Experimenting and learning during a crisis: A voluntary sector perspective

These precarious times have created mounting pressures, huge challenges and uncertainty for the voluntary sector. At the same time, opportunities have opened up for voluntary organisations to explore and adopt new and different behaviours and relationships. For some, ‘Human Learning Systems’ practices have catalysed tangible improvements and advances across four elements of organisational life:

Collaborative relationships

There has been growing emphasis on working together as the most effective way of responding quickly to the changing needs and growing demands of individuals and communities. A shared sense of urgency, more accessible and immediate forms of communication, and a stripping away of bureaucratic red tape have enabled cross-sector partners to come together on a more equal footing. And a spirit of collective endeavour has opened people’s eyes to the value of varied expertise, experience and knowledge. This sense of common purpose has helped to build rapport, strengthen bonds, challenge norms and redress power imbalances.

Adaptation and experimentation

There was no rehearsal for the pandemic: it shook everyone to the core and asked questions for which there were few, if any, obvious answers. Unexpectedly, these uncharted waters created the conditions for being more experimental, trialling new ways of working, and testing assumptions behind long-established practices. Everything was up for grabs; there were no one-size-fits-all solutions. This opened up space for people to show ‘collective bravery’ and take risks, learning and adapting through more iterative approaches.

Distributed leadership

Leaders have taken on huge responsibilities, regularly making tough decisions to look after the safety and welfare of their workforce and service users, at the same time as living through a pandemic themselves. Although leaders have retained a breadth of responsibilities as the nodal point in their organisations, circumstances have required them to give up elements of power and control by delegating some responsibilities, trusting other staff to do what is best for people accessing services, using their judgement to make and take decisions. This shift towards more distributed leadership has heightened team morale, as well as enhancing job satisfaction.

Being human and working with emotions in voluntary sector organisations

We are all feeling the emotional demands of living through a pandemic, not least the blurring of home and work life. Staff are feeling exhausted, sensitive and receptive to tensions that might normally have been brushed off. This can have a knock-on effect by creating uncomfortable and tense work dynamics. In response, leaders have adopted more human approaches, for example, by offering additional coaching or support sessions; building self-care into the working day; and through transparent and regular communication.

Three commitments 

Despite these advances and innovations, the risk of reverting to previous, more closed and insular ways of working is evident. To ensure that this is transformative moment, rather than a brief hiatus, attention will need to be paid to three commitments:

  • Ensuring that decision-making spaces continue to be accessible and available to different stakeholders, with a premium on involving and respecting the value of diverse expertise and knowledge when responding to complex needs.
  • Learning together, in real time, as a way of building trusting relationships and tackling competitive behaviour.
  • Acknowledging and addressing the emotional demands from working in this way, and embedding reflective and supportive practices to guard against burnout.

Download the e-book

We’re proud to be involved with the Human Learning Systems collaborative. You can read more about human learning systems approaches, and our chapter, in the new e-book. Download it here.

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