Leadership in the time of corona – 5 things to think about

This blog is addressed to all those who are leading charities and NGOs during the current unprecedented global crisis. Of course, each charity will face distinct challenges – and even opportunities – so this can only be a general set of thoughts. As a charity CEO for 32 years, I have been through crises before, most recently of course the 2008/9 global financial crisis. Though none have been as strange as this one, there are perhaps some lessons to learn and share. Below I set out five things for you to think about. I hope it helps you to stay focused and positive despite the stress and fear that you will be facing, together with all those connected to your charity.

Number One: start by thinking about those you work with and for; those whose lives you seek to improve, or even save; those who need your support at such a challenging time (sometimes termed “beneficiaries” though that term is not an ideal one – let’s call them users?). Whatever the purposes of your organisation, these users of your services will surely also be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. How can you help them? Issues of mental and physical health, loneliness, poverty, vulnerability, separation and displacement are all relevant. There will be many ways in which you can act alongside them and support them.

Can you advocate on their behalf? Do they need you to amplify their voice? Are those making decisions as aware as they need to be about the challenges these people are facing? You can speak truth to power, you can lobby, build alliances of those who share your users’ concerns. Can you adapt your services to help meet their needs? Think through what you can do to help your particular target groups. My background is in international development and humanitarian work. I’m very worried about people in crowded refugee camps with limited access to health services and even to hot water and soap. NGOs have a vital role to play. I am also concerned about people around the world whose livelihoods will be affected. During the 2008/9 crisis, I met a child in the Philippines who told me she would no longer be able to go to school because her father had lost his job – he made ropes for the shipping industry which was suffering badly. Today, we are facing a truly global pandemic the impact of which will be felt directly and indirectly across the world – and, as ever, most severely by the most vulnerable.

Number Two: think about your staff and volunteers. They may be stretched by the demands of your work, but they will also have their own personal and family worries and concerns. They’ll be worried about their jobs and you need to be as open as possible with everyone about your thinking, offering reassurance where you can. Of course, you can help them to work flexibly – at home where possible, but some will be needed out there on the frontline. How can you look after them? My strongest thought is to trust them to make the best decisions at the coalface and for their own lives. Your job is to ensure that they have what they need – from hand sanitiser to protective gear to the technology to keep in touch to contactless cards so they don’t have to handle cash – whatever is right for the work you and they are doing. And be there, alongside your senior colleagues and HR to listen to their worries, to talk to them when they need to get things off their chest. Make sure teams can maintain regular contact. Invest in the technology for video conferencing and team collaboration and help them learn how to use it.

In my experience, when an emergency strikes, people are at their very best. Many of the normal ways of working can be set aside. Try to minimise the bureaucracy, while ensuring you have enough oversight to keep everyone safe. Be open to people’s ideas – they will certainly have some great ones. Look after each other so you can all look after your users. Trust, transparency, engagement and communication are the key elements.

Number Three: Think of your supporters and donors. These are the people that, every day, make your work possible. Keep in contact with them. Let them know what you are doing. Tell them about your ideas. Get their input. Think too about the problems they themselves may be facing. But in my experience, in times of crisis, people really want to be able to help. Right now that can be difficult. If they are elderly or with health problems, they won’t be able to get out and volunteer in the community. But everyone can join in your campaigns, make their voices heard, sign petitions, promote your work on social media, and of course (if they are not too badly hit financially) they can make donations. People stuck at home, possibly for months, would like something they can feel positive about, a means to make a difference, a way to engage with others, even if only virtually. You can provide that opportunity for your supporters.

I know that many charities are worried that the crisis will hit their income. They don’t know whether they should be thinking about reducing costs. But I think it is worth taking some time to consider whether there is a story you can tell that can mobilise and motivate people to take part and to give, so that you can do more to help those in need. And at the same time help your supporters to see some light in the darkness.

Number Four: think about yourself and your senior leaders and those (including Trustees) with key responsibility for the decisions you all have to take. It is a stressful time for you and your staff, supporters and users need you to be strong and make the right decisions. It is as big a responsibility as you will ever face. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice. Make sure you have someone you can talk to freely about everything you are facing, including your own fears. Perhaps you have colleagues or a trustee or a peer in another organisation that can fulfill this role? Perhaps you should consider working with a coach or mentor – an independent confidant who can help you think through your personal and organisational goals, dilemmas, decisions and development. Coaching and mentoring can be done by video so there is nothing to prevent you taking this opportunity. The time needn’t be great and will be very worthwhile.

Number Five: think of the future. Try not to be completely absorbed in the immediate challenges, great as they may be. The decisions you make now will have effects in the long term and they need to be right for that too. The current crisis will be over at some point and your work will still be very much, or even more, needed. How can you ensure you are in the strongest position to face that future? During the 2008/9 financial crisis some charities chose to downsize, including reducing their fundraising investment to try and keep available funds focused on their work. Others, including mine, did the opposite. We maintained and even increased our fundraising investment and accepted a slightly lower return on investment in order to ensure we could maintain our income and put ourselves in the strongest position as the crisis ended. We managed to maintain our growth throughout the crisis and its aftermath. What you decide must be right for your own circumstances – do you have reserves to carry you through, will your supporters stand by you through tough times, as ours did, can you shift from face to face and events fundraising to email and online? These and many other questions will determine your best strategy to get through the crisis. But you need to be thinking strategically and medium term as well as focusing on the immediate day to day challenges.

I hope these thoughts are helpful. If I or others can help, let me know.

Action Planning (https://actionplanning.co.uk/) has a number of Associates who can help with coaching and mentoring, as well as fundraising and other support.

Look after yourselves, each other, your users and those around you. We’ll get through this! And charities of all kinds will be a vital part of the response – you are needed, and you are important.

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