My AAW partner Imogen calls the point we have reached in this crisis, “the Midway”. Whether we are actually half way through this time will tell, I suspect it might be more a case of the “end of the beginning” to quote our Prime Minister’s principal hero (whom apart from their both being the despair of their public schools, he in no way resembles).
But wherever we actually are in the trajectory of this thing, there’s no doubt we have arrived at a new phase. The immediate shock has faded, crisis responses have kicked in and a huge amount of rapid readjustment has happened in a very short period of time. With the dust settling a bit and much more of a sense of what the future of living with COVID-19 emerging, organisations and individuals are now at the stage of asking, what next?
I have some bad news. Because while responding to the immediate emergency was immensely stressful and challenging, greatly exacerbated by the enormous strains of doing all of this under lockdown conditions and the huge pressures this has put on so many of us, that actually was the easy bit.
For make no mistake, there are some quite enormous challenges ahead for charities. COVID-19 can be viewed as a massive exercise in stress testing for every part of our society and our sector is no exception. The business models of many, many charities were already under strain. Income was too concentrated in too few areas, fundraising returns were diminishing, cost bases were rising. The expectations of service users and donors, the demands of regulators were all rising. And while many could see the need for change, existing skill bases, systems, structures, cultures and attitudes were all preventing it happening fast enough.
The crisis has ruthlessly exposed these fissures. Change is now not something that needs to be the objective of long term strategy but a question of survival.
And now, when everyone is exhausted by the stress of dealing with the immediate crisis, the urgent need now is to plan and organise what the future looks like.
So how to approach this mammoth task? The first, most important thing is to give yourselves thinking time. Although change is urgent, it is still essential to think it through clearly and thoroughly. Space needs to be created to allow this to happen which means operational tasks must be delegated or delayed. All leadership including trustee boards needs to understand this and prioritise the planning over their usual reporting and budgeting requirements. You may need additional short-term resources to support you.
This time needs to be spent creating a clear and concrete vision of where you need to get to as a charity, what the new organisation looks like and what its operating model is going to be. This needs to be supported by a realistic path to get there, that identifies what needs to be done and in what order.
One of the hardest parts of this will be to simultaneously run the day to day business while planning for radical change. You will need to create a change team with the time and resources to produce the detailed thinking and planning. They will have to be empowered to make important decisions at pace for this to work.
The advantage of a crisis like this is that it makes the case for change in a way nothing else can. But it’s still essential to ensure that everyone in the organisation does understand why the scale an scope of the transformation is necessary. Clear and consistent messaging, regularly repeated will have to support the change process. Not everyone will support or buy in to the change probably, but even those who don’t need to understand why it is happening and what it means for them. You cannot over-communicate this.
I believe that there are huge opportunities for charities who can recreate themselves for the post COVID world. There is the prospect of organisations who are more effective in the delivery of their mission with more robust, diversified business models based on strong partnerships with their supporters and funders. With motivated, skilled staff and volunteers working flexibly using modern technologies and approaches. This crisis in some ways enables the necessary changes to be more ambitious and to be made faster.
Now is the time to be planning and making these changes. It’s a big ask for tired leaders and teams facing lots of other challenges in their lives. But you can do this.