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  • Writer's pictureDavid Cope

Building a bridge back to normality

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

For most of us who work in and around the 'for purpose' sector in the UK, uncertainty is second nature to us. Then along comes Covid-19 and our worlds are completely turned upside down. While everyone sort of knew a pandemic was a major risk, this shock has highlighted how unprepared many of us really were. So, is it even worth thinking about the future? Most emphatically 'yes' is the answer.


I am an optimist, I believe that the world can be a better place and with the right amount of effort and skill, it will be a better place. Everyone I meet who works in charities, the public sector and mission-led businesses seems to share this optimism. We wouldn't do this if we didn't believe we could make a difference. And actually, our collective track record speaks for itself, things do get better, we do make an impact, change happens as a result of our efforts.

But many of us will have thrown most of our plans for the coming months out of the window and will be frantically working out what to do instead.

  • For some of us, our expected income might look far less dependable (for example, the London Marathon, which raises around £66m for good causes has been postponed for six months),

  • others will probably see a large spike in need over the coming months (for example, food banks are starting to report a surge in demand, just at the same time as supplies are becoming less),

  • there will be more who are finding their normal activity is heavily disrupted because of the restrictions placed on all of us (for example, Goodgym has cancelled most of its normal activities and has instead created a completely new programme of activity that still aims to help those in most need).

We're an adaptable lot and throw ourselves into a challenge, which is great. But I'm arguing that we need to do more in order to deal with this particular challenge. We need to make sure that we don't lose many of the brilliant organisations in our sector over the coming months. We need to make sure that we still deliver positive impact during a period when the normal rules don't seem to apply. And we need to try to come out of this crisis (and there will be an end to this crisis) in a better shape.

Surviving coronavirus

There's no getting away from it, the next few months are going to be hard for all of us. Just at a very personal level, it is going to be hard, stressful and if you or your loved ones become ill, exceptionally worrying. This isn't a health blog, but please, please, please follow all the official public health advice that is out there.

Once you've satisfied yourself that you're doing everything right by the health and wellbeing of yourself, your staff and your volunteers, think about your cash-flow. How much free cash do you have at the bank, what do you expect your incoming receipts are likely to be, and what expenditure is expected to go out. Delay expenditure if you can, and make sure you submit invoices (and chase for payment!) for income that you are expecting. Work through a couple of scenarios, a 'best case' and 'worst case' scenario - how long can you survive before you become insolvent?

You may have investments that are suffering too, the main stock markets have fallen by around a third since the start of 2020. This might affect loans too if you've used your portfolio to help secure debt. Definitely speak with your financial and investment advisers. Speak with your Board of Trustees/Directors, your bank manager, accountants, make contact with your funders and discuss your scenarios. This is not the time to hide from unpalatable truths, but it is a time to confront them. Everyone will want you to survive and each of these conversations may lead to a new idea on how best to do so.

At the time of writing, the UK government has not put in place any specific packages aimed at supporting the charity and voluntary sector. However, there are some schemes in place that will be helpful. For example, the government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will help you cover salary costs if you would otherwise have needed to lay off staff. And depending on how you are constituted, the other current support arrangements might be applicable to you.

The Scottish government and NI government have launched some support arrangements for charities and their beneficiaries. The charitable funding community has also stepped up to the mark incredibly quickly to help. There are too many to list (and the they are getting updated all the time), but there are some good emergency funds being launched, many funders are relaxing their funding restrictions and also lobbying government to step in. A good place to keep up to date with these actions is the Association of Charitable Foundations website.

Keep on delivering impact

Doing good feels good, and if ever there was a time when we needed a boost, it is now. So purposeful organisations across the country are not only delivering benefits to people and society out there, but also giving their staff and volunteers something positive to focus on.

I can imagine that there are three general situations that purposeful organisations might be facing:

  1. Things are a bit disrupted because of various restrictions and worries, but there is still the same need for services and you're still able to deliver them with a few modifications,

  2. Delivering services in the same way you've done before has become impossible because of the restrictions, but there's still broadly the same need out there, and

  3. The needs of your beneficiaries has changed or increased massively and it just isn't possible to provide services to them in the same way as a result.

All these mean that you're going to have to make some changes, modifying your hours of operation, changing rotas, giving new instructions to staff and volunteers, changing suppliers, stopping some programmes and starting others etc. etc. It might be simple to spot the things you've got to change, but given this is a new situation and a new reality, I suggest that you use a structured thinking approach to make sure you've not missed something.

I expect most of you will have produced a theory of change at some point. It is sometimes a tool used (misused?) to justify the delivery method that you want to apply, but it is an absolutely vital tool for looking at how you can create the impact you want to achieve, and challenge yourself on different ways of achieving it.

NCVO have opened up their KnowHow website to non-members during the coronavirus crisis exactly for this reason - to help you find new ways of delivering impact during this very difficult period. Here is the link to their pages on theory of change.

Making changes to your operations, however temporary, is a risky business. And so it is worth doing a few things formally at this point. Update your risk register. Write down the changes you are making and seek your Board's approval for the changes (perhaps give the new arrangements an expiry or review date a few months into the future). Check if you need to change the way you collect impact data so that you can evaluate how effective the changes are that you're making. Inform your funders, beneficiaries and other stakeholders that you're making the changes, and explain why.

Emerging from the crisis fit for the future

At this point in the coronavirus crisis, you might say it is too soon to think about life after the virus. It is less than four months since the first case (of an unknown virus at the time) was detected in China and less than two months since the UK had its first cases. There are at least several more months to go until we are past the peak of infection and perhaps a year or more away from a usable vaccine.

But as soon as you're able to, it is very sensible to start planning for the future. For two reasons:

  • Firstly, if this goes on a long time, you can't keep going in crisis response mode forever. You will need to move into a regular rhythm again as soon as you can. You'll need to start budgeting and preparing for your next financial year, which might start before the global crisis is over.

  • Secondly, while this is a very difficult time, it is also a moment for innovation and for the best organisations to double down on their purpose in the most meaningful way possible. While you are innovating and focusing on your beneficiaries, you will discover new things that will help you be even better in the future. Be prepared for these discoveries and build them into your plans for the future.

Again, the NCVO KnowHow site has some great tools to help with strategy planning. Use these tools to help you think into the longer term, and keep on updating your plans as the facts around us change.

Get on the bridge

These are tough times for our sector, there is uncertainty everywhere we look. But purposeful organisations are well equipped to find ways to make a positive impact in all sorts of difficult circumstances. This blog encourages you to have confidence in the future, and to proactively make plans and take action to allow you to keep on delivering your purpose.

If you feel like you need a helping hand with navigating your way through this crisis, that's exactly what I set up 600 strategy for. I've signed up to volunteer my time as part of #CrisisConnections on LinkedIn and for larger engagements, I am very happy to discuss discounted rates during this difficult period. Just get in touch and we can start a conversation.


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