Coming out stronger

Coming out stronger - sThe future belongs to those who innovate…

I’ve spent much of last three weeks in on-to-one support calls, virtual roundtables and webinars for organisations, CEO groups and trade associations. And from all those conversations, three dominant challenges have come out, again and again.

The first is the financial outlook. As of 9th April, the UK Chancellor has put aside £750m for charity funding, which is around two weeks’ worth based on the burn-rate NCVO calculated is happening across the sector during this lockdown period. For some charities that money will be a lifeline when it arrives, for others, it will make no difference; their options will remain: use up reserves, close services and furlough staff or, for the few that can access it, the CBILS scheme.

What I can give, for what it’s worth, are three generic bits of advice: try and pull forward as much income as you can; reduce and delay your outgoings as much as possible; and cut your costs very quickly but, above all, thoughtfully, because…

The second challenge is relationships.

At the top of that list are staff and beneficiaries. We’re used to putting the needs of beneficiaries and service users above all else, but right now, employees and volunteers are as least as big a priority. For the ones that are working, keeping them safe and sane; and the ones that are furloughed and in isolation, keeping them supported and engaged.

Nobody will come through this emotionally unscathed. Whether retained or furloughed, your people will need your support more than they’ve ever done, whether they know it yet or not.

But below the staff and beneficiaries is another tier of relationships that will be increasingly important: your customers and commissioners, your suppliers and collaboration partners. These are the relationships that will be forged or fractured, this is when you’ll find out who these organisations really are, as they will with you.

It’s the combination of all those relationships that will enable or constrain your ability to adapt to the present, and how viable, capable and effective you will be as an organisation once we come out the other side.

And that’s the third challenge: how do we come out of this; what is our strategy for what could be months of uncertainty, followed by a future that might look very different to the past?

Be under no illusion, this will be a marathon not a sprint, and the second half of this year, and indeed, 2021, may feel very different to 2019. When restrictions are lifted, they will almost certainly be in phases. The lockdown isn’t there to eradicate the virus, just to flatten the curve – governments simply can’t afford to go a day longer than they have to.

So, when it ends, thousands of people will still be infectious, the NHS will still be running close to the ragged edge, physical distancing will still be “a thing”, the media will still be sensationalising, the government will have an even bigger mountain of debt but still a constant need to monitor and react, and people will still be scared: of a second wave, of what happens in the flu season if a vaccine hasn’t been approved, of whether they’ll be able to get a job, restart their business, and so on.

The uncertainties our sector has experienced in the last few weeks, the fluidity of the situation, the financial pressures, the waiting for announcements, and the constant need to react and respond; to move at a pace we’ve never had to before. All of those things will be with us far longer than we’d like to think, and right now, we all need to start rapidly adapting to this new, uncertain “normal”; to find ways to work sustainably, the time to talk strategically, and the space to think differently, about what we do, how we do it, and what needs to change.

Because change, and its driving force, innovation, will be the single most important factor in how well organisations come out of this.

Whether we look to the ’08 financial crisis, the dot-com bubble or the long recession of the early ‘90s, whenever we’ve been through a big disruption, it’s always the innovators, the agile, those who were fastest to adapt to the new normal, who came out in the best shape. Because in uncertain times, adaptability is prerequisite, innovation is essential, and great ideas invariably stick.

I can’t imagine any of the organisations who’ve rolled out home working and video conferencing at lightning speed will pull the plug on all that stuff once this is over. Nobody will be desperately uninstalling Teams over the summer. The best solutions in this crisis, just like the best relationships, the best partnerships and the best new operating models, will lock in for the longer term and pay dividends wherever they work.

To survive, charities will need to lift their heads, to find and harness new solutions, to tear through or tear up their plans and budgets and redirect their effort and investment into solving these new problems, in innovative, collaborative, sustainable ways.

Over the next few weeks, across the country, there will be no shortage of organisations who go into hibernation, batten down the hatches and tie up in a safe harbour, hoping this will all blow over and normality will quickly return. Personally, I don’t think it will, at least not for a long time.

There will be others out there in the turbulent and tempestuous sea, still doing their work and battling through the storm, but not fundamentally rethinking what they do or how they do it. Many of them will come through, I hope, albeit undoubtedly depleted, battered and bruised.

But there will also be innovators, out there in the surf, right now riding the waves of change. They’re the ones who will keep their momentum, who will stay and beat the course, by finding solutions for the challenges of today that will springboard them through tomorrow.

They are the ones who will finish this marathon faster and in better shape than they started out.

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