Working through the pandemic: Guide Dogs' Covid-19 story

By Peter Osborne, Director of Operations

There’s no two ways about it, Covid-19 came at us like a tsunami. You could see it unfolding in front of you and you knew you were going to be in crisis mode for a long time.

I’ve been a guide dog owner since 1990 and I understand the real difficulty during those periods where you are without your dog. When we realised the pandemic would impact our ability to support those with sight loss, I immediately thought of the many people who’ve told me over the years that they wouldn’t be able to live their lives fully without our support.

We initially forecast a significant drop in fundraising revenue and had to act accordingly. We had to furlough staff, causing understandable concern throughout our organisation, and it looked like we were in for a long and rough ride. However, I knew that for anyone with a vision impairment there would be a deeper sense of crisis. I spoke to so many people who were becoming isolated in their own homes with little or no support. Things that they relied on, such as a guiding arm when they might need it, were suddenly not there.

We had to adapt and find a way to be there for people with sight loss more than ever before. So instead of face-to-face support, we set up and conducted thousands of keeping in touch calls and made sure all the most important and up to date information people might need was available online.

I heard stories about people we support who were shielding who had no food at all, creating a sense of panic that I vividly remember. Before we changed this – with our campaign to the Government – our staff stepped in where they could, because as someone said to me: the shop down the road “might as well be a mile away” if you can’t get out of the house.

Despite the challenges, I am so proud of what we were able to achieve. For instance, we absolutely had to find boarding for hundreds of our dogs across the country, and thanks to our amazing staff and volunteers, we did that within about a week. At board level, oversight from our trustees became even more important, as meetings became more frequent but shorter and more focused.

Early on in the crisis, our fundraising team took the bold decision to invest. We turned to television advertising which was, at that time, struggling, and as a result dramatically falling in price. This game-changing move meant we were able to maintain levels of awareness and lead to a record-breaking fundraising year. Our amazing supporters stepped up in huge numbers and, in doing to, they have allowed us to make the charity fitter and stronger for the future.

This support meant we could fast-track elements of our ‘By My Side’ strategy, bringing forward investments in our centres, our frontline staff and our digital infrastructure, so we can support more people and meet the real and changing needs of the sight loss community.

We’ve learned a lot about what people really want and need from us, and we recognise we still have a major challenge on our hands. Many people with sight loss are worried about what the new normal will be like and whether they will be included. The pandemic hit us hard but every guide dog partnership we qualify, every person we pair with a sighted guide, every child and family we support, is a step on the way towards a brighter future.

Remember you can still contact us if you're struggling during this time

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