In April, Eastside Primetimers extended an emergency pro bono support offer to charities and social enterprises in response to the sudden resource, funding and demand pressures that so many faced due to COVID-19. We have helped a total of 32, most of them sub-£1m organisations of the kind that have been celebrated this week for Small Charity Week. I write today to share some of our findings and reflections from our work with them.
Organisations contacting us received an immediate call from an experienced adviser, followed by a range of pro bono consultancy support. The challenges they were facing varied widely depending on income sources, client groups, delivery location, the extent of their reliance on volunteers, technology, and their institutional capacity to adapt. Unsurprisingly, financial threats – such as the loss of significant income streams or insufficient cash flow – were the main concern reported (68%), with trading-based charities or social enterprises often faring worst.
This was followed by those moving to new ways of working, in terms of service redesigns or digital delivery (34%). Our advisers found that many of these organisations were seeing opportunities to adapt, but felt they lacked the skills to progress with these or found it particularly challenging given the nature of their work. For example, we helped a dementia charity weigh up what systems could be rolled out quickly and practically for their older beneficiaries, as they sought to maintain vital familiarity and prevent isolation.
Harder to measure of course is the human toll this crisis has had on charity leaders – some of our advisers spoke of people on the phone in tears.
What have we learnt and what should we be asking ourselves now?
We now expect the greatest threat to social sector organisations will fall towards the end of 2020, as many are currently benefiting from funders and statutory bodies demonstrating flexibility and changing terms to enable charities to meet immediate cash needs.
Planning for the third and fourth quarters of the year, as lockdown eases or ends, is now essential. Charities will incur reactivation and re-engagement costs, with many new challenges to be identified and met. Organisations will need to be still more adaptable, even looking to new opportunities that the situation may present – many have repurposed their offer or reshaped their services. We should be looking at these and asking ourselves what examples of adaptation we can learn from. We have seen some great examples, ranging from online youth events to doorstep support. There’s a lot we can learn from how organisations across the sector and more widely have adjusted.
Many have adapted by delivering services virtually, and whilst there is acknowledgement that some of these changes are a holding operation, there may be parts that we should keep. We need to take care to separate the elements of virtual that we want to retain from those that are best done face to face, doing what is right for beneficiaries, not what is expedient.
The kinds of technology that charities have experimented with can also make it easier for people who use their services to get involved and provide quicker feedback to charities, enabling creative conversations. How can we continue to use tech platforms to increase the quality, quantity and dynamism of our community engagement?
Where next for business continuity planning? We found that more are undertaking scenario planning, as they seek to grapple with the many uncertainties of what life might look like – there are some useful tools for this, such as the business model canvas. Some charities we worked with are also incorporating lessons from this extreme period into their general business continuity plans (e.g. how to cover for staff absences or emergency relocations in future).
Will the impact the crisis has had on trading-based charities and enterprises may make the sector more culturally adverse to earned income? In the long term, the same constraints on public funding that led to calls for diversification in the 2010s will still be a reality for the sector to face, and planning must consider this. Greater collaboration could also help the sector to leverage diminished resources, maximise social impact and perhaps share institutional learning from the past few months.
What does the ‘new normal’ mean for the skills and experience we need on our trustee boards, and/or for their appetite for risk? In the conversations we had, we were struck by how variable trustee engagement or capability has been. In one case, a trustee was able to help their organisation revisit finance projections. In others, trustees were found to be unavailable, inexperienced or held things up through risk aversion, in an environment where dynamism has been more crucial than ever.
Finally, we supported a number of BAME community organisations through the programme. The differential impacts of COVID-19 on these communities and their support organisations warrants a blog in itself, but we know that many have existed for years with insufficient resources and could benefit from greater links to support networks. How can we create a level playing field for BAME groups?
Small charities are not yet out of the woods, and as the lockdown loosens, managers and boards must shift decisively away from reaction and towards forward planning. The service innovations we have seen represent a start to this, and are a testament to the dedication of the people working in them. But charity leaders need the headspace and the right support to undertake planning and acquire new skills for the next stage of recovery.
Bernice Rook is Director of Membership & Recruitment at Eastside Primetimers. This blog also draws on the insights of some of our member consultants who worked on the Business Support Scheme