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CII BLOG > Cii Blog > Contradictions, Collaboration, and Change Emerge From the Chaos of COVID

Contradictions, Collaboration, and Change Emerge From the Chaos of COVID

28 Apr 2021
Cii Blog

No-one will forget 2020 in a hurry, even though most of us may want to. The Charity sector is no exception to this and 2020 was a year of contradictions, collaboration, and change in the sector amidst the chaos that hit the nation and the economy with the onset of COVID-19.  The challenges felt in Ireland were also mirrored in other parts of the world and the Ecclesiastical Charity Risk Barometer highlighted the issues identified by charity CEOs including funding, employee burnout, service user demands and more during 2020.

The year though was not a total loss and speaking at the recent Cii CEO Forum, David Lane, Managing Director of specialist insurer Ecclesiastical, highlighted that ‘disruption brings opportunity for businesses with an agility to meet the changing environment while staying true to core principles’. And agility was certainly on show in the charity sector.

Against a backdrop of plunging funding as events were cancelled and consumers were locked down, the charity sector was, unlike most businesses, faced with an unprecedented surge in demand for support from service users. Some charities have reported demand surges almost on par with global behemoth Amazon, with increases of 45% in service use. 

This demand placed untold pressure on the sector and true to form the sector innovated massively.  As organisations and people everywhere pivoted to remote access, working from home [or Living From Work], one charity was able, in just 9 days, to move from having none to having two fully functioning studios from which to broadcast and share its content with service users. The resulting benefit in terms of service provision was compounded by employee engagement benefits with the sense of achievement in seeing the innovation come to life so meaningfully.

Other speakers at the Cii CEO Forum, which was convened under Chatham House Rule, highlighted how the demand surge was not bounded by geography.  Innovation in the ‘how’ of service delivery was leveraged into the opportunity of ‘where’ as local groups became national in their outreach with some local charities moving to international impact with service provision across borders.

The online environment too, often the focus of much chagrin due to the dark underbelly of online behaviour, became a zone where difficult topics, content, and conversations were more easily managed when compared to the challenges of in-person interactions.

Also important was the role of leaders and leadership – particularly with regards to the levels of trust and the expansion of boundaries for team members. Some leaders discussed how they learned the hard way that burnout flares in the C-suite too if work-life-balance parameters are not respected.  Showing leadership through authenticity – be it juggling scare space at home, navigating the complexity of broadband capacity, showing exhaustion, but still maintaining optimism in the face of unprecedented difficulty, also presented opportunities – not least of which was the increased trust among teams.

The support of engaged and active Boards was a key discussion point for CEOs in the sector.  While other reports have emerged of patchy Board responses to COVID challenges, there is a clear recognition too that trustees – many of whom are voluntary, faced significant challenges in 2020.  However, CEOs at the session, as well as discussing the benefits of trustees asking difficult questions of the executive teams on areas of strategy, governance, and business sustainability, spoke of the importance of guidance from the Board on dealing with those issues too. Recognising the increased need for training for Board members on their legal duties, the session also discussed how some charities used their Board to create impact in new ways during 2020.  One organisation reported how it leveraged Board expertise by using Board members as guest speakers at webinars organised by the charity. 

Other attendees spoke of the role of the Board in terms of strategy, challenge, and support. Particularly how they challenged and supported executive teams in re-writing of strategies to deal with an unprecedented challenge that had simply not been considered on the risk registers of most organisations.  The importance now for executive teams and Boards in the next two years is to ensure the continuance of heightened collaboration in a vaccinated world.

As with any change, teething problems were encountered – and particularly ‘managing the meh’ after Christmas.  The problems though were overcome with a combination of agility and bonding with many organisations reporting on new ways to get to know colleagues and engage with them.  For some, it was the use of walking meetings and encouraging colleagues to share images of what they saw in the universe of their immediate community and 5KM restrictions.  As well as increased levels of trust, the online model has seen a somewhat contradictory increase in meeting attendance coupled with a parallel outburst of Zoom exhaustion. The solution advocated by some was the mandatory shortening of meetings to 50mins instead of 1 hour. As well as more focused meeting time, this had the knock-on effect of enforced breaks between meetings to allow people to refocus. 

Where the adaptability of colleagues ‘shone out like a beacon’, as one participant described it, the spectre of return to office hangs now in the air as a cause of palpable concern on two fronts. The operationalisation of a hybrid model that maintains these new service levels; and the potential costs of hybrid working with office based and home based cost considerations.  

While some people expected office rents to fall, the current experience – at least in Dublin City Centre – is that cost per square metre has held despite the obvious increase in unused office space as most organisations and people look to permanently implement remote working and hybrid models.  Unless the organisation has the opportunity to break a lease, the double cost now of maintaining the office environment while also equipping employees to continue working from home will hit the costbase.  The challenge therefore will be to capitalise on the positives that emerged from COVID while implementing a hybrid model.  

Consolidation is one approach that is likely to be applied in the sector.  But consolidation may also be achieved through collaboration so that the common needs and the unique propositions of multiple charity sector organisations can be blended with a win-win for all concerned – particularly the service users.

While 2020 was a year of forced agility, 2021 and beyond will be the true test for leaders as they grapple with a new set of challenges that will impact long into the future in terms of operations, costbase, funding, and service provision.

Cii hosts CEO Forums quarterly under Chatham House Rule to create a shared space for CEOs of Ireland’s progressive charity sector to discuss key strategic issues on the leadership and growth of the sector. The April 2021 Cii CEO Forum was hosted in association with Cii Strategic Partner for 2021, the specialist insurer Ecclesiastical. Ecclesiastical is itself owned by a charitable entity and gives all its distributable profits back to charity. The April CEO Forum guest speaker was David Lane, Managing Director of Ecclesiastical in Ireland.  David is also a Board member on charities based in Ireland.

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