need for continued support, we have re-launched peer support sessions with a focus on Leading in uncertainty. We asked emergency response session attendees to share their experiences of leading during the uncertainty of 2020 and how peer support sessions helped. Here, Peta Wilkinson of Willen Hospice shares: 

1.   What was leadership like during COVID-19 (2020)?


Characterised by ambiguity, uncertainty, fear and uncertainty, it required great resilience, self-awareness and compassion. I think this has amplified the challenges associated with collaboration, decision making and prioritisation. Emotion has been a key feature of people’s response. People have felt vulnerable, which has impacted upon trust ­­– the cornerstone of effective management and leadership. 

Interestingly, as we emerged from lockdown and people saw light at the end of the tunnel, people’s exhaustion and introspection became more acute and it felt more difficult to focus on the broader organisational issues. This manifested itself in people feeling a lesser degree of trust, and to a certain extent, a level of paranoia.

I felt that my role in these difficult situations was to be adaptive and to remain connected to people. I felt that I took responsibility and was transparent but there was still a sense of a lack of clarity about decision making. I think the clinicians have felt that they dealt with the brunt of the situation and that people do not understand.


Constancy and resilience are a key feature of my response and a desire to protect people’s wellbeing and emotional stability. This has not always been easy as introspection needed to be managed so as not to cause a fracture between the clinical service provision and income generation elements of the charity.


Maintaining a focus on moving forward and being adaptive has had to be tempered with an attention to restoration and recovery which remains a challenge.

2.   Why is connecting with peers important for leaders?


It is important to connect with peers to be able to share experiences, reflect on how one might respond and also realise the personal impact it has on you as a person. I have found my connections both insightful and generative, and have valued opinions and support that have helped me to act more positively.

3.   How did peer support session/s make you feel after talking on leadership and organisational challenges? 


Better and more positive, even if it was sharing some of the grimness! I often felt somewhat de-humanised as the person responsible for everything. I felt more confident in engaging and making decisions, and in maintaining my presence, resilience and capability to act.

Leading in uncertainty

We are running 90 minute drop-in peer support sessions for up to 10 charity leaders at a time, every week, from June 2021 – via Zoom.  Join us for some time to pause and reflect, and to hear other leaders’ experiences of adapting to and coping with leading in prolonged uncertainty. Find out more and book your slot at this page: 

About Willen Hospice: 

Willen is an adult Hospice providing specialist End of Life and Palliative care to people with a life limiting condition. We have an in-patient unit providing Holistic care focused on pain and symptom management and support in every area of a person’s life. We have a specialist Willen at Home team providing similar services in people’s own homes in the community. We have a specialist social work team providing support to adults and children, a pre and post bereavement service for adults and children, a specialist lymphedema service, psychological services, specialist therapy and complementary therapies. We also provide a Cancer Care in the Community Service for people on a palliative or curative pathway.  All these services and support work in an integrated way to provide bespoke services to each patient and their family and loved ones.

Find out more about Willen Hospice at: 
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Rethinking accountability in philanthropy

How accountable are you to the individuals and groups that you are set up to support? Not very, according to Power and Trust, recently published by Grant Givers’ Movement, which found that ‘foundations are most accountable to their board, and least accountable to end beneficiaries’. And what does it mean to factor accountability into the way in which grants and grant programmes are designed and implemented? These are questions that are frequently asked of funders, and that funders are increasingly asking of themselves.


I spoke to Jo Wells, Director of The Blagrave Trust, to understand more about their approach to remaining responsive and accountable to the needs of those that they are set up to serve – in their case, young people between 14 and 25.  Jo described three key ways in which Blagrave have tried to shift accountability to young people, building on the approach described in Changing the Story, and ‘driven by the strong values we hold: inclusive, collaborative, progressive’. This evolution began with conversations with young people themselves, ‘who are challenging the very notion of charity as paternalistic and deficit based: that’s one reason we started to invest directly in young people themselves’. And, at its core, is a belief that accountability must cut across everything that you do – what you fund, your governance and the way in which you deliver your grant programmes: ‘it cannot be about just one of these things at one point in time. It’s about a different culture, and an intentional shift that acknowledges this is a different way of working and that means we have to be willing to go in new and different directions, with young people involved at every stage, in every process’.


  1. Through reforming Blagrave’s governance and leadership.


Specific reforms have included putting young people with lived experience of the issues Blagrave funds directly on the Board (‘we have four trustees under 25 now, plus a fairly young chair [34] and finance trustee [32]’). This inclusivity has supported a move away from having a more formal Board: ‘formality doesn’t always lend itself to an open and honest conversation’. Board members are not all experts in a given field, and five are first time trustees; rather, ‘they are coming to solve problems and learn together alongside the staff team’. Blagrave also uses its influence to encourage changes to Board composition in the wider sector through the Young Trustees Movement. Other practical steps to reform approaches to decision-making include setting up a new youth-led fund, ‘Challenge and Change’, and continuing to actively grow their own direct network of young people from whom they learn.


  1. Through what Blagrave funds


The Opportunity Fund, and Challenge and Change are both new initiatives to fund young people directly, ‘enabling them to lead change – surely the most direct way to express accountability for our mission’. This work builds on The Listening Fund, which supports the youth sector to listen and act upon what young people have to say about their own needs and ideas for support. And their focus and design ‘establishes a direct line of accountability between young people and ourselves as a funder, removing the role of charities as their gate keepers’. Blagrave’s blog series of provocations on power, voice and listening gives a flavour of some of the myriad of factors that relate to young people’s stake in decision making processes, including the need to really listen to the voices of different groups of young people with varied experiences, needs and interests: ‘young people are not a homogenous group’. In the words of Hot Chocolate Trust, a Listening Fund Scotland partner in Dundee, ‘listening is at the heart of what we do. “Who are you? What are your stories? What are your hopes? fears? needs? ambitions? What do you want to do? What can we build together?”  These questions continue to be the bedrock of the work we do. We firmly believe that the young people are the experts of their own experiences, and that their voices must be at the very heart of both our everyday, and strategic, practice.’


  1. Through how Blagrave works


Since 2015, Blagrave’s application process has been stripped back in order to not consume organisational time demonstrating accountability to Blagrave, but rather to focus on social mission.  Applicants are asked one question relating to how they involve young people in their work, and are accountable to them. Young people themselves are paid as ‘Young Advisors’ to shape the design of Challenge and Change, and are currently shortlisting and making the final funding decisions. The next phase of The Listening Fund will recruit 10-12 further Young Advisors to shape the work over three years and to help hold the funders to account.  Where necessary, Blagrave works with other organisations, like the Centre for Knowledge Equity, ‘to help facilitate our programmes so that we are one step further removed from power and influence and really embedding principles of equity and inclusivity in how we work’. And, at all stages of their process, there is a commitment to feedback – gathering it anonymously then publishing it on their website; as well as providing it to all applicants, including those organisations or individuals that they don’t fund. In the case of the Challenge and Change fund, those young people whose projects are not funded will still be invited to be part of the Challenge and Change network and provided with network development opportunities.


For Blagrave, ‘it’s important to stay humble, acknowledge that you won’t always get it right and that there is always more to do’. Jo and her team see their approach to accountability as akin to movement building – actively seeking out and collaborating with others who support their ethos, while at the same time recognising the scale of the task: ‘it requires an iterative process of trial and error. And you need to continue to sit, listen and learn’.