If you have ever watched the West Wing, you may recall the President (Jed Bartlet) was frequently saying “what’s next”. When asked about what it meant his response was “when I say what’s next it means I am ready to move on to other things – what’s next”.

Nine weeks post lockdown Covid_19 is still with us, easements have begun, furlough has been extended, support packages implemented with more to come. Lots of talk about recovery, recession, resumption of services and a new normal with physical distancing being with us for 18-24 months.

The role of the Board whether it’s in the public, third or private sector remains the same:

  • Accountability, for spend, resources and decision making
  • Strategy, the destination and the journey
  • Culture, the way we do things around here

The what’s next question has never been more important and applies across all three of these roles.  If Boards continue to focus entirely on the here and now, they are ignoring their responsibility to look forward and plan the what’s next. Whilst the staff team will be focused on delivering the services, securing financial support and dealing with the day to day challenges the Board must lead the looking forward piece.

Covid_19 has impacted organisations in different ways. Some will have repurposed to support the fight against the pandemic; others will have furloughed their teams and are waiting to see if they will survive and there are ones who have ceased already/planning to.

Let’s not forget the enormous amount of innovation and creativity that has blossomed throughout the crisis, showcasing organisations and communities at their very best working together for the greater good. Physical distancing, remote working, virtual meetings and re-packaged support and services are now part of all our lives.

The what’s next conversation for Boards needs to capture the best and worst of the last nine weeks. It must not shy away from some of the more difficult and honest conversations that should be had.  It is time for courageous leadership about the what’s next. Here are some areas for consideration and questions Boards could be exploring.

Survival, Recovery

Corona virus job retention scheme, rates relief, business support schemes, reprofiling of grants with funders, upfront payments, payment holidays and support have all been given (with more on the way) to enable organisations to stay afloat. These are short term and necessary interventions to help right now. By their very nature they will not be here for long? What’s next after the grant, furlough and payment holidays? Will your organisation survive in the short term? What steps are needed to bring about recovery? What is in the best interests of the organisation? What do we need to do to get our people back to work? Are redundancies inevitable? Is there a need to repurpose/re-profile? What are the risks?

Solvency, sustainability

The temporary relaxation of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill 2020 offers flexibility to businesses (& charities or social enterprises that are structured as companies, community benefit societies, co-operatives) until the end of September 2020. What’s next after that? Directors and Trustees have legal duties with the expectation they act responsibly – that includes remaining solvent and taking action quickly. Jenny Ebbage, Partner at Edwards and Company provides insight into managing solvency risks that Boards should consider[1]  .

Arms Length Bodies operate within a different context to the above, however it does not remove the need for them to manage and deploy public resources responsibly and in the public interest. A duty to break-even, adherence to the managing public money, management statement and financial memorandum and where applicable partnership agreements. The sustainability of the public sector post Covid-19 will be in sharp focus. Department of Finance in Northern Ireland provides a suite of guidance to support those in charge of governance and public funds.

Mergers, closure

With an estimated 7000-12,000 charities in Northern Ireland many experiencing a significant income drop from fundraising (in some cases by 90%[2]) the third sector is in the fight of its life whilst service demand is increasing. Research by CO3  and The Institute of Fundraising  ‘Covid-19 and the Charity Sector in NI‘ laid bare the fragile state of the sector with 32% at risk of closing and 76% in serious financial difficulties.

The Charity Commission in Northern Ireland[3] says “it is important that charity trustees regularly review their charity’s effectiveness and how the charity is meeting the needs of beneficiaries. Some charities may identify that a merger would be a helpful way of meeting those needs more effectively. This may result in the closure of one or more charities as they merge into another. Other charities may close as a result of unrelated factors, including loss of funds or a lack of members”. Public and Private Sector organisations are not immune from closure or the need for merging.

In a post Covid world there is likely to be an increase in vulnerable people due to recession, trauma, mental health and education inequalities.  If Covid_19 has taught us anything it’s that essential services have changed forever, supporting our most vulnerable is key and collaboration is going to be a necessity not a luxury due to reduced income streams.

What’s next for your organisation? What is in the best interests of those you serve?  Reduced income and sustainability? Are there other organisations providing similar services and support? Are you competing for a smaller pot? Is exploring merger or closure on the agenda?

The pillars of accountability, strategy and culture should always shape board agendas and discussions. Covid_19 is still with us and will be for some time. The decisions that are taken, the direction that is travelled and how it is done over the coming weeks and months will impact greatly. What Boards do now will determine the what’s next for the organisation. It’s time for courageous leadership with a good dose of innovation, creativity and common sense.

PS. Get advice when you need it

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[1] https://www.edwardsandcompany.co.uk/blog/988/managing-solvency-risks

[2] https://www.co3.bz/news/ni-charity-sector-faces-imminent-collapse-new-findings-show-representative-body-calls-executive

[3] https://www.charitycommissionni.org.uk/manage-your-charity/mergers-and-closures/