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The Changing Landscape: Adapting to Permacrisis in the Charity Sector


On the right, a stack of wooden bricks. On all but one is written the word 'change'; on the middle brick is written 'chance'.  On the left and against a green background is the strapline, 'Don't resist change. Embrace it.'

In today's fast-paced world, a new term has come to the fore: "permacrisis". It's a state of continuous upheaval, influenced by ongoing global events such as the lingering impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the escalating cost-of-living crisis, and the impending threat of climate change. Charities and non-profit organisations, which by definition exist to support good causes and those in need, now find themselves at a crossroads. According to a new guide titled "Being a Trustee in an Age of Permacrisis" from the think tank NPC, these organisations must either adapt or risk losing their impact and relevance.


The Imperative of Change

The heart of the guide's message rests on one fundamental principle: embrace change. We are beyond the era where waiting for the storm to pass and returning to "business as usual" is a viable option. Change isn't just inevitable; it's continuous. As Charlotte Lamb, the principal for involvement and decision-making at NPC, aptly puts it, “We're amidst unending tempests. For leaders, trustees, and CEOs, the old way won't cut it anymore.” To overcome the challenge of permacrisis in the charity sector, we have to start thinking differently.


Rethinking Traditional Decision-making

One of the pitfalls charities can easily fall into during times of crisis is to get locked into a static mode of operation. This could mean delivering the same services or making decisions in the habitual way, even when external situations and needs have drastically shifted. The guide emphasises that such a static approach could lead to charities becoming obsolete and losing their impact.


It's no longer just about the internal stability of the organisation. Instead, the focus should be on the very individuals and communities these charities serve. As the report astutely mentions, "Think of this as a crisis for your beneficiaries, not just your organisation." This perspective shift might push charities to venture into previously uncharted territories, challenging their conventional modes of operation.


Mission Over Self-Preservation

When crises hit, the natural human instinct is to safeguard oneself. Organisations, too, can be tempted to protect their entity and specific programs. However, the NPC guide advises charities to rise above this survival instinct. As entities with a mission, their primary responsibility is to their beneficiaries. They should be the compass directing the organisation's every decision and action.


Lamb underscores the importance of strategic adaptability. She mentions, "It's not just about the destination, but how agile you are on the journey." This agility translates to frequent strategic decision-making, deeply rooted in real experiences.


The Power of Evaluation and Collaboration

In times of crisis and financial constraints, one might think that the first things to go would be measurement, evaluation, and learning. However, Lamb suggests the opposite. These tools are crucial, especially during times of swift change. They provide charities with a clearer understanding of the situation, enabling them to pivot and adjust effectively.


Additionally, the guide encourages charities to look beyond their specific niche. Recognising the interconnected nature of global crises is vital. Collaboration, then, becomes more than just a buzzword. Working with others, understanding the broader system, and developing a cohesive strategy can amplify the collective impact.


Permacrisis in the Charity Sector:A Collective Way Forward

The insights provided by NPC's guide, drawn from a series of seminars with charity trustees, offers a beacon of direction for non-profit organisations navigating this age of permacrisis. By embracing a change mindset, focusing on their core mission, and leveraging the power of evaluation and collaboration, charities can not only survive but thrive and continue to make a profound impact on the communities they serve.


 

Head and shoulders shot of blogger. Female, shoulder-length brown hair, distinctive glasses, smiling broadly for the camera

Hello! I'm Jenny Hopkins, a charity consultant, creator of The Boiling Frog and 'Tools for Charities'. After an early career in publishing, I moved to the charity sector as CEO of a regional frontline charity. Over a period of ten years, I was able to transform it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. I stepped back a few years ago to undertake a part-time PhD research study on - yes, you guessed it! - charities, alongside my work mentoring leaders of small charities. My ‘Tools for Charities’ is a unique resource aimed at saving you time and stress associated with some of the regular and not-so-regular tasks associated with charity leadership and governance.


I use The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge my own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. I am a director of Penleaf, a B-Corp accredited business consultancy. I also volunteer as a trustee of two local charities.

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