Seven weeks in…

These are my reflections on working as a third sector / civil society Chief Executive during these bizarre, unsettled and challenging times.

The last few weeks have been inspiring and stressful in equal measure. I wanted to try to capture and publish some of this.

Why share in this way? Conversation starters, and because I love reading this kind of ‘working in the open’ content myself.

I’d love to talk more about any of this, so please get in touch if you feel the same.


What has struck me over and over again is the power of the civil society and the importance of community-led and community embedded centres and hubs during this crisis and how we have at WHALE along with other local charities, social enterprises, churches and residents associations managed to respond quickly to organise around initially phone-calls and food. And how this has rapidly progressed to looking at how we can support IT needs for those without suitable devices to join the raft of services that have moved online, to looking at the role we can play in improving mental health and wellbeing through creativity and kindness.

According to WHO Civil Society: ‘refers to the space for collective action around shared interests, purposes and values, generally distinct from government and commercial for-profit actors. Civil society includes charities, development NGOs, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups’


We are embedded in Wester Hailes, care deeply about our participants, team, volunteers and our membership and the community we serve in Wester Hailes and beyond. We decided to take a series of measures to protect our community and our staff. The first approach we have took was pause all groups, close the building to the public, but to try to retain and expand on some of our core and essential services which we could provide remotely.

On Day 1 (waaay back in the distant past on Tuesday 17 March) I worked with my team on a rapid communications plan, we created a couple of trackers for funders and freelance artists communicated the changes. The team also contacted all participants in our groups — slightly more complex as a number do not use email or social media.

Our programme is varied. We have a range of art groups for adults and children. Creativity is the thread that runs through everything that we do however not all our activities are ‘art’ classes. We have a busy community meal each Friday where we serve at least 60 delicious hot meals to local residents, local workers and sometimes external people we invite along — we find it’s one of the best moments in the week to show what we do best — creating opportunities for people to be together, talking, laughing, socialising. We also have a lovely community garden and a group of volunteer gardeners who meet at WHALE each Friday working on building, planting, growing, and eating at the community meal.

Of course the majority of our groups are arts focused — art making and cooking group for women, mens making group, textiles classes, social dancing, digital skills, business group for mums, creative activities for young people with additional support needs, art for young people every Thursday evening outside and across Wester Hailes, film club, after school art club, Indian dance class, writing group, and more! But all rely on people being together in a room or an outside space.


We worked quickly with our team of freelance artists to develop a range of creative tutorials, fun ideas and exercise challenges for people of all ages to do at home. This is a growing resource which lives on our website, and is shared each week on our social media channels.


We were also concerned that — like all of us — families and individuals will struggle with the effects of lockdown, possible increased financial pressures, likely limited access to resources and increased pressure on mental health and family relationships. Isolated individuals without family or support networks feel lonely and disconnected from the community and postal art packs are a way of staying connected.

As part of our response to these challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic we wanted to deliver immediate support and decided to give all our existing supplies and resources directly to the community so created packs of materials participants could use at home that were distributed in the first fortnight the building closed and we weren’t able to offer face to face services in our regular classes and groups.

Following this initial process, we have developed what we are offering and are buying in materials and resources to fill the packs. We have created tailored art packs for early years, children, teens, adults and are working on wellbeing packs for adults. We are taking referrals from our partners, South West social work team and directly from the community.

Art packs help to increase wellbeing, give a creative outlet and support home learning. We know that some families struggle with necessities and may not be a position to prioritise purchasing paper or pens and more, the tools that help learning and creativity and give young people a focus whilst at home. Creativity supports positive mental health, skills development and problem solving as well as a welcome and necessary break from excessive screen time.

In addition to art materials, the packs contain welcome letters to let participants know we are thinking of them and signposting to other local services, mental health/ wellbeing resources, crisis contact services and a range of relaxing activities to reduce stress and anxiety.

Since 18 March over 5,000 individual items and 100 packs have been delivered in Wester Hailes.

Because a number of our adult participants are not digitally connected we are also developing some postal art activities and we are also thinking of some creative and fun ways to keep people connected over the next few weeks, using a range of platforms, some in small groups and some on a one-to-one basis taking into consideration that for many of our participants the ability to connect and communicate digitally and remotely cannot be taken for granted.


Under ordinary circumstances our Friday Community Meal each week is attended by around 60 people who join to share delicious hot meal. Our Community Meal Chef works with a group of local volunteers to prepare the meal. It is a key social occasion for the residents who attend and until Covid-19 hit we had seen numbers increasing steadily each week.

When we realised we had to close the building to the public one of our our first responses was to retain food provision and adapt the Community Meal to a Community Takeaway. For the first 2 weeks we had between 25–30 hot meals collected. We set up a social distancing queueing system and we had no issues with congregations of people — we encouraged people to come by WHALE on their daily walk and collect a hot meal on the way. The food is cooked by our Community Meal Chef Paul and packaged up for locals to takeaway and eat at home and is served out a side door at WHALE by staff and volunteers between 1pm — 2pm every Friday.

As we started to talk to the participants in our groups, those coming to collect a meal, and we continued to connect with our peer organisations locally we realised that we had to adapt again to provide a hot meal delivery service. Through asking for support and guidance from other local organisations and working in collaboration with others we started a meal delivery service on Friday 3rd April. This is coordinated by WHALE Arts staff with support from SCOREscotland staff and a small group of very kind volunteers— these include John from Business Fives and Jonny from Edinburgh Tool Library who are our delivery drivers and have turned up every Friday to deliver hot food.

On Friday 25 April we 120 hot meals went direct to families and individuals’, around 30 of these meals were collected as takeaway and the rest delivered to homes through our small network of volunteer drivers. The demand and need is growing and we are now looking what our capacity is and working with other local parters to ensure we can cook and deliver as much food as possible across the week. With local authority community centres closed we are one of few buildings with kitchens able to cook and distribute hot food in Wester Hailes.

The Community Fridge at WHALE Arts which is managed by Jolly Oluka and her team at SCOREscotland has continued to operate. At the start of the crisis this was a pick-up service and has moved to a delivery twice a week. We continue to work closely with SCOREscotland and The Health Agency to identity and get provisions out to families. Prospect Community Housing have provided a van and two drivers and this is being used by a range of local organisations who are distributing food packs, essential items, art packs, and hot food.


My team have all been absolutely amazing — kind, creative, collaborative, looking out for our community, each other. I already knew they were wonderful, but honestly I continue to be inspired by them every day!

Mega shout out to the consistently super duper core staff team— Kate, Kirsty, Craig, Rebecca, Michael, Laura T, Laura D, Fabien, Jill, Dawn, Susan, Paul — 🙂 🙂 🙂

We have taken the decision not to furlough. We have developed a system (as far as is possible with a small team) to work in two teams in the building. Some of the team are working fully from home. Our approach currently is that due to local need we will continue to redeploy staff into the above activities for as long as possible.

We are keeping our regular freelance artists and support workers in paid roles until at least the end of their contracts. Our freelance team are playing a hugely important role at WHALE just now — creating online creative lessons, helping with art packs posted to people, and helping us with Friendship Calls / check-ins (below).

We will continue to work with them to develop new, interesting, accessible and creative ways to reach and engage with our community.


Not long after 18 April we started a tracker which is checked every day by staff. As a team we call, text or email people to check-in, ask how they are, have a chat, and find out if we can help in any way. As more services appear locally and across Edinburgh we are now referring and sign-posting people into other services.


We launched a Referral Form when we reached the point where we felt confident we could expand beyond the people in our network — as well as a growing need for food, we have seen a huge increase in requests for art packs.


We have had growing concerns about digital exclusion of vulnerable people who were already struggling with IT. Through an existing digital skills project in partnership with Prospect Community Housing, SCOREscotland, and CHAI — Wester Hailes Connects — we support vulnerable and digitally excluded people in Wester Hailes. This work usually happens in small group IT drop-in sessions. This project has been adapted to looking at how we can remotely support people to connect to the myriad of social events which have moved online, when many do not have a suitable device to work from.

We have worked with Prospect Housing to purchase laptops for voluntary groups in Wester Hailes — to enable them to join in digitally.

We have also, with Prospect Housing and SCOREscotland identified 10 individuals and families who would benefit from a device to be able to make video calls from (likely an ipad or tablet) and we have sourced a fund to access these (through our current funder JP Morgan via Good Things Foundation). We will be providing remote support for these individuals in setting up and using the devices.

This is an area in which we believe demand will grow over the coming weeks and in which we feel we have the skills to support people. We have recently added Digital Needs into our Support Tracker.


As a community embedded and building based organisation generating income through our building we have the added challenge of loss of enterprise income We have spent years building up the income we earn through our building to a point where around £58,000 of our income in 19/20 was from room bookings, office rentals and our co-working space desk rentals. As soon as we closed the building all room bookings were cancelled. We are projecting that we will lose the ability to earn £3505 per month for as long as we are closed. This is an ongoing challenge for us. We still need to pay for all our building overheads as we are open to continue to provide the services outlined above. Until this point we have not furloughed staff to enable us to continue to provide services.

We have achieved gradually over the last few years what most third sector organisations and arts organisations have been told to strive for — a diverse and sustainable income mix with some income from enterprise activity.

We are beginning to plug some of this loss of income through support from funders however this will likely continue to be a challenge over the medium to long term, especially since it’s difficult to know in which month we can realistically project earned income to start again.


The response from all of our current funders has been outstanding — kindness, trust and flexibility across the board.

A special thanks to the team at The William Grant Foundation and the local Edinburgh team at The National Lottery Community Fund.

I’d like to write more about our relationship with funders and some of the conversations and confusions I have had over the last few weeks.

Hoping we can carry forward lots of how funders are adapting into the new future…


Right at the start of the crisis we met together (one of the last physical meetings we had in an actual room!) with The Health Agency, Edible Estates, About Youth, SCOREscotland, Calders Residents Association, Prospect Community Housing, Holy Trinity Church, The Dove Centre, and many others.

With a strong history of working very well together in Wester Hailes through Living Well Wester Hailes — coming together over Covid-19 planning was. a fairly natural step. We quickly created a Slack Workspace which has been allowed us to be responsive and have conversations and to make this happen quickly and in a more rounded way that usual (this would ordinarily be a meeting in a room with whoever could make it that day, followed by a group email thread or one-to-one conversations).

Organisations with paid staff and connecting up with the local churches and voluntary groups in a way we never have before. We are all very excited about using this way of communicating dynamically into the future beyond this crisis.


Bridie Ashrowan CEO at Space in Broomhouse (amazing leader / amazing team and org) showed early leadership in response to Covid-19 and convened another of the last meeting in an actual room (!) we had and brought me into a kernel of an idea (we co-chair the South West Edinburgh Voluntary Sector Forum) which has become Go Beyond.

Go Beyond — is a distributed network of people and organisations across South West Edinburgh coordinating a collaborative and collective leadership response to the Covid-19 crisis.

We also created a Slack Workspace for Go Beyond (and yes, I am dealing with slack workspace overload / confusion!).

A small leadership group meets 3 times a week comprising me, Bridie Ashrowan from Space Broomhouse Hub, Kate Barrett from EVOC and Craig Wilson from Big Hearts. The development of the network has been supported by Ally Hunter from Be More Human. Our goal is to share learning across SW Edinburgh, looking at gaps in provision, sharing ideas and resources.

We think that working in this way will revolutionise meetings such as the Voluntary Sector Forum — we are working in a dynamic responsive way — in a way we never have managed to before.


As part of Go Beyond, my colleague at WHALE Kirsty led on the creation of a Food Map for South West Edinburgh — we have created this is close collaboration with Broomhouse Hub, Edible Estates, The Health Agency and others. Craig from WHALE and The Digital Sentinel is overseeing this for SW Edinburgh. We are excited about how this could be used as a community resource beyond the end of this crisis.


More of the same — being creative, adaptable, flexible, collaborative. Honing our adapted services. Making sure we have plugged our earned income losses as much as possible. Making sure that we can ‘keep the lights on’ in our amazing community hub and that we are still here not just in 3 months time but in 12 months, 2 years, 5 years and beyond.

And continuing to use our skills in creativity and kindness to support each other remotely until we can meet again in person…

Leah Black is Chief Executive of Whale Arts; Warden of Incorporation of Goldsmiths of City of Edinburgh.