Leadership diaries: A charity CEO on juggling leadership, a crisis and a three-year-old

As part of a new series, Sonya Sceats, CEO of Freedom from Torture, documents a week of navigating her charity through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Freedom from Torture is a charity that provides rehabilitation, legal and welfare help to people who have survived torture, as well as fighting to hold torturing states to account.


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Monday

Are early risers still getting up at the crack of dawn during the lockdown? You bet. Today is my day off as part of a flexible working arrangement, but I’ve logged on until my daughter Rosa wakes up. In our house, we are at the tail end of a 14-day lockdown after a chesty cough, and that hasn’t been easy to balance with work and an energetic three year old.

This morning, I’m digesting with other refugee charity leaders a fraught meeting with the Home Office last week on the impact of COVID-19 on asylum seekers. Many of the torture survivors we help are in the asylum system. They’re vulnerable to infection because of compromised immune systems, crowded accommodation and poverty.

The Home Office is upset because we’ve publicly criticised ministers for failing to keep asylum seekers safe. I’m reflecting on how to maintain good relations with government while 'bearing witness' to asylum seekers’ hardships and defending their rights during this crisis.

I check in with my colleague who leads survivor participation at Freedom from Torture. He’s had all the dreaded symptoms. He tells me he’s on the mend and I feel relieved.

Then Rosa wakes up and I flip in to ‘mum mode’. Today, we will use the last of our flour to bake a tart and Rosa wants to make a card for the staff at our local hospital (Kings College Hospital) who are helping people recover from the virus.

Tuesday

My eye is caught on Twitter by a Home Office COVID-19 'factsheet' declaring that asylum seekers have “no need” for “any funding outside asylum support”.

I find this pretty difficult to stomach. Freedom from Torture is stretched to the limit helping torture survivors to plug the gap between their paltry £5 daily allowance and the cost of staying safe and well during this crisis.

We’ve more than trebled our emergency relief payments this month. Despite 60 charities and more than 17,000 people joining our campaign to secure the same £20 uplift given to people on universal credit, Home Office ministers don’t seem to understand the precarity of the 50,000 or so asylum seekers under their care.

On top of briefings to the Home Affairs Select Committee, we have published a comment piece arguing for a £20 weekly increase to asylum support, safer asylum accommodation and release of all immigration detainees.

Next up, a meeting with our finance director to discuss the financial outlook and how to start preparing our 2021 budget in all this uncertainty. Like every CEO in the country right now, I’m losing sleep over the prospect of an economic recession and how we are going to get our clients through this.

It’s time for my daily four hour child care shift – with a twist today as I try to lighten the load for another Freedom from Torture colleague, balancing work with a toddler. Today is a test run to see if I can help via Zoom nannying. Our scavenger hunt was a hit, and we think simultaneous Duplo play is the way forward next week!

Back on the clock. I am moving through two days of emails. I finalise letters to our clients in treatment. It explains our services during the emergency and invites their feedback.

Wednesday

It is easy to assume that all non-COVID-19 parliamentary business has been suspended, but that’s not the case. Downing Street is pushing through a Bill to give British troops impunity for torture and other war crimes committed abroad more than five years ago. My first task this morning is to review legal advice about whether the law would be challengeable in the UK courts. The answer is yes.

Rosa wakes an hour early, thereby sabotaging my plan to write a progress report for a funder.

At 9am, we switch on 'PE with Joe'. The squats nearly kill me! This is the sum total of my exercise all week.

Straight from there into the daily meeting of our Coronavirus Operational Command to discuss our recent survey on how staff are coping (remarkably well overall) and how we can best support them.

Then into a series of policy meetings, including welcome news that Priti Patel has said that the Home Office will look at whether it “need(s) to do more” on asylum support.

The day ends well with a decision from our trustees to approve an expansion of our emergency relief budget. This is a brave decision given all the financial uncertainty, but I undoubtedly believe it’s right.

Thursday

This morning is all about management. I have my weekly check-in with our chair, followed by our regular senior management team meeting. We’re all upbeat about data showing that our clinical 'contact hours' with torture survivors last week surpassed those for the pre-lockdown period.

Then I pen one of my regular COVID-19 updates for staff covering operations, wellbeing and finances. Samuel, our special events manager, wants sign off on our marketing materials for the Freedom from Torture COVID-19 auction of virtual experiences with stars Helen Mirren, Thandie Newton and Michael Palin. These are the exciting moments!

Friday

Images of gun-toting lockdown protestors in Michigan, fomented by a pro-torture president, are a worrying reminder of how COVID-19 is accelerating authoritarianism across the world. We’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this threat. It’s the motivation I need to write that funder report, on our work to defend the torture ban.

My most important meeting today is with CEOs from the British Red Cross, Refugee Action, Refugee Council and the Scottish Refugee Council to discuss how we can spur faster action by the Home Office to keep asylum seekers safe.

The working week ends with a Zoom staff quiz – three rounds and I managed the lowest score in all of them! It’s been a long week: 20+ meetings (half of which were bombed by Rosa) and around 300 emails trying to balance crisis management with planning for the future.

Dinner, and then Rosa and I settle down to watch David Attenborough documentaries while my partner works late into the night after a day of “Daddy Daycare”. Tomorrow our 14-day 'hard lockdown' ends and we are all looking forward to a walk!

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Got a diary to share?

If you’re a charity leader – CEO, COO, chair, trustee or department head – and would like to document a typical work day, week, or project, please get in touch with the Charity Times editor, Lauren Weymouth at lauren.weymouth@charitytimes.com.

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