We don’t know what the future holds, but we can plan to make our charities more resilient in the face of uncertainty
From scenario planning to digital investment, there is plenty charities can do now to plan for future uncertainty.
This time last year most charities were gearing up for 2020. It looked like being like any other year – unremarkable.
Then COVID-19 struck and the sector’s plans dramatically changed. Services, fundraising and managing a workforce had to pivot online to adhere to social distancing guidance.
Demand for services, particularly mental health support, debt management and tackling loneliness grew. And the sector battled with severe income losses, redundancies and selling off properties.
This year has been an extreme example of how things change instantly. But, it has shown the importance of preparing for any future uncertainty.
Having a digital strategy ensures charities are scalable, adaptable to change and sustainable. This article looks at how charities can use digital to prepare for the unexpected. Ensuring they can deliver vital services to users, no matter the obstacles.
A good starting place when preparing for uncertainty is scenario planning. This involves making assumptions and second-guessing the way operating environments can change. Scenario planning helps to focus charities on what their current capabilities are. Testing how they can hold up against dramatic change and identifying what changes they need
Typical scenario planning will look at several key issues:
COVID isn’t the first scenario to change operations. Take the impact of a global financial crisis in 2008. This caused further reductions in government grants, as well as legislative change.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) stresses the importance of scenario planning for charities’ long-term future
“Scenario planning helps you stimulate new thinking and explore uncertainties. Instead of focusing just on what you do know, you invest time on what you don’t know. Often, as a result, you end up being more certain about the future,” says the NCVO.
Scenario planning requires a deep dive into a charity’s organisation. This includes its staff, volunteers, premises and expertise. Each needs to be stress tested against possible challenges ahead and how these elements of an organisation can be scalable. Are more digital experts needed? Are less face-to-face frontline staff needed? Do we have the right infrastructure in place?
A good example this year has been around digital service delivery. Social distancing has required services to move online. Helplines, chatbots, web chat, social media and online messaging platforms hare all used more. Those charities that had previously assessed a scenario where these need to ramp up have been far better prepared for the pandemic.
The Access Group’s 2020/21 The State of Digital Maturity in the Not for Profit Sector report was published in October. The report highlighted the need to scale up digital services amid the pandemic. This found that more than half of charities scaling up digital expertise had focused on back end areas such as human resources rather than frontline support.
An example of effective planning and scaling up of digital has been Cybersmile Foundation. They scaled up its online support for bullying victims in 2019, well ahead of the pandemic this year. Cybersmile met their audience where they are as more young people seek support online. The online support included the creation of artificial intelligence powered chatbot Cybersmile Assistant.
This has also helped the charity to reduce support costs, which helped save money amid COVID-19 income losses. Latest figures from the charity show that the average cost of support it provides to each person has fallen from £3 to just 8p - a 97.3% drop in costs.
After scenario planning and ensuring scalability, charities and their trustees need to assess further challenges ahead and prioritise operations. This can include some tough decision making.
Amid the pandemic, some charities have had to make redundancies. But for many this has been part of long-term planning taking into account likely future scenarios.
Jewish Care’s announcement in November is an example of this long-term thinking. It has been forced to cut face-to-face community centre support roles amid £7m losses. But it has also announced investment in outreach and digital support to better meet beneficiaries needs in the future.
Jewish Care chair Jonathan Zenios said: “Jewish Care needs to continue to adapt and to change, to meet challenges as we find them but to always put the needs of those who need us most first. However difficult the decisions we face may be, we face them knowing that they will help us to meet those needs now and into the future.”
It’s been a tough year, but the charity sector has remained resilient and defiant in the face of adversity. Planning for the future is essential to organisational sustainability and ultimately survival.
There is a raft of digital resources to help charities plan ahead across their operations. For example, a central CRM system is key to analysing data and spotting emerging trends in donors and supporters. Accessing free open data sources is also crucial to getting ahead of future trends, in particular in health amid COVID-19 recovery. Financial management tools ensure charities have the reserves and revenue streams to survive adversity.
How are you planning for the future? Let us know in the comments below.