Brendan O'Keefe arrived back from holiday the evening before the Grenfell Tower fire and wasn't due back at work for several more days.
He is chief executive of Epic, a community interest company that provides youth services in Kensington & Chelsea. He says he was woken at 6am by his phone beeping repeatedly. At first he ignored it, but then he realised something was up. By the time he arrived at Epic's office at 9am, half a mile from Grenfell Tower, an operation to support those residents who had walked out of Grenfell had already swung into place.
"What impressed me was the way our staff flooded in and just got to work, self-organising, without a pre-laid plan or looking for permission," he says. Certain staff naturally assumed leadership roles and were able to react quickly because they were local and knew the area well. O'Keefe says this was particularly satisfying to see because it had been only a few years since he had led a public sector spin-out from the local council, which involved 150 staff becoming part of the CIC. "All the work we have done on changing the culture to one where people are free to take responsibility was evidenced in their responses that day," he says.
About 140 miles away Mark Simms, chief executive of the Rugby Portobello Trust, which supports young people in North Kensington, was in Derby when he was contacted by colleagues telling him he needed to come down to London. He arrived in the early afternoon, just as the full gravity of what had happened was becoming clear. Like Epic, RPT opened a relief centre offering shelter, medical support, counselling and a place of comfort and support.
Simms says he was bowled over by the compassion and unity shown by people of all backgrounds. "Offers of help flooded in," he says. "We had 150 volunteers and 20 staff fully mobilised. Shopkeepers were bringing in food: we had some of the poshest muffins you've ever seen at a fiver a pop. They went to the firemen. This was human beings helping human beings: humanity at its finest."
On top of this, there was immediate help from some major companies. "Dixons offered to replace everyone's white goods for free," says Simms. "Apple offered free laptops to every child. A local taxi firm offered free rides for five days. About £13m has come in various donations from individuals, companies, trusts and government."
Located next to Grenfell Tower is the Clement James Centre, which offers a range of community support and education services. It routinely worked closely with 60 families in Grenfell Tower, not all of whose members survived the fire. Clare Richards, chief executive of CJC, headed into work early on the morning of the fire and what she saw was extraordinary. Some of her staff had already set up a rudimentary relief centre. Social workers, medics and counsellors were in place. On a wall was a list of who was there and who had not yet been accounted for. Richards has only praise for her staff and the wider community. "The area here is unusual not only in its sheer diversity but in the kindness people show to one another," she says.
So what did we learn about our sector from this tragedy? One thing that strikes me from talking to these three chief executives is the emphasis they place on the particular culture of their organisations. Richards speaks about "a culture of compassion, communication and responsibility" that didn't wait to be given an order. Simms tells of a powerful human connection in that all staff and volunteers involved went beyond simple material support.
All three are keen to downplay the media storm about Kensington & Chelsea council. "It wasn't quite how it was portrayed," says Simms. "We had social workers from the council turning up in the morning, and the housing department has been superb. We had a director here who has been magnificent, plus councillors."
All recognise that the systems and processes of the statutory sector have the potential to get in the way of speed, agility and sensitivity of response, factors we are free from in the voluntary sector.
Where all three chiefs are unanimous is the negative impact of the media and of certain celebrities seeking to be "papped" or making incendiary statements. Each had to police their buildings carefully for journalists who, from very early on, wanted to intrude on the grief of the residents. "We had them trying to pose as volunteers," says Richards. All three chief executives decline to get into the rapidly escalating blame-game being played out in the media. "We told our staff to decline all interviews and not be drawn into all the noise," says O'Keefe. "There will be a public inquiry."
Simms agrees: "We have to work with the council and everyone else afterwards to heal this area. Throwing mud in public does not help."
So what can other chief executives learn from the sector's response to Grenfell Tower? Three things stand out. The first is that fostering a culture of trust in your staff to do the right thing is critical. All three organisations featured here operate values-based rather than prescriptive approaches to staff and volunteers. The leaders set this culture and are responsible for its maintenance. "It's in the DNA," is Simms' way of putting it.
The second is that charities and social enterprises can collaborate highly effectively with communities. All three organisations I interviewed work cheek-by-jowl in the community, but often have to compete for funding. But the maturity in these relationships - set by their leaders - means that collaboration has been easy and highly effective. "We compete for money, but we collaborate first and foremost," says O'Keefe.
The third lesson is the importance of remaining able to operate without bureaucracy or dehumanising processes.
"Although we had a couple of scammers," says Simms, who is helping to oversee grants to affected families, "we take the view that people are entitled to the help, and start from there."
All three organisations employed local people who knew who everyone was. "We are part of the community, from the community and with a sense of commitment that goes with that," says Richards.
Simms says other sectors can learn from the approach of the voluntary sector. "The difference here is that we give our staff a platform to say 'I'm a human being, you're a human being, let's go from there'," he says. "My staff didn't ring me for permission to build a response. I wasn't even sure I was needed. This was people helping people."
After a couple of years of negative media, it is good to see the third sector recognised for its excellent response. The sector was largely absent from the party manifestos, despite its importance to society. We should be deeply proud of what our organisations did in the weeks after the Grenfell Tower tragedy: this really was the sector at its absolute best.
Back to stepping out now