As with every organisation, coronavirus has changed how we work. Some changes have been forced by external events, but we have also taken the chance to proactively change some of what we do, spurring on changes we were already making slowly. Lockdown has also prompted greater reflection on what we are doing and what difference it makes.
Our first reflection is to count our blessings. Within our team and our wider family, there have been mercifully few illnesses. While we have had to adapt quickly, such inconveniences are nothing compared to the fear, loss and trauma of what many are going through. Unlike those who work in hospitals, shops or social care, we are not putting our lives at risk and we are grateful for this.
Our public facing outputs have been faster than we’re used to. Our popular coronavirus philanthropy guide was furiously written in just four days and has been continually updated since. Its continued popularity reminds us that in an immediate crisis, where everything is thrown up in the air, people want most of all to know what they can do right now. It made us realise how sometimes things can get bogged down in an internal bureaucracy. We don’t always see the missed opportunity where people are unable to engage our work because it is stuck in our drafts.
The lack of physical space pushed us to adopt new technologies. We are known for our Theory of Change work, which is often done in workshops. Now these are done online and, it turns out, online workshops are pretty good. We are using Miro, which allows lots of people to engage at once. If they were doing this in person they would be bumping into each other. The Miro template is also a large canvas which allows lots of viewpoints to be shared. A theory of change needs to simplify those down, so there’s more effort involved in refining the outputs, but we have found it to be an efficient way to gather contributions.
Lots of our projects have changed direction, especially our evaluations which tend to be focused on impact assessment. We’ve had to shift the focus to what we can learn from the innovation that is unfolding right now. Our clients are finding our five types of data framework really useful in making sure changes to activities, feedback and outcomes are captured as well as impact. We are pleased that our findings are rapidly turning into changed practice.
We’re also finding that many of our clients are taking advantage of the crisis to make changes they have been wanting to make for a while. Lots of our philanthropy clients are having shorter, more regular meetings, giving responsively and flexibly. And it turns out that they like it. As well as people coming to us asking how they can help in the crisis, we have also had more people coming to us asking how they can keep the changes that they like. What do they need to put in place to make this the new business as usual? It’s a reminder that we need to help all our clients continually reflect on whether things are working for them.
We’ve been enjoying great attendance at online meetings, workshops and webinars at shorter notice than normal. We’re not sure whether that is because of less travel time, fewer things to do, or something else. We’ve also noticed that people are coming from further afield; the London bias we often have in our meetings and events is falling. This is great, and something we hope to keep post-lockdown. We need to make sure to really learn from these events and meetings to avoid a default return to what we did before.
Although NPC has had flexible working for a long time, we have not had wide scale remote working. I’m grateful to sector colleagues who knew more about this who put out tips about how to manage teams remotely. This saved us valuable time in not doing stupid things. At first we overdid the Zoom conversations, but like lots of organisations, we have now cut back on that, encouraging phone calls for 1-2-1 conversations instead. We had to abandon all our lunchtime meetings, because watching someone eat over Zoom is even weirder than watching them eat when you are in the same room. When we have Zoom meetings with clients, they are generally shorter than an in-person one would be, as we find the attention span is shorter. And we are consciously trying to increase the non-verbal feedback in meetings, so that its clear whether people agree or not.
Our biggest problem is internal communication—all that information that you would find out from listening to chat around the office. We have had multiple people contacting the same organisation, and we have had to get better at sharing information and using our database than we are in the office. We also have some staff on furlough, so we have made a conscious effort to share information in a way that is captured so they can access it when they come back.
Which of these things we will keep once life returns to normal I don’t know. Some were on our list of things to do for a long time anyway, so I hope they stick. We are trying to capitalise on our period of innovation, by deliberately reflecting on what we think is working for us and our partners. If nothing else, it has reminded us that we can speed up the pace of change, that change is always a bit unsettling, but it can be good as well as bad.
The country is in a very deep crisis. At NPC we are working with philanthropists and partners on how they can more effectively fund charities now, and we want to hear your ideas about what more can be done.
Our research captures our sector in the final few months of calm before the storm, offering insight into its strengths, weaknesses, challenges and risks, so that philanthropists, funders and policy makers can best support charities to help those who rely on them now more than ever.