Interview with Simon Prestney, CEO at Age Concern Colchester & North East Essex
Posted on: April 8, 2021
What is your role within the organisation you work for?
My role is CEO of Age Concern Colchester and North East Essex.
Last year, Age Concern Colchester and North East Essex delivered £1.6m benefit entitlements to individuals who were on the breadline. Between our befriending unit and friendship clubs we reach 4% of the region’s 10% loneliest people in later years and there are nearly 400 clients who are befriended on a weekly basis now.
Our bereavement service has delivered over 1,400 hours of bereavement volunteering since COVID commenced and we are on target to have supported 25,000 hours of volunteering in the North East Essex community.
As we extend beyond COVID we are commencing with Compassionate Champions which is friendship for individuals who have chosen to die at home but who have no one in their life. The service is designed to ensure they are not alone as they leave this world.
Last year was a very different experience for everyone. How did you find your organisation dealt with the pandemic?
The start of pandemic was an interesting time both personally and professionally. Personally, my wife and I brought Levi and Malachi into the world as twins and therefore the demands on my time were mixed on reacting to the needs of my family and those of the population due to the pandemic.
Professionally, we had just put in place a new management team, the last of whom was on-boarded remotely after their first interview. We are fortunate to have found a very talented group of individuals to lead the organisation through a time of great change and challenge. Whilst things changed on a daily basis, we found ways to adapt all but one of our mainline services to online and remote.
We decided not to compete with our colleagues in the CVS and Foodbank who were supplying food. Instead, we listened to where the need was. One area was in setting up a support line for medication, food and care needs. This was successful in helping individuals to navigate to the right solution given our trusted provider status in the community.
Another area was a dementia support line. The stats quickly showed a disproportionate amount of people with dementia affected by COVID and the team were able to provide expertise and guidance in this area.
Finally, we teamed up with the Alliance and St Helena Hospice to support with bereavement. Where St Helena continued to provide counselling, we wrapped this service with bereavement befriending for before or after formal counselling. This service proved to be hugely popular and has resulted in over 1,400 hours of support provided.
We have maintained weekly calls for our clients, a newsletter to clients and volunteers and sharing of good news stories internally too. Sharing and learning has been key to keeping on top of the volume of enquiries and support that has been needed. The team have coped well and would be honest in saying we have all had better and worse times across the last year.
Most of the team have now been impacted in some way by personal tragedy related to COVID from losing loved ones in the friends or family.
The Third Sector has found the global pandemic difficult across the board. Is there anything you found challenging within your job role and organisation?
We prefer the term voluntary sector as the term third sector presents an order when there is an invited position of equity, parity and equality in our approach in the ICS. The voluntary sector is resilient and has performed well to respond to need. The most challenging thing for me was the amount of time physically spent online. Prior to COVID around 50% of my time was spent at a computer screen and this moved to almost 100% of my time.
This meant we needed to consider different welfare needs for our team. We had to think about maintaining a way of team bonding and whilst never perfect, the online meeting set in as the norm for us alongside other colleagues in the sector.
During these uncertain times, it is good for everyone to stick together and give each other a helping hand. What has been vital in supporting you in your job role and you personally during COVID-19?
COVID has been a horrific time for individuals and has devastated families. On the flipside for those in the voluntary sector I have seen a real strength and cohesiveness that wasn’t as obvious prior to COVID.
I am lucky to have a mixture of an excellent team, a strong management team, a supportive and enabling Chair and real expertise and wisdom within our Board of Trustees across multiple specialisms. We are also hugely well supported with over 300 volunteers. When you talk about support to me I think more about what has made us work well together. It is the unique blend of people that we have in the organisation and the servant-heart that they adopt with those we support.
Like everyone I have had a hit on my mental health but we have maintained a good culture of openness as an organisation. Sharing if we are having a tough week as a vital step in understanding each other’s situation or particular highs and lows. We have also encouraged everyone to attend the mental first aid health day training so there is good internal recognition towards working through the tougher days or weeks.
Whilst this shouldn’t be any different to normal it partially is because of the extended nature of lockdown and the impact of mental health. As Christmas presents, I bought my team a box of reflective activities to do each week and several have commented how much it has helped them as things have dragged on.
Personally, I have a good network of other CEO’s and I am involved in lots of forums. ACEVO is the membership organisation for those who are in the voluntary sector and I have received some mentoring which is part of their offer. Strengthening working relationships is important but so has been keeping in touch with friends and family. Because of having the twins and a three-year-old it has also been a time of great joy in our family. This has been a challenge at a time when there is also such grief and sadness around us. We enjoy sharing our family and this has been difficult because we simply couldn’t do this, even with our closest family members.
Let’s look to the future. What are you looking forward to this year in the Voluntary Sector and within your organisation?
Within the voluntary sector we are taking on a new piece of work to support in the mental health arena. There are individuals in later years who are presenting with serious needs and have never visited a mental health practitioner before. Through a mix of activities, we are looking to take pressure off the acute pathways in the NHS and to provide community-based support to help people to a better place.
We therefore continue to grow our services, our employees, our volunteers and of course the number of clients that we work with. Our partnerships are significantly stronger and we continue to find ways of partnering on activities in the community.
What would your advice be to other Volunteer Sector organisations while we are coming to the end of our third lockdown?
If you are feeling alone and in a difficult situation pick up the phone and speak to other leaders in the sector. There is a huge strength and resilience in working together. If funding is tight what can you do in partnership as partnership bids are much more likely to succeed.
Approach what you do with listening ears and work to understand the true underlying need. When you find it, be bold in your approach and relentless in supporting those who have that need to become more resilient and self-sustaining in the future.
Above all get involved in forums whether online, health service forums, CVS forums, health and wellbeing boards or if there is no setting for a forum for what you do then maybe you should set a forum up. It is together that we achieve change not in silo or isolation. Our roles in delivering the services we provide is only half of the equation. The other half is gaining momentum towards our shared goals to improve things for the people we serve.