Agony Uncle: Is there any point in planning when we don’t know what the future holds?

In this help sheet series, Our Community’s resident agony uncle, Chris Borthwick, offers answers to frequently asked questions about issues not-for-profits are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Should we still be planning during the pandemic?

Q. We’ve got a board retreat scheduled in a couple of weeks to work on revising our organisation’s strategic plan. We’ve cancelled the face-to-face retreat because of the pandemic, of course, but we could still meet online. However, I’m wondering whether we should cancel altogether, because how can we do any proper planning when we have no idea what’s going to come next?

Chris Borthwick, Our Community's thinker-in-residence

A. Well, there are several kinds of planning. At one level, you have to do more financial modelling in unsure times, not less. Get your spreadsheets out and run the figures. Over and over, with different assumptions.

See what happens when you vary the back-to-normal start date: assume you’ll be able to open up again in three months, in six, in twelve, in eighteen. See what happens when you vary your income. Grants, donations, sponsorships, sales and contracts, events (ha!), members, alumni: for each stream, take off 10% of your regular income for the recession effect, or 20%, or 30% – one stream at a time, or all together. Assume the government’s JobSeeker package continues for six months, or 12. See what happens if your rent is reduced, or postponed, or subsidised. Our Community is keeping track of financial assistance for not-for-profits using its fundraising and grants database platform, The Funding Centre.

The chances aren’t high that you’re going to find a clearly optimum strategy working with this typhoon of unknown quantities. The aim of the exercise isn’t to decide what to do next; it’s to get a general picture of where the choke points are, the vulnerabilities, the parameters you’re working within. Where are you leaking? Where are you bleeding out? What can you do about it?

And planning is one of the few parts of governance that you actually can do from home without running into irritating and trivial objections from 19th-century laws and constitutions. Yes, there is the small drawback that you don’t know what’s going to happen, or when, and you don’t know much about the post-pandemic situation in which you’re going to be looking for a niche. But the basics haven’t shifted. Your organisation was fulfilling a need before the pandemic started, and whatever that need was, presumably it hasn’t gone away while we’ve been cultivating our sourdough starters.

The planning process begins with your mission statement. Forget about the activities you were doing before the pandemic started – the pieces you’ve assembled over the past five or 10 or 150 hard-fought years. Go back to your mission. What is the need? What is the gap in the market you’re filling? How should it be filled? What resources will that require? Reassemble your ideal and compare it with

a) what you had before
b) what you may be left with after the tsunami recedes.

What funding levels are you looking at? What funding sources will be needed to meet them?

We’re as near as we’re ever going to get to a blank slate. If you've been getting out of sync with trends in society, or have been diverted from your core business, this is certainly a chance to press reboot. If you’re confident that you’re on the right track, you’ll still need a startup plan for bringing your resources into play. Office first, probably, then services.

No, I’d definitely go ahead with a planning session. Get on the Not-for-Profit Happy Hour group on Facebook afterwards and tell us how it went.

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