Laura Smith and team, The Brain Tumour Charity

Brain Tumour Charity - Culture Pioneers
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The Brain Tumour Charity proves that you don’t need a big budget to protect and nurture your culture in testing times. From ‘sanity saving’ support groups to weekly ‘Wow Moment’ celebrations, the organisation adapted to the crisis by embracing creative flair, enthusiasm and a sense of humour.


Many charities have been hit hard by the pandemic, and The Brain Tumour Charity is no exception. Alongside the financial strain caused by many of its fundraising streams coming to a halt, demand for the charity’s support services has grown exponentially. Changes and cancellations to treatment and care have had a huge impact on its community, with many also experiencing increased levels of isolation and anxiety as a result of shielding.

When the first lockdown was enforced, the charity’s workforce had two significant challenges on their hands: first, to generate income through new, innovative fundraising initiatives; and second, to meet the increased needs of their service users. Adding further strain was the fact that this all had to be done with a reduced team and the additional burden of adjusting to home working.

How could this be accomplished at speed with so many hurdles to jump over?

A ‘we can’ culture

Before the crisis, the charity had already nurtured a strong ‘we can’ culture made up of a  ‘pioneering’, ‘passionate’, ‘collaborative’ and ‘smart’ group of people who were encouraged to be ‘the real you’. Head of Talent Laura Smith knew how critical it would be to protect and nurture these cultural qualities through this period of disruption if they were to adequately support their community. 

“A big part of who we are revolves around the whole team coming together regularly, in person. So with the whole team switching to working from home overnight, we knew it would be important to keep team members connected and up-to-date. As with all the work we do, we moved quickly to adapt to the new landscape,” said Laura.

Supporting this quick response was The Brain Tumour Charity’s people team headed up by Laura. This talented bunch includes:

  • Eleanor Mcmanus – Internal Communications Manager

  • Sarah Baldwin – Talent Assistant

  • Helen Wyatt – Talent Development Manager

  • Amie Frayne – Volunteer Development Manager

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Embracing virtual

At the top of the charity’s agenda was bridging connections and bolstering communication across a virtual setting, while also tackling work/life balance struggles.

Without the frequent distractions of an office, colleagues were finding themselves glued to a makeshift office chair for hours on end, forgetting to take time out.

So Laura and the team introduced a bi-weekly virtual tea break on Workplace (their internal social network) encouraging people to down tools for 15 minutes and come together to share photos, explore new virtual places and take a look at some bite-sized learning resources. These breaks also encouraged people to get away from their desks and get creative, take a walk, or find/make/photograph an item on a certain theme. 

To strengthen cross-team relationships, virtual ‘coffee mornings’ were also introduced, to enable individuals from across the charity to have conversations that would normally happen in person.

Following in the footsteps of their leaders, employees started to find creative new ways to host their regular get togethers – such as their book club and lunchtime craft session – remotely.

One positive that’s come from this transition to virtual working is the deepening of relationships among colleagues. “People are learning more about their team mates than they ever would have done while waiting for the kettle to boil in the office kitchen,” said Laura.

Refocusing on wellbeing

Prior to the pandemic, the organisation had a well-established focus on team wellbeing with a Workplace group already in place for the sharing of health and wellness-related ideas and content. When Covid-19 hit, this group was flooded with resources as employees sought to help one another. 

The charity’s team of wellbeing ambassadors hosted sessions on understanding reactions to change and uncertainty, while also writing weekly wellness articles for their internal e-newsletter. 

"The honesty and openness of our wellbeing ambassadors is refreshing and a reminder that we're all in this together, celebrating the ups and tackling the downs – Employee feedback

Furthermore, to support those who are working from home with young children, the team set up a virtual ‘sanity saving support club’ as a space for parents to share tips and ideas to help one another, while also sharing some of their challenges and seeking advice.

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Continuing to celebrate ‘Wow Moments’

Understanding how valuable it is to celebrate achievements during testing periods, the people team created ‘Wow Moment Wednesday’. 

“This weekly post gives people an opportunity to come together to share their happy news and achievements, from both work and home – whether that’s a significant piece of income, the launch of a new support resource, the creation of a new digital fundraising campaign or a baby taking his first steps. We champion the small things too!” said Laura.

Showing the leadership team’s human (and humorous) side

With a matrix working structure, even in normal circumstances the charity has to take great care in ensuring people are kept in the loop about what’s happening across all teams. During the pandemic it became more important than ever before to have updates from the leadership team. For this charity, however, important doesn’t mean being all too serious…

The weekly ‘team talk’ video updates that were set up to share critical information quickly escalated into an opportunity for some lighthearted one-upmanship among the directors.

"As well as keeping the team informed, the videos have brought out the competitive streak in our team, who now bid to make each update more memorable than the last. So, for example, we saw the latest research news being brought to us by a senior leader... from a trampoline, a cross-trainer or a tree house," commented Laura.

Conquering the climb

With the charity’s fundraising initiatives shifting to digital, many employees have gone above and beyond their usual work remit to bring in extra donations and raise awareness. For example, two teams decided to take on the charity's 'Conquer the climb' challenge, a virtual fundraiser which was developed in response to the pandemic, given the number of physical events that were cancelled.

The charity asked its supporters to join teams to climb the height of a different mountain, for example by climbing a flight of stairs hundreds of times, or by ascending local hills. “These kinds of challenges really seemed to bring teams together in what has been a difficult time,” said Laura.

Keeping on the pulse

To ensure the initiatives being put in place are hitting the mark, and to better understand what else employees need support with, the people team uses pulse surveys to regularly check in with the team.

The feedback received indicates that the charity is striking the right balance between helping people to feel connected without overwhelming them with information.

I've been so impressed by how quickly The charity has adapted to make things as easy as possible for us all. Massive thank you to the whole team for going above and beyond to keep us connected! 

It's changed hugely, though I feel a little guilty to say, for the better. It has been brilliant to see everyone's faces more regularly than I was before.

Things keeping me on track: 1. Structure is keeping me sane 2. I love the virtual tea breaks 3. Having really supportive colleagues.

What’s next for The Brain Tumour Charity?

The charity’s community of service users continue to be in urgent need of its support, with delays in coming forward for diagnosis, long waiting lists and huge variations in brain tumour care needing to be tackled. 

To continue to address these issues in the most effective way, Laura and the people team are working endlessly to keep employees feeling motivated, energised and empowered to flex and innovate so that they can provide a better service for their community.

We are preparing to pivot again, developing and embedding new, more agile ways of working and a laser-like strategic focus to ensure that we can lean into this crisis and continue to meet the needs of those impacted by a brain tumour in these uncertain times." Laura concluded.

What did our Culture Pioneers ambassadors think?

Culture Pioneers Ambassadors

Our ambassadors were particularly impressed by the emphasis on creativity, fun and connection in The Brain Tumour Charity’s story, particularly at the leadership level. “The idea of senior leaders giving updates in the most original way possible shows that when the culture is modelled from the top (or from a trampoline) everyone else knows the organisation means it,” says Blaire Palmer, CEO of That People Thing. 

For Perry Timms, Chief Energy Officer of PTHR, the charity demonstrates a real people-centric approach to culture that focuses on bringing workers together in diverse ways. “That they know more about each other than whilst waiting for the kettle to boil is a lovely way to describe how they bonded more during this dispersed working”.

What struck a chord with Becky Norman, Editor of HRZone, was the real sense of community at the charity: “Employees have a desire to share knowledge, proactively support one another and crack a joke along the way – a sign of a fantastic culture”.

Enjoyed this story? Discover how our other Culture Pioneers reshaped their culture during the pandemic.