red cross worker in london

A new way to rebuild post-covid

By Mike Adamson 15 July 2020 5 minute read

At NPC, we’re keen for the charity sector to have an open debate about what the future holds post-Covid. We don’t need to go back to how we did things before. But just how ambitious are we prepared to be? In this guest blog, Mike Adamson, CEO of the British Red Cross, shares his reflections on a “New Power” approach to recovery.


The first half of 2020 has been stretching and heart breaking – and yet at times hugely inspiring. I feel like we are six rounds into a 15 round heavyweight boxing match; during which we realised our opponent is more resilient, more adaptable and has more tricks than anyone we have faced before. We have talked to our ringside trainer, we know we will need to be at our absolute best if we are to prevail in this fight, and we’ve realised we need to learn from what has happened in the first six rounds.

So, what have we learnt? We now know that ‘Zoom’ is not just the sound of a rocket ship and ‘furlough’ is not an ancient agricultural term…

But more seriously, here’s what the first six rounds of this fight have taught us…

  1. There was a reason why ‘pandemic’ was in the top right-hand corner of the high-likelihood/high-impact quadrant on the national risk register.
  2. There is a huge well of kindness, neighbourliness and readiness to volunteer on which the nation can draw in times of trouble. Trained and DBS checked volunteers have a distinctive and important role to play in an emergency. However, some of our volunteering and deployment models desperately need updating to handle mutual aid and local engagement.
  3. Evidence and data enable us to reach the most vulnerable people experiencing the greatest health inequalities.
  4. None of us have done nearly enough to act and show that Black lives really do matter.
  5. We might not need as much office space in the future, whilst at the same time we have new “friends” with whom we can collaborate in intense ways despite never having met in person.
  6. Like the rest of the economy, our sector has taken an economic battering from which it will be difficult for some to recover. Meanwhile, the government does not know enough about our sector’s capabilities and the solutions we can offer.

No wonder the first six rounds have been tiring!


Making a comeback: Old Power or New Power?

During all of this, I found time to read: New Power: Why outsiders are winning, institutions are failing, and how the rest of us can keep up in the age of mass participation, by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans.

It made me think about Old Power and New Power responses to the challenges of the first six rounds.

An ‘Old Power’ response would be to restructure our organisations to live within a reduced income, put up the defences, pull up the drawbridges and only build relationships with people who have money to offer.

A ‘New Power’ response would be rooted in participation of the people we are here to serve, designed by them, reflecting their needs and circumstances, and stewarded through a network.

We need to think through what will accelerate and sustain our response to the challenges we have identified above.

Here are four big things I think we need to get right if we are to prevail in the rest of this fight and be ready for the next one:

  1. Inclusion

We must be genuinely inclusive and diverse in the people we seek to support, as well as the staff and volunteers that work in our charities. This is a profound matter of identity. Without this, we will become irrelevant and less effective in our delivery.

  1. Organisational design and capabilities

Even before this pandemic, the world had changed. Technology has permanently shifted the way people live their lives, whether we like it or not. We need a transformation in data and digital capabilities across the sector that puts the needs of the user first. We need to be ready to share information within the sector, we need to better predict how people will use our services and we need to use new ways to reach people. That means new capabilities in newly designed organisations.

  1. Working with government

We must demonstrate to government both nationally and locally that we have practical solutions to society’s challenges at scale. The voluntary and community sector must become an investible and viable partner at the top table on the big issues of the day. We are currently too disparate as a sector. If I was in government, I am not sure I would always know who to engage with. Big and small charities must find ways to collaborate and potentially even consider consolidating.

  1. Leadership

If we are going to prevail, we need to rethink our approaches with genuine humility, goodwill and adaptability. We must reach out to partners with whom we can share common purpose to collaborate or consolidate to pool resources. If we are truly leaning in, it should feel viscerally different, even uncomfortable. We need to invest seriously in leadership development for the new talent coming through, and for the old dogs like me who are still going to be around in one role or another, trying to help change the world for the better. We must be open to learning with leaders from other sectors, facing different, but related challenges.

I sense a new mood, a growing realisation that we need to change if we are to harness the #NewPower that responding to Covid-19 requires. If we embrace this, I am confident not only about this fight, but the ones to follow too.


Mike Adamson is CEO of the British Red Cross. Have you got an idea to share about the future of the charity sector? We’d love to hear from you. The future of the charity sector will be a big theme at our online NPC Ignites conference in October. Book your place now!


Image credit: Matt Crossick/British Red Cross


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