What do we do if the Chief Executive of the Encephalitis Society is incapacitated by COVID-19?

That was just one scenario that our Trustees had to tackle at the onset of the pandemic in March of last year.

Those early days, as we all know, were a time of uncertainty with fears around how dangerous the virus was, how long would the lockdown last, and would a vaccine be discovered.

At the Encephalitis Society, it led to the creation of COBRA meetings where our Trustees would meet virtually with Dr Ava Easton, our Chief Executive, on a weekly basis.

The meetings adopted the name of the UK Government’s emergency council which meet in times of crisis in ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Room A’.

“We felt it was extremely important to get together as often as possible because the world was changing so quickly,” said Ava.

“Events were being cancelled, social distancing restrictions were coming into place, the security of our finances were in jeopardy, and we feared for perhaps our most important asset – our staff team.

“We needed to put ourselves in a position where we were aware of the facts as they changed and could be agile enough to respond to problems at a moment’s notice.

“We also needed to think about different situations, worst-case scenarios, assessing risks presented to the charity on a daily basis, and come up with a plan if they became a reality.”

One of those scenarios was what would happen if Ava became ill with COVID-19. Ava’s husband is a frontline worker in a hospice and so, despite having migrated to homeworking, her exposure risk was increased. Ava had a peer in mind who would step in, someone she knew she could trust with the charity, and after discussions with the Board of Trustees, this person was approached and asked to
become interim CEO if Ava became incapacitated beyond a normal period of ill-health.

“I knew who I wanted to fill my shoes if the worst happened - we were aware of her expertise and her beliefs and values echoed ours. I knew I could leave the team in capable hands.

“Talking about falling ill, or even dying, wasn’t a conversation I enjoyed, but it needed to be done to secure the future of the Encephalitis Society.”

There were many other calculated decisions made by Ava and the Trustees during the initial lockdown, namely that the staff team should not be furloughed, that we should continue to pursue our long-term strategy, that we would fast track our digital development, and that we would expand the trustee board and staff group as planned – all strategies we felt would help us navigate this crisis.

“I just knew that if we continued to do the same, we would get the same," said Ava.

“There were two other important developments that we all strongly believed in. First, that we needed to be involved in COVID-19 research. We reasoned that this would ensure we would remain relevant as a medical research charity and patient organisation, and it would help us to secure funding going forward. Our Scientific Advisory Panel were critical in this element of our strategy and we are forever grateful to them. Secondly, ensuring the senior team were in constant touch with the staff team, all working from home. We created digital opportunities to connect for both work and for leisure, like quizzes and Prosecco Friday! We also sent little notes and gifts and I made regular emails reassuring everyone of our position.

“These early decisions really worked out in our favour and, together with the generous support of our members, it meant that whilst we didn’t quite meet our pre-pandemic planned income for the year, we smashed our projected COBRA budget which we had fast-tracked when the pandemic hit.”

Ava added: “As a Chief Executive, the past 18 months has been the most challenging period of my career. Without our Trustees and their expertise, the warm embrace of our scientific advisors, the bold decisions that were made, and being able to respond quickly to challenges on the horizon, there is no doubt in my mind that the Encephalitis Society’s future would have been threatened.

“It truly was a testing time, but a time where we all rose to the occasion to ensure that there will always be support for people who need our help going forward. We have learnt so much and, as the Society’s leader, I am deeply proud and humbled to lead such an incredible group of people.”

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