Moving beyond the pandemic in practice
It’s been a testing time for UK charities in recent months and there is still a way to go for many when it comes to fully resuming pre-Covid levels of service. As guidelines around the restriction of movement and government support for employees in the private, public and charity sectors begin to ease, the focus now lies on how best to the bridge the gap between the lockdown environment and a return to some kind of normal life.
It is certainly something we are addressing here at Empire Fighting Chance, which offers non-contact boxing courses, mentoring and therapy to young people in the South West of England and South Wales.
So, where the quest for organisational survival has been conquered, what practical next steps should charities in the UK be looking to take in order to thrive from here?
Back to basics
It is a business lesson well learned that, when times are hard, keeping things simple is key - and it’s an approach charities nationwide will do well to bear in mind in the coming weeks, months and possibly years.
Keeping the mission tight and resisting temptation to diversify or branch out beyond usual core services in response to an ever-changing environment is set to prove more pertinent than ever in navigating the post-Covid world. Here during the lockdown period, we grew used to reminding the Empire Fighting Chance team just why our charity exists and why we do what we do, and I’m sure we were not the only charity management to do this.
The corporate world which once I inhabited (I was a business analyst for over 25 years) taught me to focus on the core products, values and services of an organisation in times of hardship. In the charity sector this means not pivoting into new areas, not finding things to do which simply “make us feel useful”, and fighting that urge we all have to save the world and just concentrate - for the time being at least - on what we know we’re good at.
Short term fixes
It’s worth remembering, as the world starts turning once again, any revised service provision doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be up and running. It’s perfectly acceptable in my experience, and given the current circumstances, to be consistently reviewing systems and processes, and monitoring and refining them day by day, step by step.
To be 80% of the way there and figure out the remaining 20% once your doors are open again is highly typical of the business world where new products and lines are launched, and this approach can no doubt work well in the charity sector too.
It is an ethos which has helped us continue providing our charity’s services throughout the pandemic, for example, and also helped us resist the call to furlough staff too. Small changes to help simplify service delivery timetables, reporting processes and staff management structures can have a much bigger impact in the long run than often we realise. Look at what can be done here and how to support the return of services, in whatever form, and the rest will undoubtedly follow.
It may seem obvious, but against an ever-fluctuating landscape the need to be open and maintain communications with service users, funders, staff and other stakeholders is going to be more important than ever throughout 2020 and beyond. Social media channels should be constantly updated, marketing activities need to correlate directly with the organisational objectives of the day, and personal relationships must be maintained now more than ever.
Keeping your messaging and ongoing commitment to the cause clear, concise and consistent is the only way to pull ourselves together and get through this thing. At EFC we’ve also tried to break hierarchy groups down further in recent months to create smaller supervisory groups and, in doing so, provide closer pastoral care to help keep staff and service users focused and engaged, even from a distance.
This is something all charities have the capacity to do, and at fairly short notice, by simply reviewing existing systems and adjusting the structure at hand accordingly. Even the smallest amendments can have a big effect on retaining engagement amongst all audiences.
Our voice has also been loud publicly during the pandemic, with one Radio 5 interview in particular attracting donations from various sources UK-wide. Talking openly about what we are able to do as charities in the current climate is extremely important. During the last few months, I often heard people state things are not as good as before but, given the circumstances, that is to be expected. Ask yourself is what we are doing good enough? This is a time when perspective is important, focus on the shortfalls internally and start to fix, but keep perspective.
Drawing on our relationships as charities with fellow community groups and private sector businesses aligned with our causes, I believe, is also going to bring us all the added power we need in the coming months and years. Positioning and identifying charitable services as including benefit for all these other parties (as so many do) is going to play a crucial role in our ultimate success.
It can be tempting to turn to what we know at a time like this, and to invest in ‘known expertise’ at a point where we might feel like we need it the most, but openly recruiting plays a hugely important role in moving any organisation forward too.
Private sector resources
If the structure of your charity is changing as a result of the pandemic or other pressures, and you find yourself in need of alternative skill sets in order to get you through, don’t be afraid to look towards the private sector for inspiration and support. It’s a sign of the times that many people will undoubtedly be re-evaluating their current circumstances, including those in high-calibre corporate environments who might not be happy in their current role or have simply have realised the benefits financially and otherwise of working closer to home, for example.
The charity sector has a lot to gain from this provided its eyes, ears and hearts stay open to the possibilities involved. Offering employees flexible working conditions and autonomy in fulfilling their responsibilities to the wider organization, without the need to clock in and out, is otherwise essential for everyone involved to reap the benefits on offer.
Done well, it can result in an innovative, dynamic style of working which the majority of charities in the UK right now have no choice but to adopt, and quickly, in order to survive the challenges brought about by the outbreak of Covid-19.
It is a fact of life that most organisations become inefficient over time. People become autonomous and for all the right reasons try and implement different working practices. In my experience, these drifts get larger as people concentrate on their tasks and not what it means for the process in its entirety.
Charities especially cannot afford to carry wasteful processes as it can mean we are failing to help those who need it or are deploying valuable and often scarce resources elsewhere – and, let’s face it, we will be needed more than ever. Exploring the necessity of every step we take as individuals and teams working towards a common cause is going to be crucial for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes inefficiency is unavoidable but acknowledging where these areas are can mean improved productivity elsewhere. It’s easy in any organisation to feel people being busy and things getting done mean you are operating optimally and efficiently, but this isn’t always the case. Empower people to be critical and question processes.
It’s important not to assume that just because something is always done a certain way that it’s the right way for it to get done. Using any data and metrics that might be available to ensure key areas aren’t over-staffed is a good place to start, so that staffing overall can be loaded around front-line services wherever possible.
We also need to remember that all of the approaches which have been outlined here are not one-time processes but exercises which will need to be constantly revisited and explored at regular intervals in the coming weeks, months and years.
As the rules around the way we live our lives continue to shape and shift, so too must our attitudes to the delivery of services which a vast majority of the country is relying on us to deliver, more so now than ever before.
As charities, we need to do what we can to stay open to the possibilities before us, to the support available to us, to the probability that this thing isn’t going to go away overnight - and that we will likely need to operate reactively for a long time to come.
Because, above all, we need to stay open.