Ben Cairns

Leading through uncertainty: Lessons from the recession

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis, we have been scouring our collective histories (of research as well as lived experiences) to help inform and guide our responses. To date, our focus has been on emergencies – single traumatic, life-changing moments that required us all to step outside the normal. However, as our gaze begins to turn, tentatively, to recovery and the longer-term, what lessons might we find in the coping strategies employed during the recession and ensuing austerity of ten or so years ago? A period that felt, as now, like a truly existential crisis.

During 2012, we searched for clues about how social welfare organisations and funders might navigate their way through a time of rapid and continued change in order to meet the needs of their beneficiaries. Facing similar challenges today (albeit more far-reaching and fundamental), the following four observations for leaders resonate for us. They are as much about mindset as action.

  1. Transition is an essential and permanent feature of what it is for an organisation to survive, thrive and make a difference. Organisations are currently responding to a set of fluid and continually changing questions and choices. The scale and uncertainty of change is qualitatively different from anything experienced before, because of its reach and unpredictability. A defining characteristic of the new operating environment will be a state of continuous ‘transition’, in which survival will require us all to adapt to new and shifting sets of circumstances. And then adapt again. And again.
  2. Start and stick with mission. Organisations that understand their mission best are those that are strongly rooted – with a clear sense of where and how they fit into the greater scheme of things (including whether it is necessary for them to exist at all). Critical to this mindset is finding or creating the opportunity to ask searching questions: Who are we? What are we trying to achieve? What do we need to do to get there? Who else is operating in the same space? And as we search for answers through a period characterised by unknown unknowns, it will be important to strike a balance between remaining steadfast and true to our core purpose and values, and being open to the need for improvisation and opportunism.
  3. Funders need to change too. There are no simple answers, quick fixes or ‘one size fits all’ solutions. But nor will business as usual be enough. Funders, like their grantees and partners, will need to adapt and evolve. Investment in voluntary organisations (through grants and other assets – such as brokerage, networking, leverage, capacity building, etc) seems more likely to succeed when it takes full account of the knowledge and insight of those who are closest to the ultimate beneficiaries and understand their particular contexts best. This approach places value on the contribution each partner brings: the knowledge of context and needs that the funded organisation possesses; and the resources, overview and convening power of the funder. During a period of such heightened uncertainty, this kind of symbiosis in funding relationships has real value.

To these three observations, adapted from research in 2012, we can add a fourth, based on behaviours that have inspired us since the country entered lockdown on 23rd March.

  1. Leading from a place of agility into the future. Our own response to the current crisis has been organised around three key operating principles: being generous; trying to be useful; and striving to add value. Through the conversations we have been having with charity leaders, we have been attempting to be present, to be a place of solace, and to provide some steadiness in the face of uncertainty. Facing this together feels really important. It can strengthen and deepen bonds: across staff teams; between voluntary organisations and the people they serve and represent; between funders and their grantees. And, over time, it may help us all to lead from a place of agility and legitimacy into the future.

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