Launching a national helpline, in just three weeks – Responding to COVID-19

On 8th April 2020, Richard Lissack received a call from a former client, Michaela Willis MBE. Known for her previous leadership of the National Bereavement Partnership (NBP), Michaela had been receiving calls from NHS key workers, asking her to re-ignite the charity and open the national helpline, in the way she had done previously. At that stage, 82 key workers had lost their lives and the national death toll stood at 7,000. By April 24th, the helpline was back up and running, a board of trustees appointed, a company formed and an application with the Charities Commission was underway.

Michaela had identified that COVID-19 was creating an urgent need for an acute response service, bereavement counselling and support. It was evident what was about to unfold and to re-open the charity and scale up for the potential demand, she needed help.

Michaela contacted Richard, aware of his background as a QC with an extensive network of contacts and connections, and also as a philanthropist who understood the challenges of raising funds and promoting the work of organisations. Richard is a board member of RADA, an Ambassador of ActionAid and a core supporter of Justice.

“I said “yes” because with what the world was going through, I not only wanted to do this but felt it was my duty to step up and help” says Richard.

Given his experience, he knew the importance of pulling together a professional board with the right skill set to achieve what was required. The urgency and critical need for the revival of NBP garnered immediate support.

“It was obvious to me that what was needed initially was a small core board that covered the key bases: medicine, communications, broadcasting, commerce and of course, politics. I envisaged that each board member would have their own discrete sphere of influence beyond our number, upon whom we could draw. I thought that once we were up and running, we would need to add another one or two people” he explains.

The trustees who said “yes” were, Dr John Gayner, medical adviser for London First. Sam Phillips, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Omnicom Media Group UK and previously their Chief Marketing Officer; Lord Karan Bilimoria, founding Chairman of the UK India Business Council, Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London, a member of the House of Lords and soon to be President of the CBI; Steve Orchard, CEO of Quidem Group, Chairman of Atlantic Screen Music and a Fellow of the Radio Academy.

“We quickly decided that the board had to be more representative of society. With that in mind, we looked to expand the board further” says Richard.

The first call was to Baroness Grey-Thomson. Undoubtedly, she would be an asset to the board, bringing a wealth of experience but also assisting the team in understand the true impacts of disability and their specific needs.

His other crucial criterion was that there would be no passengers on the board. Everyone needed to play their part to establish a fully operational helpline and national campaign at breakneck speed.

At the same time as onboarding, putting systems in place and managing volunteer counsellors, the team has also established an extensive national radio, TV, newspaper and cinema campaigns to publicise their service, in addition to support from local councils throughout the nation.

Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP and Rt Hon Priti Patel MP provided their endorsement for the service, as an extraordinary and invaluable response. To the pandemic

A number of celebrities have also offered their help, notably Alexander Armstrong, who volunteered his services for the TV and radio campaigns, as did the broadcaster, DJ Nihal, who also is the voice over for radio advertising. In addition, a range of celebrities gave their support through recording a fundraising song for the NBP. Celebrities included: Simon Callow, Charles Dance, David Suchet, Paul O’Grady, Andi Oliver and Anne Reid to name a few.

Corporate partners have also come on board including Omnicom Media Group UK, Drum; Boodle Hatfield LLP; Barclays; C Hoare and Co, Fawcetts Accountants; OpenReach; Fleishman Hillard Fishburn; Signature Litigation LLP; Ed Broking, Influx Solutions; Keston Reeves LLP and Virgin Money Giving.

Plainly, an operation on this scale required significant funding. Seed funding in excess of £100,000, was raised by approaching Richard and others’ friends and colleagues, and the charity’s helpline got off the ground. This was achieved principally through hard work, good will and huge pro-bono support from all the sectors covered by the board.

The next phase is fundraising to give NBP the operational infrastructure to support, the bereaved, families and key workers for the next 12 months.

“We have received incredible support from everyone who has been involved, but now it is imperative that we secure funding to ensure our long term sustainability. We are a new entity and that in itself, presents challenges for us, in terms of meeting certain stipulations with grant and funding applications. However, the board and I, are confident that we will succeed in attracting the required level of support. Society needs us to succeed,” says Richard.

It is estimated that over 60,000 families have faced bereavement directly as a result of COVID-19 and many more indirectly. The demand for the National Bereavement Partnership service to date, has evidenced the need for additional capacity in this sector. The NBP are already developing phase two, which will offer follow up therapeutic intervention where needed.

Richard might not call himself a philanthropist, but he recognises that stepping in, providing initial funding and bringing others on board too takes a certain kind of person.

“More important than just giving money, I can give time, energy, contacts and original thought – and I am shameless when it comes to picking up the phone and asking others to get involved,” he confesses.

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