Within the charity landscape, the sands have fundamentally shifted beneath our feet making it hard to know how to navigate back to a more certain footing. We have been speculating for months about what a post-COVID world will look like, both at an individual and sector level. With the recent announcement of further restrictions easing, the reality of this new world is drawing ever closer, and steering our way around it is becoming an increasing priority. At an individual level, we can now make plans with friends and family, and even plan a stay-cation, freedoms which we have all missed and are excited to return. However, at an organisational level planning remains much more opaque, and decision making far more complicated.
Though many factors are at play, gathering intelligence at this time is key and can help decision makers in charities of all shapes and sizes make the best possible choices. As my colleagues Simon Dickson and Myles Bremner have pointed out in their recent blogs cross-organisational agility, flexibility and understanding how best to respond with limited resources have never been more critical for charity leaders. Knowledge really is power right now. That means doing some research.
The sort of research I’m talking about isn’t necessarily mega surveys encompassing the views of thousands of people, or interviewing your entire donor base. Smaller efforts can still yield fruitful findings. The key is to be clear about what you want to find out and what you will do with the information you gather. There are a number of different areas where more knowledge about the external environment could be really powerful in driving internal decision making right now.
One key area to have a grasp on is the general trends in the market that you are dependent on. For example what’s happening with legacies or individual giving? Are charities operating in the same causal area or in your region making redundancies? What are the threats and opportunities there? There are plenty of organisations out there doing lots of legwork on behalf of the sector to find out more about shifting attitudes and giving behaviours and keeping up with charity news, and subscribing to relevant newsletters and email updates is an easy but important step. This will ensure you are just as informed as your comparator charities about the market. Similarly, if you have warm relationships with comparator or competitor charities it might be worth picking up the phone to see how they are coping with things and preparing for change. This doesn’t need to be a wholescale case study exercise nor a deep dive into the minutiae of each other’s fundraising strategies! It could just be a chance to share success stories and headaches on response tactics such as team structure changes or internal communication strategies.
Now is also the perfect time to find out more about any new supporters who have joined your donor base during the pandemic. Multitudes of charities have run emergency appeals over the last few months, and the public have responded. Analysing new supporters’ data and approaching a sample of them to understand more about their motivation to donate during the pandemic could yield some usable intelligence for future campaigns, and ensure that you put these supporters on the right journey in order to keep them with you.
In a similar vein, it may be appropriate for charities to cast their net wider for support. This is particularly relevant if your case for support has now shifted. Prospect research is playing a critical role in planning for many charities at the moment, as they lay the groundwork for an autumn of making new asks of new funders. Preparing a pipeline of major donor, corporate or philanthropic fundraising activity will be integral to the plans of many charities, even if this have not been mainstays of income in the past. Again, this type of research can be as basic or sophisticated as different organisations require it to be, though some training or background in prospecting or training is advisable in order to be as effective as possible.
Looking internally within your organisation and scope of influence is really key right now too as charities take critical decisions about income and outgoings. Staying connected with beneficiaries directly and the intermediaries that charities work with has no doubt been taking place throughout the pandemic, and should continue. This won’t be applicable in all charities, but beneficiaries in some causal areas may have seen a shift in how they need to be supported as a consequence of the pandemic. The intelligence these most important of stakeholders will offer up, will enable charities to be agile and focused in their response.
Another essential group of internal stakeholders to be thinking about and responding to right now are your fundraisers, across the organisation from the shop floor to head office. The pandemic has imposed a whole new way of working for so many people, which may have provided the right environment for new fundraising ideas to be tried and tested. As an ancient Chinese proverb says ‘When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills’. Opportunities abound in the face of adversity. Charities I have spoken to have had their eyes opened to the opportunities of digital fundraising and virtual events and are already planning ways to capitalise on reaching new audiences through these routes, even when the world is back in the office. It is important that these ideas are heard, shared and scaled up.
Nothing in the charity sector remains static for long, particularly right now, and no one is naïve enough to suggest that it will be possible to develop a full picture of all aspects of internal and external factors in order to make perfect decisions. However, up-to-date, applicable intelligence on a prioritised list of topics should be the backbone of good decision making. Effectively utilising research to underpin choices will require a cohesive overview of operations and communication across and within teams to ensure focus and avoid duplication.
Equally, ensuring there is some time within relevant teams to focus on a mixture of desk research, surveys and good old fashioned chats on the phone (or indeed Zoom, Teams, Skype or Google Meet – take your pick!) is a really important way to deploy resources in the coming months. It won’t necessarily be easy or feel like an immediate priority, but doing the right type of research now will help shape informed strategy and day-to-day outcomes built on solid foundations, which will emerge once the sands have stopped shifting – at least in such unexpected ways.