Government and the Voluntary Sector, Policy, campaigns & research, Policy

In a crisis, plan don’t panic

When working through a crisis, we mustn't panic. Here's some advice on how to stay level-headed during uncertain times from our Director of Policy and Research, Jay Kennedy.

Does it ever seem to you like we’re living in a permanent crisis? As soon as they started coming out the other side of the pandemic, charities have been hit with inflation and cost pressures not seen in decades, and we don’t know how long this will last. As a result, many people are in crisis and charities are finding it increasingly hard to keep serving them. 

Some organisations may be considering the unthinkable over the next few months – having to either wind up key services or even shut up shop all together due to mounting bills and costs. If you’re in that situation, there are some things to consider which can help. 

1. Get your governance right. During a crisis it’s more important than ever that your board is in sync, getting the right information at the right time to make effective decisions. Consider scheduling more regular, shorter meetings, maybe even weekly or monthly depending on the severity of the situation, or setting up a subcommittee to have more frequent meetings with the executive.

It’s critical to make sure all discussions and meetings are clearly minuted, with actions and decisions taken by the board clearly set out, and to keep all documents stored appropriately. This will be crucial in the case of any investigations by regulators. In the unfortunate event that the charity has to close down, good paperwork can help protect your trustees (assuming they made reasonable decisions within their duties and the charity’s objects). 

DSC resources that will help you work on your governance: 

2. Get good information. You can’t make good decisions without good information, so it’s crucial that you know as much as possible about the most important bits of your organisation. When do your biggest contracts and leases end and what are the terms? What are the most critical activities in terms of supporting your cause or beneficiaries? What level are your reserves, and more importantly, your cash reserves at?  

Having this information to hand will make it easier to test any big decisions, work out the implications of stopping or scaling back certain activities, and ensure that you’re planning effectively based on solid evidence during what can be a really difficult time.  

If you don’t have the time or the resources to gather the data you need, don’t worry, we can help. Whether it’s making sense of the information you already have, finding out what more you could do for your beneficiaries or evaluating specific projects, our award-winning research team can help. Find out how our research team can help here. 

3. Adapt your communication. During a crisis, leaders need to communicate more, not less. This includes the public and the charity’s beneficiaries, but also staff, volunteers, and especially trustees. Be honest and clear – don’t sugar coat the situation but don’t raise alarms unnecessarily either. Set up channels to give trustees more regular, predictable information. Change trustees’ expectations about the charity needing an increased level of their engagement during the crisis period, and make it clear that they will need to be on hand for key decisions perhaps at short notice, with a clear point for review in the future. Keep staff briefed regularly and be open about the charity’s circumstances too – don’t hide bad news. Chances are staff will pitch in and pull together if they feel they are getting honesty from leaders, whereas they may become demotivated if they feel things are being hidden. 

There’s no ‘perfect’ leader, however, there are things that you can do to make sure you are the best leader you can be. So, this autumn, why not boost your leadership and communications skills with a training course or two… See our full list here. 

4. Don’t take those grants for granted. If you have funding from grant-makers, set up a meeting urgently with them to discuss the charity’s circumstances. This can be a gamble as we’re not generally comfortable telling a grant-maker that we’re in financial trouble, but if they’re any good, they won’t want you to go under along with the valuable work you do which they invested in. They might be able to give you a bit of extra funding to keep you solvent or get through a period of tight cash flow. Even asking that grants be temporarily be de-restricted, to allow restricted funds to be spent on unrestricted costs on condition they are reimbursed later, can be worth trying – but get it in writing. Also, if your grant was agreed years ago, ask for an inflationary uplift to reflect current costs. 

Save time finding funding by searching thousands of funders with our fundraising database Funds Online. Check it out and subscribe here.  

5. Think about a fresh appeal. Even though many parts of society are struggling right now, there’s still enormous wealth and goodwill out there and charities are still fundraising successfully. Sometimes that old business trick of ‘going out of business sale!’ can deliver the revenue to get through a rough patch and pull you away from the brink. Make any appeals and communications about continuing your vital services for beneficiaries not about the organisation – stress to your donors the urgency and your plan for getting things on a more stable footing. 

Your fundraising skills might just need a little refresh or even an update, so make sure you’re making good use of the books we have in our fundraising collection: 

Find the whole collection here. 

6. Look after yourself and others. These can be times of huge stress and worry. Many in our sector will be witnessing real suffering and when we’re unable to help, or help sufficiently, this can be painful. It’s easier said than done, but worrying about tomorrow doesn’t solve today’s problems. If you burn out or make yourself ill, you won’t be able to solve anything! So make time to look after your own well-being. You’re doing important work and our society needs you! 

Check out DSC’s cost of living hub, with free information that can help.