Top not-for-profit thinkers spell out your priorities for COVID-19

Community Directors Council first meeting
Members of the Community Directors Council (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.

In this essential reading, the Community Directors Council reveal the actions your group must take to survive COVID-19.

With the world turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, not-for-profit leaders – including board directors and senior managers – may be uncertain about where to focus. That's why we asked the members of the Community Directors Council, the advisory arm of Our Community’s Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA), to nominate key issues for not-for-profit leaders during COVID-19.

Adj Prof Susan Pascoe AM, Chair of the Community Directors Council

Community Directors Council Chair Adj Prof Susan Pascoe AM was inaugural ACNC Commissioner and chairs the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and the Principals Australia Institute Certification Advisory Board. She is co-chair of the Charities Crisis Cabinet, which is providing a sector-wide response to pandemic, and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia.

Ms Pascoe believes the biggest issues for not-for-profits attempting to cope with the pandemic are:

  • Financial viability, especially with the reduced capacity for fundraising
  • Managing and supporting staff, often with the help of JobKeeper
  • Coping with increased demand, yet with fewer volunteers.

Ms Pascoe stressed issues varied across sub-sectors, with arts hit harder, say, than frontline services providing food rescue or direct services. Many in the latter groups, she said, had been buttressed by increased donations.

Asked what leaders should be doing now, Ms Pascoe said it was hard to generalise due to the “differential impact” on the diverse sector, but “most not-for-profit 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 advised directors to check whether the CEO and senior managers were coping, personally and professionally. Senior management should “be able to provide some assurances to fellow directors that this is the case”.

Ms Pascoe said “issues of viability and sustainability should be at the forefront, both for managing through the crisis, and for the recovery phase”.

Pablo Gimenez

Pablo Gimenez is Social Enterprise Development Manager at the Centre for Participation, Grampians region, Victoria, and Acting Director, Social Enterprise, at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Mr Gimenez has been at the coalface of the COVID-19 response, both in regional Victoria and in Melbourne, where he was involved in helping ensure tenants in locked-down public housing estates received culturally appropriate food during the crisis.

His top issues for not-for-profits include:

  • Adapting board processes to comply with governance obligations
  • Exploring new ways to continue to deliver on their purpose.

Groups must find a way to meet

Mr Gimenez said boards and committees of management needed to quickly adapt to ensure they fulfilled their governance obligations, but for many groups that was a challenge.

“With many of the smaller community organisations we are in contact with in regional areas, the committees of management were not meeting due to physical distancing requirements,” he said.

Mr Gimenez said organisations may have been affected by a range of factors including:

  • the preference for directors to meet in person
  • lack of access to appropriate technology, and a lack of confidence using that technology.

What’s the main game?

Mr Gimenez said directors must examine new ways to deliver on their purpose, particularly those serving organisations heavily reliant on volunteers.

“Organisations that rely on volunteers have struggled, due to a drop in volunteer numbers,” he said.

The most vulnerable organisations were those in which volunteers were at greater risk of contracting or being affected by COVID-19. This included groups with many older members, people with disabilities, and volunteers with existing health conditions.

How should leaders respond?How should leaders respond?

Mr Gimenez suggested that in response to the crisis, directors should:

  • Seek tools to help them adapt to fulfil their governance role
  • Look for opportunities within the disruption.

The tools to adapt

Mr Gimenez said directors must ensure that their organisations sought out “the tools and tips and training to adapt to physical distancing requirements”, including resources such as the new Damn Good Advice guide.

That would ensure those directors and leaders would “continue to meet their governance role and ensure their organisation can continue to work towards its vision”.

Opportunities for organisations

Mr Gimenez said all not-for-profits should seek “opportunities to explore new ways of working and taking advantage of the disruption”.

He cited the example of the Centre for Participation working with the Social Enterprise Network of Victoria (SENViC), alongside emergency relief providers across Victoria, “to explore opportunities to create a more equitable food system”.

The result could be that “those in the greatest need have access to the freshest and healthiest food possible”, he said.

“We are exploring ways to reduce costs through bulk buying directly from producers and developing more effective logistics to move food to people who currently need it the most.”

SENViC's Moving Feast project, for example, had seen food-related social enterprises that had lost most of their income as a result of COVID-19 seek individual donations and philanthropic support to assist them to connect with emergency relief agencies to feed people in need.

Anne Cross AM

Anne Cross is non-executive director at St Vincent’s Health Australia, former Uniting Care Queensland CEO, and Adjunct Professor, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, at the University of Queensland.

Ms Cross nominated these three key issues for not-for-profits:

  1. Cash availability and cash “drain”
  2. Staff and volunteer wellbeing
  3. Adjusting and reinventing service models to continue to deliver on mission.

She said directors wanting to step up their efforts should focus on doing better with:

  • Monitoring viability, sustainability and solvency
  • Monitoring the wellbeing of staff and volunteers, but particularly key staff
  • Maintaining good relationships with stakeholders, especially funders and donors
  • Continuous identification of the lessons groups had garnered from their COVID-19 experience, including “what should be retained into the future, whatever that looks like”
  • Frequently revisiting and reviewing strategy, the strategic plan and the financial plan.

Ms Cross said the current situation would continue to be difficult for not-for-profit organisations, especially for those with interests in different jurisdictions.

“The challenges are even more complex at present, given the very different circumstances across the country,” she said.

Among the challenges for third-sector organisations, she noted that social cohesion had “taken quite a battering” during the pandemic, and groups would do well to do what they could to counter that trend.

Emeritus Professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes

Myles McGregor Lowndes has for the past four decades been the pre-eminent expert in not-for-profit law, philanthropy and regulation in Australia. He is Emeritus Professor at the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, Queensland University of Technology Business School.

Prof Myles McGregor-Lowndes was succinct in his summary, but any director who has had these issues covered will have served their organisation well.

Three key issues for NFPs:

  • Solvency
  • Facilitating meetings in accord with their constitution, and physical distancing rules
  • Connecting with stakeholders.

Three things every NFP director should be doing differently:

  • Scanning for opportunities in times of disturbance
  • Providing mentoring to senior management about managing in times of disturbance
  • Being prepared to meet as required.

Jodi Kennedy

Jodi Kennedy is the General Manager, Charitable Trusts and Philanthropy at Equity Trustees.

Philanthropic leader Jodi Kennedy has a deep interest in managing funding that makes a difference. She works with some of Australia’s biggest influencers – in the philanthropic sense of the word – with a mission to build the strength and resilience of the community.

During the pandemic, Ms Kennedy and her team have contacted many of the not-for-profits she helps fund through Equity Trustees, to help them adapt to the challenging conditions through emergency grants, modifications to existing funding programs, and other assistance.

Ms Kennedy agreed with Ms Pascoe’s “macro level” analysis about the current top issues, but in terms of immediate actions, said directors should focus on adapting, through:

  • the rapid repositioning of their business model
  • thinking differently about that business

While acknowledging the difficulty in achieving these goals, not-for-profit leaders should make adjusting their business models a priority, “even if it is just a short-term fix to get through this challenging period”.

Not-for-profits able to maintain or increase their funding – including through fundraising – in the current environment were “the lucky ones”, Ms Kennedy said. Everyone else should review their current activity.

“NFP directors need to think differently – and quickly,” she said. That included ensuring that directors and their boards “be proactively challenging the organisation to think about their business and service model critically”.

That would enable organisations to evaluate their ability to continue to deliver social impact.

She said that different thinking required a combination of “agility, innovative thinking, collaboration, and leveraging networks”.

She said not-for-profits who were 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 – would “stand the best chance of being able to navigate this period”.

Jahna Cedar OAM

Jahna Cedar is a Nyiyaparli/ Yindjibarndi woman, originally from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, who continues to gain recognition for her work as an Indigenous community leader. She is Director of Policy, Evaluation and Indigenous Engagement at IPS Management.

Ms Cedar nominated two issues as the most pressing for not-for-profits:

  • Financial stability
  • Member communications.

The impact of COVID-19 had had a “far-reaching” impact on finances, especially for organisations that had been unable to “pivot”, she said. Compounding that issue was the fact that many funders now had reduced capacity, while government departments were generally becoming “over-cautious and risk averse in offering contracts and grants”.

Ms Cedar said communication with members was a top issue, and organisations must become “innovative in their consultation with members” amid COVID-19 restrictions, particularly with the AGM season looming.

Should your organisation head in a new direction?

Asked what not-for-profit directors should do differently, Ms Cedar nominated these three things:

  1. More than ever, concentrating on the mental health of employees and their families
  2. Enabling flexible and agile work environments
  3. Re-examining strategic plans to consider the implications of the pandemic, including potentially changing the direction of your not-for-profit.

Dr Sonja Hood

Sonja Hood is CEO of Community Hubs Australia, Chair of McAuley Community Services for Women, and a board member of North Melbourne Football Club.

Viewing the pandemic from the standpoint of a chief executive, a chair, and a general board member, Dr Hood said the following issues were paramount:

  • The ability to deliver the same services in a different way
  • The ability to change service delivery to respond to changing community needs
  • Managing the technology that allows you to manage working remotely.

Dr Hood nominated the following as key issues directors should consider:

  1. A fresh focus on technology
  2. Learning from the disaster about the “capability and possibility” of our organisations
  3. Easing the pressure on the organisation as its leaders grapple with delivering business-as-usual while also tackling a crisis response.

Keep a fresh focus to help you adapt

For organisations that were “blessed” not to have financial viability problems, the next most critical issue was to work out how to provide existing (and extra) services in a new way.

“At its most basic, I’m talking about home working. I bet most organisations have invented policies and procedures for this in the past three months. If we didn’t have the tech to do it before, we do now.”

Dr Hood said adjusting services to meet changing needs was also important. For the Community Hubs network, this has meant providing food parcels or support for families needing help with home schooling, for example.

She said technology would continue to be a key focus for organisations needing to adapt.

“If it wasn’t a focus before, it needs to be one now.”

Ease off and look after yourselves

Dr Hood sounded a warning to organisations not to attempt to over-reach, suggesting boards should keep the welfare of their organisation, and its staff, at the top of the agenda.

“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.

“The difference with this crisis is that it’s also impacting our staff as well as our communities, and sometimes the role of the board is to get people within the organisation to stop or slow down and look after themselves first.”

Catherine Brooks

Catherine Brooks is Associate Director and a workplace relations specialist at Law Squared, and Senior Advisor at Wendy Brooks & Associates.

Ms Brooks focused on some of the questions not-for-profit leaders should ask, and some tasks for the agenda, as they work towards emerging intact from the pandemic. These are her words.

Some of the key issues for NFPs right now

Needs have shifted

The needs of the community and the way that people can access services has changed due to COVID-19. Are your services reaching people most effectively? Are the services you are providing having the best possible impact for these times?

Funding squeeze hits groups

Funding is harder to access and gaining new income streams is tougher than ever. Are you doing all you can to retain and build on the relationships with your existing funders and leverage the board networks? Can your board and existing funders introduce you to new funders and promote your services to their contacts? Are your funders aware of the parts of your community that are in crisis now and do they know how they could help your organisation during these times?

Demands on the rise

There are greater demands for community services and more competition for funding. Every organisation will feel the pinch. Are you operating as efficiently as you could be? Can your team work smarter to achieve your goals? Can you harness the support of skilled volunteers to extend your services further? Are you able to access the (now) unemployed but skilled workforce to benefit those you serve and contribute to the economy?

Three things every NFP director should be doing differently right now

Stop and review your strategic plan

Are you staying the course, or do you need to review your strategic plan to guide you through these tough times? Are you referring to your strategic plan in board meetings and assessing the performance of the organisation against the agreed key performance indicators (KPIs)? Are you addressing the real need in your community or do you need to consider stopping/starting programs to better provide help to those you serve?

Ensure your directors and senior staff know where your funding comes from

Are all the directors aware of, and engaged in supporting, the income generation of your organisation? Do you all know who the key investors/funders are and what they are funding? Are the directors personally contributing to your fundraising efforts by making a donation (by way of money, time, resources) themselves?

Communicate better

Make sure you carefully consider your communication plans. Consult with those impacted the most by this pandemic. Listen to what they say and provide feedback about how you’ll respond. Be clear about what you can address. Speak with your partners, who may be able to provide support where you cannot. 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.

Sheena Boughen

Sheena Boughen is a culture strategist, community activist and arts leader. She has been a driving force for the Four Winds Festival and its chair, and is currently working as a research designer, and as a strategist/facilitator for the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust.

A renowned leadership mentor, Ms Boughen said the focus for not-for-profit leaders steering their organisations through the pandemic should be:

  • Good decision making
  • Being open to “what else?”
  • Building relationships with top supporters.

Keep an open mind, and ask good questions to guide decisions

Ms Boughen said decision making was difficult in times of uncertainty because leaders had a tendency to over-manage” or to “wait and worry”.

Her advice for community sector leaders was to look for answers to some simple yet strategic questions to help guide the organisation. Here are some for starters:

  • What’s going well on the ship? How do we know?
  • Who else could give us some insight into how we are going?
  • How do we forecast more effectively?
  • What do we need to check in on?
  • What is going well that we can celebrate?

Ms Boughen said a great place to start when considering big – and ethically significant – decisions was the work of Simon Longstaff AO, a member of the board of Our Community (ICDA’s parent organisation) and executive director of The Ethics Centre. Ms Boughen said directors could get a taste of his work in this short video clip.

Ms Boughen said leaders should consider “what else” – “What else matters? What else concerns us? What else might ‘unravel’ for us?”

Maintain your connections

Ms Boughen said it was not enough to focus on funding, which had been the sole concern of some groups. While funding was important, organisations must keep referring to their purpose and continue to work on “authentic” activities connected to their reason for being, she said.

Ms Boughen cited the case of the Sydney Theatre Company, which sought the support of actors to contact key donors – including many first-time donors – to personally thank them for their support.

She said this created goodwill among stakeholders that was “not about money, but about keeping everyone feeling connected and valued”.

In a final note, Ms Boughen urged community leaders to seek out the wise by asking themselves, “Who do you learn from, and are you in touch with them?”



This help sheet is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!