Alex: The Dame Hannah Rogers Trust is a historic foundation, and one of the first welfare charities in the UK for children and young people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). Can you tell us a little about the vision of Dame Hannahs, and how it has evolved in recent years?
David: Dame Hannahs has been enriching the lives of young people for over 250 years. From being an isolated provision, now it is part of an integrated network of care and support. We are a community – and that sense of community and support is what inspires me.
We are working to be a beacon organisation, known for the excellence and warmth of our care. I want us to be able to balance our professionalism, expertise, and readiness to innovate, with that sense of being a family.
Alex: How did you personally get involved with the charity, and can you tell us a little about your experience of working with children and young people at Dame Hannahs?
David: Throughout my career I’ve been involved with education – from working in schools, to training teachers, and I’ve spent much of my career in Devon, working in Exmouth, Exeter, and Plymouth.
I’d known of the work of Dame Hannahs for many years, visited the organisation, and met with the staff and young people there.
I retired early, and soon after, joined the Board at Dame Hannahs. The organisation was still doing amazing work – providing vibrant opportunities in the care, education, and training of young people.
The way Dame Hannahs made a difference through the support it provided for young people and their families and carers was tangible – and I guess I was hooked!
Alex: The rise of COVID-19 has put the NHS under a lot of strain; have you noticed an impact on the provision of disability services, and how do charities like yourselves help to fill the gap?
COVID-19 has hit the charity and health sectors hard. Our priority of course has been – and still is – to safeguard the health of our residents and our staff.
Health and education charities absolutely rely on partnership – especially with local authorities and the NHS. Dame Hannahs depends on strong bonds with social services and health providers in the area.
Very often, we offer a solution that is simply not available elsewhere. The level of support for young people with very profound needs that Dame Hannahs provides, is hard to find. And as the pressure grows on public sector funding, we have had to become even more entrepreneurial in the way we develop our income to maintain our services.
We couldn’t survive without public support and the generosity and sponsorship of businesses.
Saying that, I have some sympathy with the view that we shouldn’t have to depend on charities to provide for the most vulnerable in society. But I also believe charities play an important social role. As well as often being more responsive, they also provide a community focus – a ‘glue’ if you like – which brings people together through volunteering, or other forms of giving.
Alex: The charity sector has been under pressure during the last recession, and now during this era of COVID-19. Has this changed the charity’s course at all, and how have you adapted in order to overcome obstacles, such as reduced funding?
David: As you know, charities are third sector organisations. They play a role that the public and private sectors haven’t yet been able to fulfil.
Charities are often more flexible, and more responsive to local need – but they are also businesses. Like most other businesses, we have had to respond to external pressures – adapting our services whilst remaining true to our core purpose.
Recently, we have had to scale back our operations – we still employ over 200 people – but this is down from the figure of over 300 a few years ago.
Volunteers and donations are, of course, central to our work; our charity shops are run on commercial lines.
During the pandemic, we received a lot of support – business rate relief on our shops in Plymouth, Ivybridge, Saltash, and Newton Abbot, for example, as well as grant support. All hugely welcome when the income from the shops dried up overnight!
And in common with businesses across the South West, we obtained a CBIL crisis loan – which we will have to work hard to pay back over the coming years. So we have had to become leaner as an organisation – but there are limits to the ways we can cut the costs of delivering our services.
The needs and vulnerabilities of the young people we support remain our priority – it’s why we exist.
Alex: Much of the work that Dame Hannahs does is to provide training for young people in order to improve their chances of getting into employment. How has ‘the world of work’ changed for young people over the last few years, and in your opinion, how can we best support their career development?
David: Dame Hannahs is dedicated to empowering young adults with a range of disabilities, and helping all to fulfil their true potential.
Since leaving Seale-Hayne at Newton Abbot, our focus on training has shifted. More than ever, we rely on a committed and highly trained team of staff to help our young adults grow and learn with confidence.
We also rely on our volunteers, and we provide a number of work-based transferable skills which gives them the experience and skillset to prepare for a wider range of employment opportunities.
But improving the skillsets of our employees – our carers, our nurses, our therapists etc. – and moving to the right levels of remuneration for those working in care organisations like ours, is a priority. This is a national challenge. As so many have said, we applauded our carers every Thursday evening at the height of the pandemic – now we need to support and reward their professionalism in more substantive ways.
Alex: What new developments are in the pipelines for the next business year?
David: In terms of future direction – the next 12 months are very dependent on COVID. But we are cautiously optimistic.
We will continue to consolidate services at current levels through to April 2021, so the focus is on quality care and creating the best environment possible for our residents.
From April 2021, as we adjust to a post-COVID way of working, we will begin to grow new placements, recruit more staff, and once again open up the site and our facilities to the wider community.
We are aware that there will be ongoing disruption, but planning for a ‘new normal’ seems to be appropriate at this point in time. Plans will change and develop as we progress, but with the support we have, we are as well placed as any organisation to get through these extremely difficult times.
Alex: Great, thanks for speaking with me, David.
David Coslett is Chair of Trustees at the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust. David was interim Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive at Plymouth University from 2014 to 2016, having previously served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean of Arts at the University.
He is a graduate of the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.