This article was originally published in Pro Bono News on 4 May 2020.
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:
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.
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 organisationWhat 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:
Should social organisations pursue growth, and if they do, how should they do it?, asks Dale Renner. (First published Pro Bono News 13 June 2017)
“Growth” can be a controversial word in the social sector. Social service leaders sometimes say “our job is eventually to go out of business”, implying that in some unspecified way, social problems will be solved and will remove demand for assistance. Yet, as the sector moves from grant-based to individualised funding, it becomes important to have a view on what growth means to social services organisations.
The ethical case for growth
Growth in this context doesn’t mean growing the amount of money spent on social programs in the aggregate. The focus is on growth at the program, or possibly organisation, level.
To understand the case for growth, agreement is first needed on what outcomes the community desires – many are obvious such as reducing crime, family violence, homelessness and Indigenous disadvantage. It is also important to understand what programs are proven to achieve that outcome for a certain cohort of people (noting there are levels of proof from anecdote through to randomised controlled trial). Growing the reach of those proven programs to benefit a greater number of people is surely an ethical pursuit as it reduces human suffering and harm. So at first blush, if a program is successful, for example, in helping to improve universal child literacy, it has a prima facie case for growth.