COVID-19 Notes from the Field #2: Impact and Strategic Clarity Community of Practice

July 22, 2020

This article is one of an occasional series from the Innoweave Impact and Strategic Clarity coaches’ Community of Practice.  As we work with nonprofit and social purpose organizations across the country, we are learning more about what is changing, what is staying the same, and new ideas about building back better.

Blog Post #2: Inequality, Precarity and Systemic Weaknesses

The COVID emergency has brought issues of inequality, precarity, and systemic racism into sharper relief. It has also highlighted structural problems in the vital nonprofit sector that are exacerbated by a lack of financial reserves and capital investment. The speed with which our governments and other funders have responded gives some leaders hope that we have the resources and systemic and political will to address systemic challenges including climate change. But building back better will mean comprehensive solutions that ‘multi-solve’ for more than one issue and address structural impediments to meeting new challenges as they come.

In our last ‘notes from the field’ post, we talked about some stages of change for many organizations: managing the crisis and protecting the organization, and then adapting and planning for the future.  We mentioned then that this process won’t be linear for many, or progress at the same pace.

This blog post underlines the importance of organizations shifting their approach toward “reimagining and rebuilding” and avoiding staying the same in the hope things will return to normal.  In it, we share some key insights we have observed in the field about new ways to move forward and plan for the future.

Recap of the Challenges and Way Forward

Organizations are facing challenges on many different fronts.  A survey conducted in April this year by Imagine Canada shows that revenue is down for 75% of organizations who responded, which is double the impact felt in the 2008 economic downturn. 55% of organizations reported that new or additional staff layoffs are expected.  For some organizations, such as those responding to health and food security crisis, demand is up while revenue remains the same. For others, programs have closed and the ongoing survival of some of these is in doubt. For some, moving programs and supports online has presented technical challenges and legal concerns that are hard to solve without financial reserves and technological infrastructure.

In our last blog, we underlined the value of leaders affirming core organizational values and focusing on impact as a good place to anchor their reimagining and rebuilding. Once initial emergency response efforts were in place, it was those organizations that made space for reflection and clarifying how their internal and external context had changed that could then make headway in transforming their work in the medium term.

Given that many leaders talk about how returning to “normal” seems unlikely, non-profits are now focused on:

  • Transforming how they work, internally and externally; scaling good solutions in collaboration with partners across all sectors in our communities.
  • Understanding, measuring and communicating their impact: telling their stories inside and outside our organizations in a compelling way that inspires innovation and collaboration and attracts investment.

Transformation and Scale

As leaders consider adapting their organizations and preparing for the future it is becoming clearer that recovery will require transforming how work is done.  Building relationships with new service partners and suppliers and diversifying revenue models may help manage costs, scale innovation toward solutions and attract investment.  Shared services and mergers are being considered to help stretch scarce resources. New solutions and approaches that can multi-solve for social, economic and environmental challenges will require leadership and some hard choices. Building resilience and a nimble and innovative system will require faster and more effective planning processes and flexibility and innovation in organization design and human resource practice.

For example, The Atmospheric Fund is focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region: buildings produce 50% of GHGs in cities.  Their experience in retrofit projects can be scaled in the recovery, bringing together capital and expertise to create good jobs that have measurable positive environmental and health impacts.

The Fund’s CEO, Julia Langer, has noted that physical distancing will be a reality in public transit ridership.  The collectivization of transportation is important to The Atmospheric Fund, so that carbon intensive infrastructure activities like building and paving roads could be reduced through alternative transportation options like bike lane networks.   Integrating health and climate concerns with Covid solutions that create jobs could address multiple issues at once.

Investment in the recovery will require channel partners that have ‘shovel-worthy’ ideas. At the same time, the Fund is reaching out to grantees to understand their needs and re-prioritize investment in multi-solving ideas.

Another example is Champions for Life, a charitable organization dedicated to helping children develop their physical literacy. Transformation for them has meant accelerating plans for scaling online to reach more students, now that work in person in schools in Quebec will not be possible.

While the majority of nonprofits continue to operate, 26% have closed their doors.  46% are operating with changed or scaled back programming. Only 11% have remained open and operating and many of these are serving the most vulnerable in our society.

Scaling up, Not Scaling Back

An example is the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver (EFry). EFry supports some of our society’s most vulnerable populations – women, girls and children at risk, involved in or affected by the justice system. Their more than two dozen programs work to break the cycle of poverty, addiction, mental illness, homelessness and crime.

Shawn Bayes, the CEO of EFry, reports that COVID has pushed more people on the margin further from safety. Violence, hunger and homelessness are greater risks in the Covid emergency than before, and a second wave could compound these risks further. EFry has scaled up its operations in the crisis rather than scaling back: serving more meals to more people, expanding shelter beds by more than 300%. Doing this on a limited budget, and ensuring the safety of clients and staff, has caused them to look at their operations in a new way.  Supply chains for food are an example: EFry is changing procurement and storage processes and building new partnerships to feed more people.

Revisiting your Theory of Change

All of these organizations have affirmed their core impact goals and values and have working to adapt their Theories of Change (the strategy through which their goals will be achieved) to reflect the new context within which they are operating now and expect for the future.

Tools like scenario planning can help nonprofits understand the new context and the possibilities for achieving their goals. This tool, developed by the Bridgespan Group, helps organizations make decisions in a time of great uncertainty. Starting with identifying the key drivers of risk in programs, operations of funding, and assessing them in terms of their level of risk and importance to core goals (like client demand, staff capacity, contract revenue, foundation grants, or others), organizations can then focus on the most important risks and develop a portfolio of options for addressing them.

Telling a Compelling Impact Story

As organizations are adapting, understanding and measuring their impact is becoming more important for managing resources better, finding new solutions and having a compelling story to tell. Impact measurement strategies that track economic and environmental impact and progress toward equity and equality can demonstrate how investment in vital programs has ripple effects across communities and the society at large. A compelling story doesn’t have to be the culmination of an expensive 3-year impact evaluation conducted by a third party. It can be a re-articulation of your core values, your intended impact and the most compelling aspects of the strategies you are using to achieve this impact. Stories that capture the heads and hearts of how you’ve adapted to the pandemic context or what you have learned and how you are changing and improving your response are welcome testimonials right now. Spending some time targeting different stories to specific audiences will ensure that your deliver key messages to the right people, making it clear for them how you are inviting them to get involved or to respond.

For example, Habitat Canada can measure its impact in terms of the number of homes it builds, but that is a proxy measure for the bigger story of change in communities for new homeowners and volunteers and broader more inclusive economic activity. Innovations in home design and construction can set a higher bar for environmental impact and sustainability in communities in general.  Habitat can show the broader impact of its work and can tell a compelling story that attracts investment from corporations and individuals. Municipalities and other levels of government can dedicate surplus land to an effort that has demonstrated economic and environmental benefit.

An ability to measure and communicate impact will help attract investment.  More governments of every level and corporations are looking to ways to invest in what used to be called the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. More recently, people refer to building resilient systems and societies, or multi-solving. Organizations that can measure local and system-level impact and demonstrate where investment will serve people, create jobs and address climate change will attract investment that helps build resilience in our society.

Communicating New Strategies for ‘Multi-Solving’

Funders, particularly private funders with the latitude to invest in emerging ideas, are transforming how they engage with grantees. Recognizing the vital contribution nonprofits make to Canadian society, more funders are looking at ways to trust the mission and broader influence of innovative grantees and direct funds to where the energy and ideas are. The ability to demonstrate and communicate the potential of new ideas, or the growing need for direct services to the most vulnerable will help all of us learn more, collaborate better and achieve more. The leaders we talk to are tired but inspired about the possibilities and committed to ensuring that short-term stimulus spending will seed the ground for long-term. Funders of all kinds are inspired to support organizations with a compelling story and demonstrated multi-solving impact.

There are lot of ideas out there. Many networks are sharing tools, sharing resources and hosting panel discussions by webinar. Innoweave is one curation source for these supports. Innoweave is also offering mentorship and coaching to organizations interested in scenario planning, Theories of Change, financial diversification, organizational design or human resource policy change, or building measurement of impact that helps organizations tell their stories. Support is available for any nonprofit to talk through options and challenges and build on their new ideas.

We will continue to share examples from the field about how leaders and their organizations are asking and answering these questions. Look out for our next post during the summer months. We also welcome your thoughts and ideas. Please share your own inspiring story or challenge of adaptation, leadership and impact. We would love to hear more about what you are living in your work.