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How should social organisations emerge from COVID-19?


4 May 2020 at 2:52 pm
Dale Renner
Dale Renner looks at the different phases of adjustment that managers need to consider in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and what this means for social organisation strategy.


Dale Renner | 4 May 2020 at 2:52 pm


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How should social organisations emerge from COVID-19?
4 May 2020 at 2:52 pm

Dale Renner looks at the different phases of adjustment that managers need to consider in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and what this means for social organisation strategy.

In the social sector today, there is an understandable rush to manage immediate operations, protect staff, and review face-to-face service delivery. It’s a complex time and it is difficult to see beyond the next week or two. However, senior managers need to start thinking about the phases of adjustment to the COVID-19 crisis across time:

  • Phase one: Manage the crisis. This is the operational reaction to shutdown – how to continue, protect staff, and manage the needs of clients whose services are stopped by social distancing, with particular complexities for residential programs (most organisations are here now).
  • Phase two: Stabilise and deliver. This means delivering during six to 12 months of constrained activity, including preparing for delivery of services under different levels of social distancing rules.
  • Phase three: Leverage the upswing. This is about delivering in the post-pandemic world – and being prepared as an organisation for the “permanent” effects of the crisis.

The pandemic is driving change for both commercial and social organisations across the globe. 

There are a number of significant forces at work:

Increased use of technology – In phase two, social distancing will continue to test the sector’s ability to deliver services in the traditional face-to-face mode. Back office functions will need to simplify but it is also a time to experiment with what parts of the service model can be delivered via technology and what parts require face-to-face interaction.

Consolidation of organisations and concentration of power – Financial crises usually accelerate concentration of power (organisations with shallow reserves may shrink or merge with larger organisations with deeper pockets). In some parts of the social sector donations have fallen significantly, leading to the need for some organisations to consider their financial viability and the options for ensuring the continuation of their best programs. Non-viable social enterprises will need to be closed down or merged. Financially secure organisations might find opportunities to pick up successful programs.

Increasing social problems arising from lockdown – The steep increase in unemployment (even if “most” people who lose work will return to it, the effects will be long term especially for more vulnerable groups) and other heightened social issues (domestic violence, mental health, school dropout) will require fresh and effective solutions. Governments will be seeking new solutions from the social sector. Social organisations can develop “proactive” funding pitches to governments with high quality programs.

Increasing role of government in the wider economy – The Job Seeker package is likely to establish new norms and expectations about government support for people out of work. It will be hard for the government to return to the previous low level of Newstart payments. This flow of cash may mean opportunities for some programs that rely on client financial contributions (e.g. in housing). 

Longer-term funding crunch as the government pays off debt – While it may be a year or more away, at some point the federal government in particular will begin belt-tightening to manage the huge increase in government debt. Social organisations should be ready to prove the cost-effectiveness of their programs (including with “avoided cost” financial models) alongside the “social”, to make sure they can withstand this pressure. Along with positive social outcomes, governments will be looking for improving efficiency in provision of welfare, with reforms potentially around simplification and poverty reduction.

What does this mean for social organisation strategy? 

While most organisations have rightfully been focused on phase one adjustment, some of our clients are now entering phase two stabilisation period. We think it is now time to plan for “living with constraints” and for phase three, the “leverage the upswing” phase after social restrictions begin to ease. One way to think about it is that operational management should be focused on phase one, while CEOs and boards need to be planning for phases two and three.

While it is incredibly disruptive, Latitude Network believes that the current upheaval also provides an opportunity for social organisations to accelerate the innovations and performance improvements needed over the next few years. This is exactly what is happening now in manufacturing around the world – technology improvements that might have taken five years are being implemented in one year. 

The high-performing social organisation

What does a high-performing social organisation look like? We will need social organisations that use data for evidence-based decision making and continual improvement, leverage technology, have a laser focus on their social impact and outcomes, and develop a “flexible playbook” of opportunities and programs that enable adaptability to changing needs and funding environments. An organisation that can evidence performance to government and other funders, and can also make a convincing case for the economic savings arising from their work.

The daily charting of COVID-19 cases and the entry of epidemiological models into the mainstream discourse have demonstrated how vital good data is at times of uncertainty. Social organisations need live, relevant data that enables them to pinpoint barriers to achieving impact, to identify service approaches that work best for specific cohorts and sub-cohorts and help allocate resources to where the organisation can have the best impact.

Social sector boards are tasked with ensuring organisations maximise their impact. They therefore need to be asking these questions to help with this transition: 

  • What is the impact we want to achieve and for whom?
  • Where do we currently achieve our best impact?
  • How can we use technology and automation to both operate in a constrained medium-term environment (under social distancing rules) but also to improve our longer term impact and efficiency?
  • What data should we collect and how do we use it to focus our efforts?
  • How do we position ourselves for the future funding crunch?
  • How can we demonstrate our effectiveness and make an evidence-based case for funding high-impact programs?
  • If the wider changes are a fundamental threat to our financial sustainability, how do we ensure our best performing programs continue (either through partnerships, licensing or mergers)?
  • What shifts in funding will occur in our sector, and how can the organisation position itself as having solutions to the looming challenges across unemployment, mental health, domestic violence, homelessness, etc.?
  • What planned innovations and “moonshot” solutions do we have that we can propose to governments in relation to these rising social issues?

As our way to contribute to social organisations in this time of uncertainty, Latitude Network is offering free “Sounding Board” online workshops for the boards and executives of five social sector organisations exploring the questions outlined above. If you are interested please contact us at dale@latitude.network to book your workshop. We will provide a pre-reading document and a summary of recommendations after the workshop.

About the author: Dale Renner (dale@latitude.network) is a director of Latitude Network, a social sector consultancy focused on outcomes, data and performance.


Dale Renner  |  @ProBonoNews

Dale Renner is a strategy and innovation consultant and director of Latitude Network.

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