Comment: Charities must adapt quickly to survive this crisis

As the Asthma Society of Ireland prepares to launch a new five-year strategic plan, its chief executive explains why flexibility is key in uncertain times

11th May, 2020
Comment: Charities must adapt quickly to survive this crisis
Sarah O‘Connor, chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland: ’You can only effectively ask for help if you have the right strategic plan and a track record for getting work done‘

How do any of us know a charity is “one of the good ones”? We probably employ a certain amount of gut feeling to make that assessment – an “I know who they are, what they do; I’ve heard about their work and I believe in them” kind of analysis.

Underneath that, however, for charities themselves, their staff and boards, their supporters and donors, there’s a more forensic approach that should come into play. We have to ask ourselves: what is the strategic plan for the organisation and is it delivering against this?

This has been top of mind for us in the Asthma Society in recent months as we having been working to support patients during the Covid-19 pandemic and building awareness of management of the condition through last week’s Asthma Awareness Week (May 1-8).

Our new five-year strategic plan, Stopping Asthma Deaths in Ireland, is launching soon, and it is an ambitious one for ourselves, the government and the health service.

We’ve challenged ourselves to become a force for change in the Irish healthcare landscape. One person – sometimes a child – dies as a result of their asthma every six days in Ireland and we can no longer accept that as a healthcare outcome.

But our work will only have the impact we need it to have if we are operating within the right national framework. Right now, that framework isn’t there. We don‘t have a national asthma deaths strategy to identify system failings and how to resolve them. We need the Long Term Illness Scheme to apply to asthma patients and we need the new Chronic Illness Management Programme to be extended to all asthma patients too.

We also need an Asthma Action Plan delivered for patients, with regular GP review, adequate respiratory consultant and nurse staffing levels. We need Sláintecare implemented in full and we need cleaner air.

Don’t get me wrong – the society‘s own services count as part of this. They matter and they deliver over and above for patients as it stands. Our Adviceline service is rated by patients as a “life-saver” and as a key management tool for both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Our awareness campaigns are award-winning and truly spark a “lightbulb” moment for patients, bringing about a key healthcare intervention.

One thing we’ve learnt in the last few months is that a strategic plan has be flexible and a team has to be agile enough to stretch that plan to meet the circumstances it faces. The cynic in me would dismiss that as business speak, but we would not have survived the last number of months or served patients well if we had stuck to our operational plan for 2020.

As part of our response to the Covid-19 crisis we’ve redeployed staff to triage incoming calls; we’ve doubled nurse hours on our Adviceline service and we’ve attempted to diversify the platforms and communications tools we use to meet the variety of patients’ health literacy needs.

What has this meant for us? The number of incoming Adviceline calls has gone from 293 last March/April to 2,251 in March/April 2020 – up 768 per cent. The number of nurse appointments has more than doubled in this period. Our website has gone from circa 66,000 visitors last March/April to 470,000 visitors for the equivalent period this year – up 611 per cent.

With some funded projects on hold, our stretched advocacy and awareness teams have been working to find solutions with support from our volunteer medical advisory group and our board.

In recent days we have even launched a new service, funded by Sláintecare, called Beating Breathlessness. It’s a nurse-led WhatsApp messaging service that allows patients to communicate with a respiratory specialist nurse to start an asthma or COPD management chat. The user can simply send a message on WhatsApp (086 059 0132) and one of the society’s nurses will respond as soon as possible.

To deliver our ambitious five-year strategic plan we will have to continue to adapt and to transform the society.

We need to build the scale of our programmes and to play a role in building a different healthcare system, but we also have to fundraise in a diverse and secure way to survive in uncertain times. It’s not easy to ask for help – and to ask in the right way.

I’d be inclined to say that you can only effectively ask if you have the right strategic plan, a track record for getting work done, and the sheer gumption to continue asking. I remind myself that the CEO of a charity is the CAO too – chief asking officer. If I don’t know the depth of our need and communicate it, then we can’t survive.

Sarah O‘Connor is chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland

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