In conversation with… Jane Petit, CEO, Foothold

As demand for support surges amid the coronavirus crisis, is it time for benevolent funds to rethink their purpose? Our Nick speaks to Foothold CEO Jane Petit about how her organisation – a charity funded by engineers for engineers – has been adapting to meet its community’s needs.

As a charity providing personal support, Foothold is obviously at the heart of responding to those who need it the most. How has the pandemic affected how you do that? 

Well, we’ve seen an 250% increase in enquiries! It’s a real shame that it’s taken a pandemic for people to realise we’re here. So, of course, everybody has had to step up. We realised that we needed to reduce the paperwork for one-off emergency grants and so we’ve streamlined the process to allow for quicker decisions (within three working days).

Wow, that’s a lot of calls to answer. Many people don’t know about support charities like yours — what might’ve pointed them in the right direction?

The Institute of Engineers (IET) sent out an email to their entire database of members, which for us meant reaching 70,000 new people. Having a new brand and vision has helped. It’s made it much easier for people to think “this is for me”. There have also been a number of other internal changes as part of our new strategy. Had this happened last year we would have said, “we can’t do this — just shut it down”.

We’ve always been flexible and we’re even more so now. Though we’ve learned that someone’s idea of ‘flexible’ isn’t necessarily another’s.


Supporting so many new people must be putting pressure on your resources and finances? Is this level of support sustainable?

One of our largest funding sources is our investments income, which has plummeted by 18%. Investment managers believe they’ll recover reasonably quickly, though.

We also have a new fundraiser, Fliss, who’s been developing our thinking around how we work with our community. We’re actually about to put out a campaign and, as a result, we’re projecting a 50% increase in our fundraising income in the next five years. This should cover the investment income gap.

We’re aware of the ongoing situation, but we’re still very committed to our longer-term strategy and growth plan.

And what about yourselves? How have you and the team adapted to the lockdown restrictions?

It’s not quite ‘business as usual’. It’s ‘business as best we can’, as everything takes that little bit longer. We actually started preparing early in February for remote working. Tube travel was a real concern. We needed to keep things running for our community, but also had a responsibility to keep our staff and volunteers safe.

Each of us has different circumstances at home, so we’ve adapted how we communicate and we’ve reframed expectations — around response times, for example. We’ve always been flexible and we’re even more so now. Though we’ve learned that someone’s idea of ‘flexible’ isn’t necessarily another’s.

Overall, the message is ‘do what you can and we’ll work through this’. On the whole it’s been effective.

With remote working, there’s always a risk of relationship-building falling by the wayside. How are you keeping your working culture alive?

We’re making the most of technology. Our new WhatsApp group has added a personal touch and our buddy system — based on a virtual coffee and chat — is working well. We’re keeping spirits high with fun elements like quizzes, and we’re making sure we build in time for personal conversations.

Our shared values (what we call our beliefs and commitments) are helping to frame our approach. They come up in conversation. In SMT (senior management team) meetings we often remind ourselves about ‘putting people in the driving seat’. And at a recent board meeting, the issue of ‘trusting our community’ came up when we were making decisions around our grant support criteria and proof checks.

Our culture is quite alive, but if I’m honest there’s some work to do in achieving that real bonded team spirit.

What has the situation revealed to you? What’s been a particular challenge?

With so much talk about fraud (around grant applications), I think it’s tested our commitment to trusting our community. While there’s a temptation to put even more proof checks in place, we’ve actually temporarily fast-tracked applications to get money to people who need it as quickly as possible.

We’ve recognised that we all need help at some point and we’ve taken down the barriers between us and our community. It’s opened up communication and we’re now hearing and telling the stories that matter.


What do you think the longer-term effects of the coronavirus will be for Foothold and its wider community?

I hope we can continue the momentum, as there are so many people out there we could be helping. And on the other side of this, there’s going to be needs around survivor syndrome and burnout.

Internally, we’re likely to see more people working from home for part of the week. We’ve proved that we can work remotely. Our lease is up for renewal in three years, at which point we’ll definitely review our needs around office working.

However, we don’t see ourselves becoming a virtual organisation — we still need to come together on a regular basis. We’ve found it more difficult doing the creative brainstorming over video. We haven’t yet shifted to a more natural approach. For example, feeling it’s okay to get up and walk around; we all tend to sit and be very attentive.

There are things we already had under review, but the virus situation has made it even more apparent that there are certain things we need to get on with. For example, shifting our direction more towards health and wellbeing.

You’ve been through a transformative process over the last year or so, changing from IET Connect to Foothold and working towards a renewed purpose. How has this helped you to respond to the pandemic?

The feeling of us all being a community has been a major step change. Before we were in a bit of an ivory tower, away from those we wanted to support. We gave the grants and everyone else was on the outside.

We’ve recognised that we all need help at some point and we’ve taken down the barriers between us and our community. It’s opened up communication and we’re now hearing and telling the stories that matter.

We’re also re-mapping our social impact, asking the community what difference they want us to make. We’re going to measure ourselves against that. We all rely on our figures and setting specific goals, while difficult, is something that could be helpful for all benevolent funds to consider.

There’s clearly an opportunity for charities to evolve their purpose post-lockdown. But at the same time, pressures on funding could lead to a short-term approach. Do you have any advice for leaders who’re struggling to think beyond the virus?

I think it’s about asking, what can we learn from this? What are our absolute priorities? And as we come out of this, what’s our purpose? Why are we here? Is that still relevant in our current society?

We’d already begun that journey. Now we need to really think about our core purpose with the resources we have in mind. That could mean letting go of some things that don’t necessarily — or no longer — fit.

Find out how we helped Foothold to redefine their purpose and realise their new identity.

See our case study >