Here Comes The Hard Part

I have been very impressed by most of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by charity leaders.

With the exception of some dangerously ignorant religious leaders who insist on still gathering large groups for worship services, the sector has taken the risks seriously and adapted quite quickly to the temporary reality we are all facing. Many are caring for their communities in creative ways that allow them to continue providing some services without putting staff, volunteers, or guests at unnecessary risk. Others have made difficult decisions quickly to protect the financial stability of their organizations.

In my last post I made some recommendations for moving from the urgent crisis response stage to something more strategic and lasting. That seems well underway now. 

But as Winston Churchill said:

Leaders who have thrived on the adrenaline of the initial response to the crisis may be fatigued and suffering a bit of a crash from all that energy. And yet; the decisions made in the next few weeks are crucial.

Most leaders are at their best in times of growth. We are drawn to high potential and new opportunities for impact. Scaling down, reducing budgets, and taking the responsibility for decisions that will be very hard for others to accept isn’t something that many find inspiring or appealing. The best selling books and high profile conferences don’t say much about how to do this stuff. But it will be the role of many leaders in the months to come.

Some experts estimate that as many as half of Canadian charities may face permanent closure by the end of this year. Others are forecasting that a dramatic drop in donation revenue will hit hardest in early 2021 and last for a year or more from then. 

A lot of good organizations may not survive.

So what can we do to better our chances?

1. Mission First: As much as you, and many of your donors, care about the wellbeing of your employees, the real reason for your organization to exist is what you provide to the needs of the world. Programs, approaches, and facilities may have to be closed. Organizations that are very clear on what their real purpose is, and are able to adapt their model of addressing it, will be most likely to overcome.  Those that can’t communicate their mission or seem only interested in keeping the doors open for their own sake will face harsher difficulties. Clarity around priorities is non-negotiable.

2. Back To Basics: The elaborate systems we have built in brighter times may prove to be our undoing now. This is the time to reconsider everything about our approach and reduce what we can to the real essentials. Cutting the right costs means seeking the most efficient ways to work and communicate. Acquiring new donors is going to be much more difficult than strengthening relationships with those we already have. Many leaders have fond memories of leading scrappy, entrepreneurial, adaptable organizations. That kind of thinking will serve well.

3. Draw Lines In The Sand: There are far too few examples of charities that have ended in dignified ways. Determine now the criteria for layoffs, program closures, and the complete shut down of the organization. Engage the board and wise stakeholders in setting the limits beyond which you will not go. Having explicit financial, impact, and situational triggers for the hardest decisions you may ever make in leadership won’t make it easier to end something that has been good, but it will allow you to do so as well as possible. Instead of desperate scrambling for ways to avoid the inevitable, you will be able to focus on ending with compassion and gratitude for what has been done.

Of course there are some points for optimism. Some organizations will find this to be their most productive season in years. Some will fit the needs and donor interests of this moment. Some leaders will find wonderfully creative ways to remake their charities that will serve for years to come. I expect to see new partnerships, mergers, and innovations emerge that will inspire a generation.

These are times for leaders to gather the very best wisdom available, to take unflinching looks at uncomfortable realities, and to have the strength to be proactive about the path ahead. Who among us will rise to leading well in this season?