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Leigh Carey CEO of the Hummingbird Project in conversation with the Young Foundation – challenges and opportunities

Leigh Carey CEO of the Hummingbird Project in conversation with the Young Foundation – challenges and opportunities


Leigh Carey, CEO of The Hummingbird Project in conversation with Ajeet Jugnauth of the Young Foundation as part of its BOOST “In Conversation” series. The BOOST programme is part of the Inclusive Economy Partnership whose mission is to unleash potential through a new partnership model between business, civil society and government; one that enriches lives to build a more inclusive society. The BOOST programme aims to support organisations with proven solutions to some of the UK’s current social challenges.

The programme is delivered by The Young Foundation, Cabinet Office, Department of Culture, Media and Sport, The Conduit Club and Conduit Connect as part of the Inclusive Economy Partnership. Find out more here

The Hummingbird Project CEO, Leigh Carey has a conversation with the Young Foundation about challenges and opportunities the social enterprise has faced in its five year period.

The following is a transcript of the interview in which Leigh talks about opportunities and new approaches to revolutionise mental health services and, through early intervention strategies, avert crises and save lives.


Ajeet: Leigh, first question. Has the stigma around mental health gone?

Leigh: Covid has brought a great opportunity to decrease stigma, because everybody recognises the last year, 18 months, has been very difficult for people and people who never experienced poor mental health or anxiety or stress before, are suddenly feeling it.

I think, however, there is still stigma around the people providing access because there is a concern about putting their staff, service users, participants in a frame where they talk about their mental health because they think it will scare them.  

But that’s not the case, so I think there’s still a way to go for people to recognise that actually, talking about mental ill health is OK. Nobody’s going to runaway and I think that the general public are ready to have that conversation now.

We’ve always worked throughout the full spectrum of mental health and receive referrals for people who are really struggling; those who have a mental health diagnosis, right up to people who may be in suicidal crisis.

Our values and aims are to try and up the level of conversation, to give people the words, the tools, the skills to look after themselves in the same way they look after their physical health.

Early intervention

Essentially, what we want to do is do ourselves out of a job. We don’t believe that only responding to people, once they become unwell, is necessarily the right answer so we do a range of programmes, from group to online with employers to try and keep people well in the first place.

We want to encourage people to reach out for help earlier so that there isn’t this bottleneck of mental ill health only being discussed and worked upon whenever it’s too late.

Five years ago I wanted to create social change. I wanted to do better in the mental health field. I didn’t want to be a CEO but very quickly realised that to achieve that ambition, I was going to have to do it.

Certainly, in the first couple of years where I was doing this role self-funded and part time, trying to figure out new and innovative things to do and how to get other people on board, that was challenging for me personally.

I think everybody recognises here that the entrepreneur’s journey can be quite lonely and certainly I felt that I could make a change in my subject matter, but I didn’t have the experience of running a business before.

I found that very challenging and yet I knew that, I had to just gain those skills which is why programmes like BOOST and all the other kind of amplifier programmes I have been part of, have been such a huge support to my own personal journey.

A new model

I think the other difficulty is that whenever you’re providing something innovative like early intervention and prevention, particularly with a new model of working (because we don’t work as counsellors, we’re recovery and resilience mentors); I think the difficulty in those first few years, is going to funders or commissioners and trying to persuade them that change is good.

It’s really interesting because they recognise mental health, as a theme, is important but then they revert into safe mode so those first five years of The Hummingbird Project was about doing what we do really well and showing our impact but it was a bit of a slog.

I think we’re definitely getting there. Those are just some of the highlights. I suppose there are some really tangible points along our journey. After two years, we got our first office. The other day, I got a phone call from our landlord to say he was just doing the three year review of our tennancy.

You know things like that make it feel very real for you; that this is actually happening. One of the biggest successes we had around the time was being chosen as a partner of PWC.

Partnership working

PWC obviously has huge fundraising power. Every year it usually holds a Charity of the Year event and gives a cheque at the end. This time they wanted to change to having real time measurement impact to boost the fundraising power they had.

We were chosen out of lots of different mental health organisations which was incredible because they recognised we wanted to do things differently; to be accountable, proactive and measurable.

When I look back three years, to the size we were at that time, I’m still not quite sure how we ended up where we are now but we did! We have a bigger, better long term partnership that has really elevated the organisation and our ability to create impact.

I suppose the fact that we’re still here after Covid is a highlight. That first week was pretty scary because nobody knew what was going to happen. The only thing we knew above all else is that we could not close because many of the people relying on our services needed us the most during this time.

So it was about adapting, pivoting and thriving. Luckily, I think funders and people were really more open than they’ve ever been to saying “right what actually needs to happen here?” It was great to garner our strength and our passion to keep going and do what was right for the clients.

New normal

To be able to get through that and I must say being a part of the Boost programme last year was a huge support to us as we all figured out this new normal together.

I think this would have happened anyway, but particularly during a time of change, it was great in helping us figure out what we needed to do in real time and getting the support (that would have been there anyway) but became so very relevant during that time.

The different training workshops and networking opportunities were so important in being able to learn from all of the people you have at your disposal through the BOOST programme. To be able to speak to like minded individuals and funders was really important for me at that time.

I think the beauty of BOOST is its inclusivity so you have the government element, big business element and ourselves. Being a small organisation, it really helped connect us.

Social impact support

It amplified our voice about what was happening on the ground and enabled us to receive help, support and opportunities from big organisations who wanted to support social impact. It enabled things like marketing, access to tech equipment when we had to adapt and learn how to deliver online.

I think it’s really interesting as we move out of restrictions and lockdown – there is a realisation among commissioners, funders, service providers and communities this has had a big impact on people’s mental health.

Yet there is still a kind of slowness as to how we engage early and not just wait for people to become unwell.  I suppose it’s a system in change.

We’re hearing all the right noises recognising we need to do something, yet there’s still that kind of “well we’ll have another meeting about this in four weeks time” and that’s frustrating for an organisation like ours that genuinely can have much more impact in communities if we are not waiting for people to be referred because they are unwell.


That’s the frustration we keep having. I suppose all we can do is keep trying to influence those conversations. We don’t want to scare anybody or put anyone under pressure but each day, each week that passes creates greater difficulties for those suffering from mental ill health.  

If employers, schools and community organisations can engage by putting in place the skills, support and knowledge people need as they begin to realise they might be having difficulty; there’s so much more that can be done rather than waiting to present at a particular medical service.

It’s a long road back from there.

Because of the Pandemic, there is now huge recognition people have struggled and hopefully barriers around mental ill health and stigma should be removed. It shouldn’t be scary or invasive to say “we all recognise this has been tough for some, now let’s talk about it.”

The other thing of interest off the back of the last year and a half is how we grow our reach. We achieved that through technology, without losing our authenticity and impact.

Very often we see mental health messages being condensed down to public health statements and even though there is absolutely a place for those things, they are the same as “eat five a day.”

We recognise the need for nuance, to be individualistic, take into account peoples circumstances; what they can and can’t do. The challenge for us is to try and create access to that more conversational person centered approach but allow greater access to that.

Ajeet: Is that also about sort of creating the safe environment as well for those discussions to occur and how?

Yes. We did that as part of our pivoting last year. We created a forum style of online delivery. A lot of employers have used that brilliantly as a space for their staff to just talk about things that have impacted upon them.

We encourage them to think about what they have to keep well and what else they can also do.  The results have been amazing. These are not people who are off sick.


They may or may not have a diagnosed mental health condition. That’s not the point. The point is having people in positions of responsibility like employers and community leaders to say “this doesnt need to be a negative or stigmatised, it just needs to be a conversation.”

Here are people in our communities who can give some very simple authentic skills and techniques as to what you can do for yourself and this is not something to shy away from.

In terms of our business, I think now that we have hit that five year mark and have impact and measurement of the difference we make is great.

That’s the way we always wanted it to be. Now we are able to push conversations more towards people. Not doctors or nurses; the people who can beneift from what we do telling them we are here.

Major employers

We’ve had some amazing success with some big employers. We have worked with the Civil Service, with the Northern Ireland Office and it’s fabulous.

We want to harness the energy before everybody goes back to normal to take the opportunity to use this time to build our skills and just open up this conversation more.

Hopefully the opportunity here is for us to be able to reach people that won’t necessarily have prioritised emotional health for the people in their communities before.

I think that for mental health services both from the medical perspective and communities, it’s time for us to look at how we create a better, earlier system to allow people to get the support they need when they need it.

I hear all the time this “right person, right place, right time” kind of mantra about mental health but unfortunately, for lots of different reasons, that’s not the case.

So often we miss opportunities to save people’s lives and when you look back at how that happened, there were missed opportunities to help them.

Lived experience

As a sector, we really need to map out how that person ended up in that position and use our lived experience, both from our perspectives and our clients perspective, to close those gaps, so we don’t end up losing people.

I just think there is a massive opportunity here. Because of our social mission and our social values, throuhgout the Pandemic we found a way to stay connected; to continue doing the work we do.

OK we had to adapt, but that was easier being social rather than profit led. I think we need to shout from the rooftops we did that and stayed the course.

We now have a much more powerful voice to influence system change particularly looking at big challenges for government around poverty.

We say let’s get the social enterprise in the room because they’re on the ground working at the coal face, already solving some of these huge issues in our country.

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