Agony Uncle: How do I make the most of my organisation’s time in lockdown?

Our Community’s resident agony uncle, Chris Borthwick, offers answers to frequently asked questions about issues not-for-profits are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many organisations forced to suspend normal operations, here’s his view on how they can use the time to get on top of their housekeeping.

How do I make the most out of my organisation's lockdown?

Chris Borthwick, Our Community's thinker-in residence

If the staff of your not-for-profit are still getting up and going to work, you’ve got the enormous challenge of maintaining your services under the extraordinary constraints of keeping everybody infection-free.

But if you’ve had to send your staff home – and I’m talking here about staff who would normally be out in the community delivering services – then you have two problems: paying them, and using their time profitably. JobKeeper is intended to help you with the first, but the second is up to you. Here are some things to consider.

For the individual, being stuck at home typically means the chance to do all the jobs – cleaning the gutters, sorting the junk in the garage – that weren’t quite urgent enough over the past year or so to get to the top of the to-do list.

It’s much the same for your organisation. You need to sustain your ability to function now, in the hope that when you emerge from hibernation you’ll be able to fulfill your mission again. Ideally, you’d be looking for something that you should have done already but didn’t have the time for because you were so busy with your good work. If your office is like mine, that would certainly include documentation.

Your organisation will have a policy and procedures bank, I hope (with the help, perhaps, of the Our Community Policy Bank). This may need updating – the relevant laws may have changed, or the things you’re doing, or the technology available. A lot of financial control policies, for example, mention the need to have several signatories for cheques, which are increasingly in this era less a regular method of transmitting funds and more a trivia question for millennials.

Policies are a matter for the board, though, and the associated procedures are mainly a matter for the CEO, who has to work out who’s responsible for what.

But what about all the embedded knowledge that’s found at the coalface of the organisation? The procedures manual says “This is what you have to do”, but it’s the people on the ground who know how to do it.

Your organisation’s work depends on your group carrying along a vast amount of expertise about process. Normally, this knowledge is passed down on the job, through modelling by experienced staff. Ideally, though, every position in the organisation really needs process notes – the kind of instructions you’d give to a new person just starting out, or that you’d give over the phone to someone filling in for you (“Ignore the clock countdown, it’ll only distract you. Now you’ve got the lid off, you should see a red wire and a green wire. Cut – and I can’t emphasis this enough – the red wire.”)

Righ now, you have an opportunity and enough time to make your organisation’s documentation so good that if you were suddenly shut down, a successor with access to your materials could restart the following week. But I don’t mean to alarm you. Your organisation is going to come back from this.

At the top level, this is about your mission. Delivering your mission successfully at the macro level, however, involves having a clear idea of how you’ve been doing what you do at the micro level.

Ask your home-bound staff to document their performance and reflect on their practice, in writing or by dictation to their mobile phone or on video. One way to do this would be through retrospective work diaries; another would be through informal induction guides, in case duties have to be reassigned – or redesigned, or abolished. It’s also a good idea to ask staff members how they’d like to play this.

This isn’t make-work. You must take the exercise seriously, and be prepared to listen carefully to what staff tell you, especially where they’re making criticisms or suggesting changes.

To be clear, all this emphasis on documentation would have been a good idea in January, or 2019, or all the time for any organisation. Your ability to grow, to scale yourself up, to maintain quality, depends on your ability to reproduce yourself at your best. You need to know what that consists of, and how to teach and transmit it, the words and the music. For the full orchestra.

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This help sheet is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.

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