Strategic thinking in the face of adversity

Many charities have shown inspiring levels of innovation and fortitude during the COVID-19 crisis. We reflect on some of the key factors that could help organisations build resilience and adapt for the future.

Fiona Gillespie, head of charities - Scotland

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly caused a myriad of difficulties and uncertainties for everyone, with almost all charities facing increasing demand for their services in extraordinary operational circumstances.

Given the immensely challenging conditions of these unprecedented times, we should all take the time to acknowledge the way charities have had to adapt.

The Charity Awards 2021, hosted by Civil Society Media, provided the ideal platform for charities to share their stories and celebrate their amazing work.

We are immensely proud to have sponsored these awards for the last three years and would like to congratulate this year’s winner of the Overall Award of Excellence, SeeAbility, for its work in supporting  children with special needs to access their right to eye care through the NHS.

We are also honoured to be sponsoring the Scottish Charity Awards taking place in October. These awards ceremonies provide a great opportunitiy to step back, reflect on and learn from the experiences of the past 18 months. In this edition of Charity Matters we speak to the three winners of The Rathbones COVID-19 Response Award about overcoming some of the challenges they’ve faced during the pandemic.

The winners – Just a Drop, London Funders and Touchstone – are very different organisations, but share some common characteristics that have enabled them to adapt quickly to changing needs, work differently and find new ways to engage with their beneficiaries and supporters.

Adaptability and forward thinking are not just for those on the ground, but are also key features at board level, epitomising strong governance and strategic thinking. And RSABI, who support the agricultural community across Scotland, is adapting to changing needs by taking an innovative approach to board diversity.

The art of listening

One characteristic shared by many resilient charities is the ability to truly listen to their communities and stakeholders, recognise and understand their needs, and innovate quickly in response.

"One characteristic shared by many resilient charities is the ability to truly listen to their communities and stakeholders, recognise and understand their needs, and innovate quickly in response."

For example, at the outset of the pandemic Touchstone already knew some of its most vulnerable service users would be more concerned about feeding their families than the threat posed by COVID-19. So within a few hours of the first lockdown, staff members were delivering food to those communities – and within a few weeks the charity had set up a sustainable food delivery and mental health support initiative, Touchstone Loves Food. 

Similarly, as a by-product of the funding platform it developed during the pandemic, London Funders now has access to a powerful source of new community data that enables the organisation to hear first-hand from the communities it serves and respond accordingly.

Collaboration is key

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen countless examples of people and organisations tirelessly joining together to support their communities. And we’ve seen new levels of collaboration and trust within the charity sector, with charities joining forces or partnering with statutory and community service organisations, both to survive the crisis and to continue to deliver their essential services.  

This unprecedented collaboration has resulted in efficiencies through economies of scale, better use of resources and innovative new platforms – such as the online portal created by London Funders that will hopefully pave the way for more collaborative, targeted and visible funding opportunities in the future.

Given how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected smaller charities and massively impacted funding, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see more and more charities starting to find ways to work together to better serve society.

Just a Drop is just one example of how working together can increase impact – by joining forces with four other like-minded organisations to create the Water Can brand, the charity is exploring new ways to fundraise and bring supporters together behind a common cause.

From sharing back office functions and staff members, to jointly delivering services, creating strategic alliances and raising funds together, it’s exciting to see these changes taking place within the sector.

Sound financial planning

There has, of course, also been increased strain on charities’ finances, with many facing a much-depleted income stream for a number of reasons.

As such, while we’ve seen various entrepreneurial, innovative – and sometimes off-the-wall – fundraising appeals over the past year, we’ve also seen numerous charities take their first small steps into the world of fundraising. Touchstone managed to raise close to £200,000 through a TikTok video and Big Lottery Fund application, for example.

It’s been inspiring to see so many charities demonstrate such a ‘can do’ attitude under extremely stressful circumstances – and for them to be rewarded for their efforts. 

"It’s been inspiring to see so many charities demonstrate such a ‘can do’ attitude under extremely stressful circumstances – and for them to be rewarded for their efforts."

As we slowly start to emerge from the crisis, charities are beginning to reassess their financial health and how best to make their funds work for them. And, given how the past year has impacted on those charities who typically invest for income only, we are now seeing many more organisations rethinking their longer-term investment strategies and considering the potential benefits of a total return approach.

Of course, not all charities can choose the total return route, but for those that can the investment universe is much wider, and in some cases results in a more sustainable investment portfolio for the very long term.

For those charities that remain focused on generating income from their investments, there is some respite on the horizon. Many of the companies that ceased distributing to shareholders in 2020 are starting to reinstate their dividends, and those who imposed severe cuts are gradually recovering from the crisis.

When making any financial and investment decisions, trustees should always bear in mind their core duty to act in the best interests of the charity, acting with a level of care and diligence over and above that they would apply to their personal finances.

A strong and diverse framework

Last but not least, the pandemic has also underlined the importance of strong governance and effective decision making, with many charities having to call upon the expertise of their boards of trustees more heavily than before. As a result, some charities are now thinking differently about the make-up of their boards from the perspective of the skills mix, and what each trustee brings to the table.  

Scottish charity RSABI prides its ability to adapt to changing times. While COVID-19 saw the charity change many of its ways of working, it had already started to implement various changes to its governance structure months before the onset of the pandemic.

These changes, which included recruiting younger trustees and rolling out a pioneering trainee trustee programme, have not only improved the diversity of its board, but have helped the charity be more in tune with the needs of its stakeholders, brought in fresh perspectives and provided much-needed digital skillsets during the pandemic.

Of course, as many trustees will appreciate, achieving greater board diversity is by no means an easy task, as highlighted in our guest article authored by Fiona McAuslan of Getting on Board. But undergoing the transformational journey is well worth the effort – by overcoming the hurdles to embrace change and diversity among the board, charities should become much more resilient and stand the best chance of fulfilling their purpose.

Looking to the future

As the dust settles and we continue to adapt to the ‘new normal’, we encourage charities and their trustees to find time and space to reflect on the lessons learned and think strategically about how best to build resilience within their organisations for the coming years.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold difficulties, stress and uncertainity, it has also created new opportunities for individual organisations and the wider sector. It has helped many charities see that they are stronger than they realised, and, for some, identified areas of weakness that when filled will create a more solid foundation. Hopefully most charities – and the sector as a whole – will come out of the crisis more resilient, more efficient and more agile for the future. 

"While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold difficulties, stress and uncertainity, it has also created new opportunities for individual organisations and the wider sector."

We are certainly encouraged by how the sector is working together in new, innovative ways to ensure they have the greatest impact and we look forward to what the future holds.

We are extremely grateful to Just a Drop, London Funders, Touchstone, RSABI and Fiona McAuslan for taking the time to share their thoughts and stories with us for this edition of Charity Matters.