“When you go through transformation, you can’t leap from where you are now to where you want to be; you have to acknowledge that there are stepping stones. You will fall off some of those stepping stones, and will learn something by climbing back on”, says Dr Leah Pybus, Director of Strategic Planning at the British Red Cross. “It’s the only way to navigate your way through transformation.
She adds: “Western societies are built on having the right answers to questions. In identifying ourselves as being successful and excelling as individuals. We need to pull back from that and recognise that other people have the answers, and if you don’t, you need to work with others to find the pathway through.”
Leah has been in the Red Cross for just over nine years, writes Christina Hammond-Aziz, leading a team overseeing performance and accountability — and ultimately, the impact the organisation is having. Coming from an academic background in international politics, peace studies, and international development, Leah says she is driven by doing a job that speaks to all those subjects.
“What drives me about the British Red Cross, is that it’s come to a ‘moment in time’ for the organisation.
“We’ve been in existence for 150 years this year at a time when there have been huge changes in the sector over the last few years in terms of fundraising ethics, the credibility of charities and trust in them, which has been waning. There’s a need for charities to demonstrate the difference that they make. For the British Red Cross, many reasons, and many contributing factors have come together to create this moment in time.
“In the middle of all of this, we’ve run a strategy development process that had to speak to the ways we can show that we’re relevant for the future, for the next 150 years. We have to show that we’re using our resources effectively, listening to the people and communities we support and those who support us, so that people trust us.”
Relevance for the future
The organisation is evolving [pdf] from one that delivers a suite of services to people in the UK and programmes overseas, to one focused on outcomes and where services and interventions will need to flex and adapt: “This will be a total shift over the ten years of the strategy. Not only in terms of how we think about ourselves, but the way that we deliver. This has been incredibly motivating for me, because we can have a much greater impact. The British Red Cross is one of the largest humanitarian organisations working across the UK and is therefore well placed to work within communities to respond to the needs of people in crisis, particularly those with nowhere else to turn for help. It’s exciting if the 2030 strategy finds a way for us to have that impact, and not just as a standalone organisation but with the communities and people we help, joining our resources with others working in our ecosystem to amplify what we can do. We understand that people’s lives hit multiple sectors, and are multi-dimensional; efforts can no longer be focused on single interventions if we want to create real change.”
When asked how to effect a real paradigm shift in an organisation that’s 150 years old, Leah said the changes speak to wider shifts in the humanitarian and overseas aid sectors. “There’s an admission that Western middle-class educated technical experts don’t have the answers to people’s incredibly complex lives, and don’t have the answers to what’s best for them. That ‘parent/child’ colonial relationship is no longer relevant. Another element of the strategy that really shifted people’s mindsets, was that we had a commitment from the very beginning to use externally-facing data evidence and evidence about people’s experiences in a crisis. Amplifying the voice and views of people with lived experience of the crises we respond to about what they need is increasingly guiding how we think. This builds on community approaches in our international programmes and is providing us with a different way of looking at things. This is a huge shift from the previous strategy, where we were locked into focusing on what we had historically delivered based on the knowledge of technical experts. Responding to the Grenfell Fire in 2017 taught us that you’ve got to let go and listen to what people are telling you about what matters to them, and what makes a difference in their lives.”
Responding to everyone’s needs
Ultimately, for Leah, the bedrock of achieving the strategy is in that ‘connected community’ space, and how the organisation works in communities to build resilience, networks and connectivity, not only between individuals, but between individuals and the different pieces of the system where they need help, and then across the system itself, so that all systems are connected.
“This is an area that still needs a lot of work, in terms of mapping out what this means and the British Red Cross’s space within that. Once embedded in a community, we can listen and we can understand from the perspective of all the different people and different elements of that community, and all the different agencies in play, what the particular experience of that community is, what the networks look like, and where the gaps are. We will build on existing agency within communities based on the assets that are in place. In this way, the British Red Cross doesn’t stand alone, and can say it is part of a network where it becomes possible to respond to everybody’s individual needs by drawing on others. It’s about responding as a collective.”
She says the organisation ran what it called a ‘stratathon’ to develop strategy 2030, breaking across existing silos to set the organisation’s direction: “We committed to being evidence-based in our approach and driven by people with lived experience, to bring the whole organisation together behind shared causes. We included people from across the whole organisation and from across our hierarchies. We looked at evidence and insight to imagine the things we could possibly do to bring about change, and filtered in on what unique contribution we could each make in those spaces. It gave people a real flavour of working with people from outside of their teams, and outside of their usual hierarchical peer networks, to have conversations that were unlimited. Many found it really exciting, and even though it was hard work to navigate through all the opinions people felt connected to the end result. We spent months of time and emotional energy which was incredibly challenging, but it enabled far richer insights at the end.”
A COVID spanner in the works
The strategy was launched internally in February last year, but disappointingly, COVID hit just before they were about to press the button. “We had our transitional arrangements in place, and our cross-functional teams ready to work through how we would operationalise the strategy. We had our theories of change, but we needed these groups to come together and decide what delivery would look like over the first few years. We had to establish what the priority pieces of work were, and begin to understand our approach to connected communities. So yes, COVID has held us back in some ways, but it has accelerated us in others. We are used to responding to individual places or regions, having a crisis on a nationwide or even global basis is very rare. Everybody had to navigate themselves towards the COVID-19 response, so those whose roles weren’t directly relevant to COVID-19, were put in cross functional teams, or other teams to bring their skills and capabilities to bear on the current crisis in new ways. In this way, we broke silos through COVID-19, and it has shown us how excited people are to be in different teams, to be thinking about things differently, and using their capabilities to become someone that can be deployed anywhere in the organisation. We will need this in future to adapt and flex so that we continue to deliver interventions that are relevant to people’s lives.”
The COVID response also helped us gain a better understanding of working through networks. “Working through the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergency Partnerships through the pandemic has helped us to understand how to work within a multi-agency environment,” says, “and how to take a multi-agency approach on a national level and take it into local communities. It is incredibly challenging, but this is the vision and is why we have a 10-year strategy, not something with a shorter timeframe, because we recognise how long it will take to build the right relationships and change people’s lives.”