Monday 17 May 2021 6:00 am ICAS Talk

On the Brightside

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Ryan Herman is Journalist-at-Large for Local Trust. He was formerly contributing editor for Director and currently writes for GQ, FourFourTwo, the Rugby Journal and the Robb Report.

As COO at Brightside, Rachel Pigott CA helps young people access education and career mentoring. She tells Ryan Herman why the pandemic has made the charity’s work more important than ever.

This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.

Pre-pandemic, if you came from a professional family, you were more than twice as likely to end up in a professional job as someone from a less advantaged upbringing, according to the Social Mobility Commission. And when working-class graduates entered professional careers, they were paid an average of £6,800 less per annum than colleagues from more affluent upbringings.

Now it is feared that those gulfs will widen as a consequence of Covid-19. A YouGov poll published in March revealed that 79% of adults “believe there is a large gap between different social classes” while 56% think the pandemic “has increased social inequality”. Covid-19 has also exposed the scale of the digital divide in the UK. According to Ofcom between 1.14 and 1.78 million children didn’t have online access during lockdown.

Creating a society where everyone can get ahead, irrespective of their circumstances, is what inspired Rachel Pigott CA’s huge career move in 2016. She quit EY and joined social mobility charity Brightside, which provides online mentoring and access to expert advice for young people from low-income families.

“I spent eight-and-a-half happy years at EY,” says Pigott. “I wasn’t running out the door, but I wanted to be closer to the impact of what was I doing. Part of me always wanted to work in the charity sector. I delayed my graduate start date with EY by six months in part to spend six months with [learning disability charity] Mencap and its policy team. But I didn’t have a clear goal about what that job would be like or when would be the right time to make that move.

“A couple of things really spoke to me about Brightside, and explain why I’m still there four-and-a-half years later. First and foremost, it’s the mission; a young person’s background shouldn’t determine the trajectory of their life. Also, it’s about the power of connection. We’re giving young people the chance to speak to somebody they might not otherwise get the chance to, whether that’s because of geographical background or for other reasons. And because it’s online means we can measure impact.”

Founded in 2003, Brightside’s first project was mentoring 50 students who wanted to go into medicine, a programme backed by London colleges Imperial and King’s, and pharma giant AstraZeneca. Since then, its mentors have supported more than 140,000 students. And children eligible for free school meals who received online mentoring through Brightside before the age of 16 did better than their peers by an average 6.5 grades across all subjects at GCSE level.

The nationwide shift to online learning over the past year has made Brightside busier than ever. The charity has taken on 33 new partners, 2,000 more mentees (would-be mentors can sign up at the Brightside website) and recorded an increase of almost 10% in mentee engagement. “We didn’t know what the impact would be [at the start of the pandemic],” Pigott says. “Intuitively, we thought we may be better placed to weather the storm given we are a digital outreach organisation.”

Its main revenue streams, however, come through contracts with universities and charities, both affected financially by Covid. “There were concerns at the start,” she admits. “But we’ve seen a huge increase in demand for our online services. We could get our services out to young people who needed it at a time when other support services had been pulled.”

Eye opener

Pigott was promoted from Head of Finance to COO last year. Her role is to ensure Brightside delivers on its mission despite the challenging environment. “Being COO includes deciding which areas to invest in, whether it’s people or tech or impact, but also when it’s not the right time to invest,” she explains. “In very practical terms I oversee the finance function, the governance, the people, the impact reporting and work very closely with our business development function. We regularly review what the data is showing to inform our decisions.

“I also work with the CEO to understand how the market is changing. Are the income streams diverse enough? Is there the right balance of programmes? Are we supporting young people across the spectrum of opportunities? The training that comes with the CA qualification is brilliant for giving you a broad business background, that range of skills and knowledge.”

Before joining Brightside, Pigott spent a year on secondment from EY with the Social Business Trust and two years as a trustee with Off Centre, a youth mental health charity based in Hackney. “The time I had with the Social Business Trust really opened my eyes to the social sector in the UK,” she recalls. “At Off Centre, we oversaw a merger with Family Action, a much larger charity. It was something I hadn’t experienced until that point, so it expanded my professional skills and confirmed I wanted to work in the charity sector. And being a trustee is something I’d advocate anyone doing, especially someone with qualifications in finance.”

That experience helps Pigott and Brightside to make informed decisions about who needs support during this crisis. It comes as no surprise to learn that, according to a survey carried out by the Carers Trust, 66% of young carers, many looking after relatives with disabilities, said they were feeling more stressed since the start of the pandemic, while 40% said their mental health suffered.

“We’ve just launched a programme with young carers,” says Pigott. “Charities are doing a lot of amazing work in this area, but higher education finds it difficult to focus on young carers, due to budget constraints and small numbers, but also because individuals need to self-declare, so can be hard to find. So we’ve developed a national programme for young carers thinking about going to university, which makes it more cost-effective for unis, and we’ve brought in the Children’s Society, which has more experience working with this group.

“At the start of the pandemic we launched a new programme for university offer holders, Prepare for HE, a group that had been ignored and were about to be leaving school. We launched a webinar series on how to work online. We thought there might be 30 or so people who’d get involved but over 300 organisations joined in.

“There has been progress in wider participation at universities – probably one of the few areas where there is evidence of greater social mobility. One of the things that Brightside would like to see come out of this is that we, as a society, recognise the importance of mentoring and building social capital alongside attainment.”

Pigott’s role at Brightside has also brought her closer to ICAS. She joined the Charities Panel in 2018 and helped to explore the CA’s role in charity impact reports. This brings her back to the power of mentoring.

“Colin Kerr, who is Chair of the ICAS Charities Panel, has been a mentor to me and incredibly supportive,” she says. “Being on the panel means I’m involved with important policy issues. ICAS provides useful guidance for members who work with charities.”

There has perhaps never been a more important time for the financial industry to support the charity sector. Reflecting on how her role is having an impact beyond Brightside, Pigott concludes: “It has been an incredible experience for me. But it has also been an opportunity for me to learn and to give back to my industry.”