BLOG: How to weather the storm in a disruptive external environment

Being a small charity can feel a lot like being a cork in the ocean: you get tossed around by the waves of public and political change, and sometimes the waves become so big and stormy that it can be hard to stay afloat. Working with more than 100 partner charities last year, at Pilotlight we understand how a disruptive external environment can really affect small organisations in the sector.

It is also a topic that comes up often when working with the Weston Charity Award winners, of which our newest cohort has just been announced. For example, a change in government brings in new political priorities which then changes the allocation of funding from local authorities. From the other end, social changes such as a rapidly aging population or mass migration affect the type and amount of need charities aim to provide for.

In light of these kinds of challenges and changes, here are my top tips for dealing with an uncertain, and potentially disruptive, external environment:

1. Stay informed – take the time to look outwards and find out what changes might be coming up. Speak to others in the sector about how changes might affect them, and how they’re planning for it. The better informed you are of factors that could affect your organisation, the more able you are to plan for what’s ahead.

2. Develop a Plan B – say the funding environment or social needs change, where else could your income come from or how else could you support service users? This is a chance to be innovative: use the skills and ideas of staff and board members and take inspiration from other organisations to plan what your organisation could become and how. When planning new approaches and ideas, it’s essential to have as many ideas in the pot as possible before you whittle them down.

3. Be clear on your vision and mission – who you are as an organisation and what you want to achieve for your service users should always be the cornerstone of decision-making. If changing your model or merging with another organisation will enable you to create better or more sustainable outcomes for your service users, it should be seriously considered. On the other hand, don’t pursue new opportunities if they don’t help you fulfil your specific purpose – it’s tempting to accept new projects for the sake of some much-needed funding, but if they don’t align with your priorities they’ll stretch the organisation and dilute your social impact. Keeping your mission front and centre makes organisations more focused and more impactful.

The political and social environment is always going to be changeable and being prepared is the best way to deal with it. As a Pilotlight project manager I’ve worked with many charities as they’ve dealt with changes that have impacted upon their funding, staff, services and more. These charities are now succeeding, by having anticipated what could change and planned how to survive in the new environment whilst staying true to their mission and service users. They would also never have achieved what they have without some serious determination, resilience and positive thinking!

Polly Wallace-Kruger is a project manager at Pilotlight

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