Seven ways to adapt to covid-19, from the nation's best NFP thinkers

Posted on 27 Oct 2021

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

Community Directors Council first meeting
Community Directors Council members (L-R): Pablo Alfredo Gimenez, Jodi Kennedy, Susan Pascoe (chair), Anne Cross, Denis Moriarty (hosting for Our Community), Catherine Brooks, Sonja Hood, Sheena Boughen, Myles McGregor-Lowndes. Absent: Prof Cynthia Mitchell, Jahna Cedar.

As organisations begin to adapt to a world with covid-19, here's some advice from the Community Directors Council brains trust about what community leaders need to do next.

1. Don’t be a victim of the ‘Great Resignation’, look after your staff and volunteers

As more staff and volunteers return from home-based work – particularly in the hardest-hit covid-19 states – taking care of your most important assets should take precedence.

Workplaces worldwide are dealing with what’s been dubbed the “Great Resignation”, a flood of workers quitting their posts having tasted the flexibility of working from home and having had time to reconsider their career paths.

Catherine Brooks
Catherine Brooks

Community directors council member Catherine Brooks says organisations should brace for “high workforce turnover and employee movement” post-pandemic, especially those that failed to maintain a supportive culture during covid-19.

She has a few tips to help organisations hold on to their staff.

Not-for-profits should “offer flexibility even when you are able to return to the office” and “reinforce the best of your workplace culture, even if it’s done online,” she says.

“Show employees you care. Take the time to talk about non-work-related things and make sure you’re sending care packages that are tailored to people’s needs.”

Top performers should be “given opportunities to grow, but also make sure they’re not burning out.” She says groups should encourage staff to take annual leave to counter stress, citing one organisation that recently closed down for two days to enforce some time off.

Susan Pascoe

Professor Cynthia Mitchell says some organisations are offering extra leave as “recharge days”.

Community Directors Council chair Susan Pascoe recommends board directors check how the CEO and senior managers are coping, personally and professionally. Senior management should “be able to provide some assurances to fellow directors that this is the case,” she says.

Emeritus Professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes says this may also require “providing mentoring to senior management about managing in times of disturbance”, while Community Hubs chief Sonja Hood says directors should avoid contributing to staff burnout after such a long period in crisis mode.

"I think there is a tendency in for-purpose organisations – particularly the ones right at the coalface – to want to solve more, to do more, and to respond more in a crisis," Dr Hood says.

Myles McGregor-Lowndes
Myles McGregor-Lowndes

"Sometimes the role of the board is to get people within the organisation to stop or slow down and look after themselves first."

Their advice rings true with mental health advocates Prevention United, which recently worked with ICDA to produce Ten ways not-for-profit employers can help their people cope with covid-19.

2. Keep an eye on finances and funding

Financial viability is among the top issues facing groups, and it's worsened by the reduced capacity for fundraising – all members of the Community Directors Council agree on this point.

"Issues of viability and sustainability should be at the forefront, both for managing through the crisis and for the recovery phase," says Susan Pascoe.

Anne Croos
Anne Cross

Health expert Anne Cross AM says amid the "cash drain", groups must closely monitor "viability, sustainability and solvency", frequently revisiting their strategic and financial plans.

Philanthropic leader Jodi Kennedy, who helps fund not-for-profits via Equity Trustees grants, says those able to maintain or boost funding now are "the lucky ones" and a rapid repositioning of business models may be needed "to ensure ongoing funding through this challenging period".

Legal and fundraising expert Catherine Brooks urges leaders to "know where funding comes from". She says all leaders should be clear who are their key funders and what they support.

Jodi Kennedy
Jodi Kennedy

She also says NFPs should allow for the likely liability of accrued annual leave that is yet to be taken.

The Institute of Community Directors recently produced the two-part guide Fundraising trends you’ve got to know about to survive the pandemic to provide more help on the finance front.

And ICDA has worked with CommBank to develop a five-part free webinar series to help organisations understand and manage their balance sheets.

We also recommend reviewing the advice of the country’s top community treasurers to see how they’ve survived the crisis.

Chess i Stock 1071651992
Council members urge taking care with your decisions in the wake of the pandemic.

3. Stay attuned to good governance and decision making

Pablo Alfredo Gimenez
Pablo Alfredo Gimenez

Social enterprise expert Pablo Alfredo Gimenez says groups can overcome challenges by "adapting board processes to comply with governance obligations" by seeking out "the tools and tips and training to adapt to physical distancing requirements". Our Community compiled some of those helpsheets on its Save Our Sector mini-site.

Renowned leadership mentor Sheena Boughen says being open to new ideas can start with asking simple, strategic questions, such as "What's going well on the ship? How do we know?" or "Who else could give us some insight into how we are going?" And she urges leaders to seek out the wise and to ask them, "Who do you learn from and are you in touch with them?"

Susan Pascoe agrees, and she says good information flow is crucial. "Most NFP directors will need more frequent and detailed reporting from management to be confident that their enterprises are coping with this unprecedented situation, especially those such as health and welfare delivering frontline services," she says.

Cynthia Mitchell says good meeting procedures will keep things on track and “help people use their time well”. For instance, she suggests that meeting agendas should be “structured around the outcome you need, such as agreed focus areas for the coming year”. The start of each meeting could be used to reinforce “the key points of the discussion”.

4. Use your tech well to keep people engaged

Several council members nominated better video meeting methods as a way of keeping organisations from fading, as more rely on software to connect.

Sonja Hood says not-for-profits must start with the essentials.

“If you haven’t made sure that every single person who works for you has good tech and a good set-up at home, fix it. Now. If you’re online with people working from dining chairs on a laptop in terrible light, that’s an occupational health and safety issue … and a morale issue”.

Catherine Brooks says groups would be familiar with meetings involving people “juggling kids in the background”, suffering “Zoom fatigue” or scanning their mobile phones.

“If you want an engaged board, only run meetings when you have specific topics for discussion, use committee meetings for action items and take turns with the agenda items so that the chair doesn’t bore everyone.” She says that “storytelling” can help everyone “recommit to your purpose”.

Cynthia Mitchell
Cynthia Mitchell

Cynthia Mitchell agrees it can be useful to “help your staff and volunteers make good choices about the technology they use for different activities”.

She says while Zoom-style meetings can be mentally tiring, “the good old telephone” is a great tool for two. She also suggests organisations “build in fun as part of the ‘official’ stuff”, with connecting activities such as small breakouts before the main meeting to allow for the small talk we’ve been missing. Meetings should be shortened to allow time to socialise.

Sheena Boughen says leaders should use their imaginations to engage people and consider a “curator” to help prepare material and use music, lighting, cameras, microphones and backdrops to make for a better meeting experience. Hosts can use “intermissions” for staff to “have a laugh”, “celebrate the small stuff” and keep things lively.

5. Keep your stakeholders close

Council members agree that maintaining good relationships with supporters and stakeholders is a key survival tactic, especially where volunteer help is compromised.

Sheena Boughen
Sheena Boughen

"Now is the time for collaboration in the sector, so let's use the power of social media, appropriate language and good communication methods to reach those in need," says Catherine Brooks.

Skilled volunteers – possibly online – will still be able to help, says Ms Brooks, who also suggests alerting funders to your group's needs.

Indigenous enterprise leader Jahna Cedar urges groups to be "innovative in their consultation with members", especially as AGMs loom.

Sheena Boughen cites the example of the Sydney Theatre Company, which put its actors to work thanking key donors during the pandemic, to keep backers feeling "connected and valued".

6. Do things differently

Now is the time to do things differently; or, as Myles McGregor-Lowndes puts, it "scan for opportunities in times of disturbance". Pablo Alfredo Gimenez echoes the need to look for "opportunities to explore new ways of working and taking advantage of the disruption".

Jahna Cedar
Jahna Cedar

Sonja Hood says adjusting services must start with good tech, while Jahna Cedar suggests re-examining strategic plans. Sheena Boughen encourages leaders to start with asking, "What else?"

Jodi Kennedy says not-for-profit leaders must combine "agility, innovative thinking, collaboration, and leveraging networks". She says not-for-profits able to "engage the beneficiaries of their services, seek feedback and come up with new ways to tackle their social challenge" – drawing on government and philanthropic support, and their own expertise – will "stand the best chance of being able to [retain donor trust and loyalty] as they navigate this period".

Catherine Brooks says that in this environment, diversity should remain a priority.

“I think we must also not forget the importance of diversity – in thought leadership, in all areas of the ranks. We need better and more diverse ideas to get through tough times, so we should keep striving for that diversity. Now is the time to push for a better reality, not fall back on the same old ways.”

7. Learn from disaster

The groups most capable of understanding the current situation will be better placed to survive and thrive, council members agree.

Anne Cross says in the shakeup of their operations, groups should consider "what should be retained into the future, whatever that looks like". Jahna Cedar says this might require "re-examining strategic plans to consider the implications of the pandemic, including potentially changing the direction of your not-for-profit".

And Sonja Hood believes the pandemic will teach groups about the "capability and possibility" of not-for-profit organisations, but that requires them to look ahead.

“I think we can stop thinking about this as temporary now, and start asking ourselves, what are the ways of working or being we’d like to take forward, regardless of the pandemic? We’ve had a huge amount of focus on what we miss – but what have we gained?”

About the Community Directors Council

The 10-member Community Directors Council, led by the former chief of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, Adj Prof Susan Pascoe AM, advises Our Community's Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) on strategy, policy, training, regulation and resources.

More information

Covid-19 Community Sector Impact Survey

Save Our Sector: More guidance on coping with the pandemic

Fundraising trends you’ve got to know about to survive the pandemic

Top treasurers’ tips for turbulent times

More about ICDA and the Community Directors Council

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