We might never have seen anything like this; I’ve certainly never lived through anything quite like it. But others have. Those people hit by famine, earthquakes and tsunamis, those in Syria bombed and besieged by their own government, refugees threatened at home and on the road; people across the world fleeing conflict or those living in the Congo under endless civil wars; communities surrounded by Ebola. These people have faced all our challenges and more, often with less support and fewer resources. Having led organisations affected by and responding to these crises, as well as some internal ones that threatened the organisations and their staff in very different but still profound ways, are there any lessons about leading in such circumstances that might help others?
Every organisation, charity, business, government is going to be affected in a different way and will have a different capacity to respond and to cope. But we all know that no organisation will be unaffected and I think there are some issues that all leaders would do well to consider.
First and foremost, we need to think of every challenge, dilemma and opportunity from three perspectives: that of the people we exist to serve, our staff’s well being and morale, and our organisation’s health and resilience.
Taking these in turn:
The people who we exist to serve. What can we do to help or to reduce harm to our own “client group”? We can’t continue business as usual but can we adapt our skills and learning to new circumstances? We need to think of the most vulnerable people we exist to help, and really think through what we can do to help them. We were all slow to do so in responding to Ebola, but when we did, many of the long-standing lessons on working with communities were relevant and valuable. Many of our organisations found creative ways of working with communities isolated by war in Syria or education to children in places far away from schools.
Can we support more self-organisation, getting much needed resources to local people, supporting and trusting them to do the right thing without our usual level of oversight? We must go the extra mile not just to refer the people who we can’t help to other organisations who might help them, but to ourselves build the linkages and partnerships to make life easier and the support more seamless.
Our staff’s well-being and morale. There are many things we can’t control, but some that we can and must. The assurances we can offer, the support we make available, the way we communicate; these will all make a huge difference to the way our staff and volunteers feel. Many will be isolated, confined or worried in terms of their own health , their future finances and employment and the people they care about and work for. They will also be worrying about the cause they work for.
As we can’t meet face to face, leaders need to think harder about how they communicate regularly and sensitively. Connectivity is really important. Video works well- both live and recorded. Film quality is less important than the tone of voice and the sensitivity of the message which need to carefully balance gravity, clarity, positivity and realism. It’s worth testing messaging on a trusted advisor before recording or sending out as I know how damaging an inadvertent slip can be. Where giving specific messages around jobs, expectations or the future it’s important to back up the spoken word with something in writing that gives the detail. As those of us listening to the UK Prime Minister on Monday night would testify, we can all interpret the same message in our own way.
Creating opportunities for staff and volunteers to ask questions - when leaders can be open and honest that they don’t have all the answers - space to offer suggestions and to share and support each other, are as important as the formal messaging. Staff need to trust us at the best of times; doubly so when the going is hardest.
Where we can offer assurances around employment status we should, even if it is time-bound or conditional on things not getting worse. We must be honest and often can’t give guarantees, but we can be transparent about our approach, efforts and intent.
Our organisations long term strength and resilience. None of our organisations will be the same in 2021 as they were in 2019. Changes are always afoot on many fronts, and COVID will accelerate, add to or even supersede many of them. Trustees, CEOs and directors have a duty of stewardship to ensure the organisation is passed on better-equipped to deliver its mission than it was when we inherited it. This is an even harder task than usual in the current circumstances, which is why we need to be more explicit in our thinking.
Once we have taken immediate steps to protect our staff and clients, this means looking at the long term. Our clients will have been affected and we need to look look early on at how we may adapt, add and better meet these changing needs as we begin to emerge from this phase of the emergency in a few months time. Most of us won’t have new money, and many, especially those dependent on public giving, trading or fundraisers and events, will have lost a lot. I’d suggest three elements to consider a part of an approach to financial sustainability.
- What choices do you need to make if your income is going to be down? Trimming and freezing can go so far, but only so far. They are worth doing and maybe sufficient when cuts are a few percent. But when they are going to be bigger, an overly even handed approach is damaging to everyone and everything you do. Leaders need to make hard choices on what to stop, whether temporarily or permanently. Wise teams will be working on this in April, even if it isn’t right to make final decisions until the timelines and outcomes are clearer. I’ve personally got this wrong many times, and always by not being ruthless enough. Just cutting enough to get by might minimise the immediate pain but leaves you vulnerable, lacking in confidence with no margin for error or opportunity for investment where it might be most needed. It’s too easy to be overly optimistic. Staff affected will never thank you either way, but those who remain will lose all confidence if you have to go for a second round of cuts.
- Explore the future with donors. Some trusts and foundations have positively led the way in converting restricted grants or contracts into unrestricted income to the charity. We need to have this kind of dialogue with all donors. You can’t help people in the long run if you run one valuable programme as the organisation’s foundations are crumbling. Be open and evidence the reality, share the challenge, jointly explore your plans for the future as you make them and ask donors who believe in you to join you on that journey.
- Use your reserves wisely. It is crises like today’s that reserves are meant for. Look at a three year timeline. You can often make better and less damaging choices as to how to balance the books by releasing some reserves, and making responsible decisions including investments, with choices and milestones to ensure rebuilding over time.
Invest to save? There is one action that is relevant to all three sets of stakeholders I’ve been describing; one that might appear counterintuitive to some. Is there something extra you can do to respond at this terrible time to the needs of those at risk or who you exist to serve? Ideally this will be immediate, but given just how constrained we all are, it may have to be as we move into the rebuilding and recovery phase.
This ambition might be valuable even if it means finding funds that already feel overstretched or even don’t seem to exist. It’s obvious how this stretch benefits clients, but it also makes a huge difference to staff. They work for our organisations because they care, and if they can do something extra or even if their organisation can, they will be positive and proud. It might not yet be obvious what the new activity is, but your staff may well have ideas. Get as many people involved as you safely and appropriately can and make sure you communicate sensitively and clearly. None of us want to be spectators when something painful is happening around us. Finding ways to help will leave everyone involved feeling better and strengthen your organisation’s relevance in the long run. And who knows, you may unearth the next big idea that all that strategic planning hasn’t.
In conclusion, if leaders are considering clients, staff and the organisation in everything they say and do, beginning to think about the long term even as they respond to the immediate pressures of the short, and communicating regularly and creatively, they will be serving their cause well in these difficult times. Many of the people who have inspired me most are those who have struggled through suffering, obstacles and challenges even more extreme than we now face. We need must draw the lessons from and retain our commitment to people like them as we lead our organisations forward.
Mark Goldring is a former CEO of Oxfam, Mencap and VSO, now working as a mentor and consultant.
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