What does it take to become a resilient organisation in the Not-for-profit sector?
Our honest reflections on a year of crisis and challenge.
Anna Moegerlein, December 2020
As the mood becomes festive, with the end of a long year in sight, we want to take a moment to pause. It’s tempting to want to switch off, but before we do, we want to share some honest reflections of this past 12 months so that we go forward with the learning and insights of this year’s journey.
To begin to answer this question of resilience, we’ve begun to explore three things.
First, we need to ground this discussion in reality. It’s been a tough year. As a not-for-profit and a small business, we certainly don’t have all the answers, but we have responded well. So where are we at now? What has worked? What hasn’t? What level of resilience or sustainability can we realistically aim for? Why?
Second, we need to look at resilient systems, not just resilient organisations. Economic and social resilience relies on an entire ecosystem of actors (Norris et al, 2007). What funding approaches have eroded resilience? What policy and regulation have done the same? Does a more competitive funding approach improve or undermine resilience?
Finally, we need to get clear on why the not-for-profit sector matters. Resilience is expensive. But fragility is even more expensive in the long run. What do we lose if we don’t invest for resilience? What do we gain?
In this blog we dive into #1.
It’s March 16 and Scott Morison has just announced that international borders are closing. As a leadership team, we go into crisis mode. Seven days later we write this blog post. Re-reading it now reminds me of the shock and fear we all were experiencing at that time. We took quick decisive action to communicate with our team, reduce our costs and salvage revenue. We were entering uncharted territory and we tried our best to create a life raft.
Four things helped us during this crisis phase: past experience, cash reserves, strong leadership and a healthy culture.
The past experience was a financial crisis (two years ago) of our own making. At the time, it was extremely difficult to navigate. But in March this year, the experience served us well. We knew what we needed to do. We analysed our financials, came up with a plan and cut costs. The team trusted our direction and rallied. The financial-crisis-of-our-own-making had also driven us to build significant cash reserves. Without this, we would have been forced to reduce our staff even further or compromise on our mission by taking on any kind of work. To this day, cash reserves alongside leadership and culture are still the three most important factors that are driving our ability to rebuild.
After the initial rush of the crisis management, grief and resistance set in. This affected us all in different ways. Some of us became overwhelmed. Others lost motivation or became anxious. Thankfully, over the last three years we have slowly built a very strong leadership team and a culture of honesty, vulnerability and accountability. As a result we were able to have some tough conversations as a leadership team, which helped us all to do the (continual) emotional processing required to lead. Our CEO Annie Smits, in particular, has done an incredible job at leading with compassion and courage, helping the team notice and name their own discomfort, and find their strength amidst difficulty.
Fast forward four weeks after the crisis began, with Annie’s help, we began to use the analogy of a ‘campsite’ to describe the liminal space we found ourselves in. It was as if our house had burnt down and we were struggling to reconcile the shock and the grief of all that was happening. We needed to set up camp, a temporary place of residence while we figured out how to reinvent for the new normal. This helped us to focus on getting the campsite set up, trying to work out where stuff goes, who’s sleeping where and how to trade out of a tent.
Now, several months on and we’ve been building strategy in the most uncertain environment we’ve ever experienced. Recently we reflected on a further five key factors that have helped us lead through these last few months. They are: death, vision, clarity, trust, and relationships.
On death… In the last month, we talked through the closure of TDi. Not because closure is a given, but because when it is absent from conversations it casts a long shadow. As a leadership team we discussed what it would be like to close ‘her’ (we refer to TDi as a she, that has life beyond us as individuals). We discussed what we would each do and how we would feel. We discussed who we would have to talk to (the board, our founders, the team, etc). This helped us understand that although it would be very difficult, everyone would be ok. We are not responsible for others’ jobs or ambitions. We can’t protect them from a global pandemic. That’s not our responsibility. And even more importantly, there’s no shame in closing.
Then we asked why would we try to preserve TDi and on what terms? Personally, I shared that I am willing to invest in ‘her’ survival, only if we are doing work that applies the difficult lessons we have learnt in the last five years. I do not want to repeat our past mistakes, as they maintain (or at worst, perpetuate) the structural inequality that we are trying to address through business and finance. I don’t have time for the status quo anymore. This conversation gave us permission to recast the net. What did we really want to work on? What matters most to us and to TDi? And what would be missing in the world if TDi ceased to exist?
Out of this conversation flowed a vision for four long-term ‘demonstration’ projects that we are committed to bringing into the world. They address more complex challenges and serve as a demonstration of what’s possible in ‘doing good and making money’.
Following this, we’ve written a much clearer business development strategy and a forward plan, that specifies our targets and strategies for this financial year and for next. We’ve planned for a number of scenarios. We’ve described what our ‘minimum viable product’ looks like, in the event that we don’t win enough work. We know when we need to act and what we’ll do. This documentation is a pretty simple step – and one we’d always advise others to do – but in a ‘chaortic’ organisation like ours, we very rarely slow down to document our own thinking.
In the gap while not knowing what the future holds, we are practicing trust. I believe that trust, like hope, is a discipline. It takes discipline and courage to trust that we have value when we’re waiting for a response from funders or clients, or when that response is negative. It takes discipline to trust that we’re doing everything we can to serve TDi. Of course, alongside this we need to be curious about negative feedback and evaluate our own outcomes (it’s not blind, armoured confidence). But that said, there are some parts of life that are a mystery, that are outside of our control, and the sooner we surrender to that, the better we lead.
Finally, our relationships with others in the ecosystem have been incredibly important through this time. We’ve taken much courage from hearing from, and sharing with, other Australian Indigenous and non-indigenous intermediaries, not-for-profits and businesses throughout this time. We feel that it’ll be our relationships, partnerships and collaborations that will ultimately allow us to drive more positive change going forward.
The Resilient Design Institute defines resilience as “the ability to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance. It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption.”
When I look back at our last 7 months, I can see that we have adapted well, and maintained vitality in the face of adversity. My hope is that we will do far more than bounce back. In fact, I can see how COVID-19, could be the making of TDi and push us to our greatest contributions. But that’s all yet to be determined. There are still many things outside our control. And so, we remain humbly open to all the paths that we might end up walking.