Most of us are agreed that #anewnormal will have to emerge as a result of COVID-19. The rapid rupture and forced changes to our society, economy, and workplaces caused by the virus and lockdown is slowly giving way to a much more cautious approach when planning for the future.
The charity sector, like others, has had to adapt and respond immediately. There has been an increased and urgent focus and demand on front-line services. Charity staff have been furloughed, work practices (and places) adapted. The sector has called out to existing and potential new supporters for rapid financial help for the here and now.
This change wasn’t planned of course – it was immediate, forced and instinctive. Leaders have had to take clear control and this largely transactional and instructional leadership has been relentless and exhausting, even if welcomed by concerned and worried stakeholders. Many charities have had to deal with ‘Wicked Problems’ that don’t have clear or palatable solutions.
But as we start looking ahead to the future, recognising that what (and how much) charities do and how they go about doing it will need to change, what are the areas of adaptation that we need to be most aware of? What type of approach to change will work in the emerging post COVID-19 world? And, importantly, how might this affect our relationships and communications with key supporters and donors?
Traditional transformational change in charities has been based on having a keen sense of the internal and external factors at play. The standard SWOT and PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) tools serve to frame new strategy. The resultant change activities are then communicated to stakeholders by laying out a roadmap of organisational activities and timescales. Alongside the processes of change comes the cultural shift – in other words bringing ‘people and process’ together. Change is well thought through, well planned and tied to a keen understanding of all the factors at play. Stakeholders, donors and supporters are presented with a clear ‘Theory of Change’ – setting out how a charity will achieve impact and beneficial outcomes through its specific activities.
And now? COVID-19 has thrust massive uncertainties everywhere. Where on earth would you start with a PESTLE analysis? Throwing Brexit into the mix as well, the landscape is totally uncertain. With a growing realisation that a deep, L-shaped recession is to follow, we don’t yet know what role the state will want to play in tackling pressures on the economic, environmental, health and social inequalities that comes with economic downturns.
Charities will have the unenviable challenge of greater demand on their services with less resources. Painful and difficult decisions on service provision will hopefully be slightly tempered with new-found efficiencies. Adaptation and use of digital tools will undoubtedly play a vital role in a social distancing world. Charity stakeholders will want to hear how their organisation is going to change.
But how should charities deliver change in an environment full of uncertainties?
Lisa Turan, CEO of the Child Brain Injury Trust, is clear on the areas of focus over the next period; “Our strategy over the next two years is to preserve and build our strength around our purpose, our values and our people”. Lisa goes on; “We will need to have a much more open and flexible mind and be adaptable in response to uncontrollable situations. Above all, we need to recognise that all of us, including our partners and supporters, may be working at a different pace, so we need to work together and agree expectations in order to achieve our objectives.”
Having clear, honest and transparent communications with stakeholders will be more critical than ever. There may be challenges in being able to provide detail of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ you will deliver services – but the organisational case for support must still focus on your overall purpose and impact you want to make and how your organisational values and your main asset – your people – will guide your activities.
Donors and supporters have the opportunity to put their faith and trust in organisations to do the right thing according to the need, resources and landscape at that particular point in time. This will require charities taking a much more agile approach in their planning and in implementing change, delivering activity in bite size, next step chunks; being iterative and checking in on the current PESTLE landscape often.
Stephanie Wood, CEO of School Food Matters, is very clear on her ongoing relationships with her funders; “We will continue to build trust with our supporters, showing that we are nimble and responsive, and that we will continue to take a solutions-based approach to all our work.”
Charities have an opportunity to be bold in making the case for freer fundraising during these uncertain times and ask foundations, corporates and major donors for unrestricted funds that can be applied at pace; all whilst maintaining transparent and honest dialogue.
So many uncontrollable factors may force specific charitable activities on or off in an instant. Our sector’s supporters and donors are facing the same uncertain, at pace dilemmas and will appreciate the honesty and transparency of the sector as we all strive to build back a better society for all.