No one likes the uncertainty of an economic downturn, but being prepared can help ease the impact. And when it comes to Social Impact, being prepared is our only option. We know because we’ve been here before. If we’re not ready at the drop of a hat to make the case for why our programs are essential, chances are, we’ll lose budget, resources, headcount. Why? Because, however inaccurate it may be, Social Impact programs are still perceived as “extras.” And in a downturn? Extras get cut.
But…are we actually in an economic downturn?
Let’s talk in terms of “recession.” While there’s not one, clear definition for the term recession, it is generally agreed that a recession is an extended period of economic decline – specifically, a decline in demand for goods and services. The five indicators economists use to gauge a decline are employment, retail sales, industrial production, income, and GDP.
So, what do those indicators say about our current situation? In all honestly, it’s unclear. Economic demands post-COVID are down – but mostly demands specific to spikes we saw during COVID. Layoffs are up, but employment is down. The GDP is up but so are interest rates. We are, quite literally, in unprecedented times. So, what’s one thing we know for sure? Social Impact programs should build toward essential status regardless of the state of the economy. Let’s talk about a few things you can do right now to make your department and your programs essential – by which I mean, essentially recession-proof.
Secure support before you need it
If you were running a small business, any hint of a recession would have you rushing to set up contingency plans for cashflow and resources – just in case. You would secure support before you need it because by the time you need it, everyone else needs it too, and you’re out of time. So, how does “securing support before you need it” translate to Social Impact programs?
Meet with your team (or yourself if you’re a team of one) and ask:
- “What is the one objective, over and above anything else, that our programs exist to achieve?”
- If you don’t know the answer, invest the time to figure this one out. Programs without a clear purpose are doomed to fail.
- “Which existing program or initiative most effectively contributes to achieving that objective? (And which ones don’t?)”
- This could be as simple as identifying which program would contribute to that objective if you had the resources to optimize it.
- “What resources does that program or initiative require to be successful this year?”
- Get creative here. What do you need? More capacity to think strategically? Training for a new team member? How can you grow your ability to execute your best program/s better?
- And finally, “What would the business (the company overall) lose if the program is not successful?”
- If this answer doesn’t feel big, go back to question 1 and start again – create a better reason for existing.
Once you have solid answers to all of the above, socialize them among key internal stakeholders – meaning, anyone who has some degree of influence over whether or not your programs get budget – and ask, “In what ways can my programs contribute to your goals?” It doesn’t matter if anyone asked for it; the point is to be absolutely clear about three things:
- I know which programs are essential to the business,
- I know what I need to make them work,
- and I want them to work for you, too.
This way, when the time comes to make cuts, your stakeholders already know your business case – and better, they know they’re dealing with someone serious. Take your programs and their contribution to the business seriously so that others will, too. Accompany your case with stats like these to make it stronger.
Pro tip: Prioritize securing support from HR! Your goals are their goals, too, and vice versa!
Build an agile team
There are two common challenges that face most Social Impact teams. The first? They’re too small. The second? They’re too scrappy. I’m all for small and scrappy when it’s the only option, but sometimes “small and scrappy” becomes an under-resourced mindset that holds Social Impact teams back. Even if you don’t have optimal resources or headcount, turn your focus toward increasing the agility of your team. You don’t have to “get more done with less”; in fact, an agile team is one with a shared focus and the ability to be flexible when things change, so you’ll actually do less – but more effectively and with greater intention.
What does it take to build an agile team?
First, cross train your people. (Or just buy them a pass to Social REV and deputize them to cross train themselves. Seriously, that’s what it’s for.) At Realized Worth, we call this “shareable knowledge, actionable understanding.” Make sure knowledge is shared across the team and that it’s understood well enough that team members can autonomously choose the best way to take action.
Second, rather than focusing on flexibility as a skill, focus on culture. Strong cultures made up of individuals who care personally about their work and their colleagues are more capable of adjusting to a changing environment. Their situational awareness enables them to see a need when it arises, and their connection with their team members motivates them to step into the gap.
Pro tip: In Social Impact, your team is made up of the paid Social Impact staff and your network of Volunteer Leaders. Apply all of the above principles to both groups as one.
Invest in technology
In times of economic uncertainty, it may be tempting to batten down the hatches and put a hold on all spending. But the wiser course of action is to spend better. Invest in technology that increases your team’s efficiency as well as the effectiveness of your work.
Did you know that many companies are still tracking volunteer time via excel sheets? That means one employee is dedicating a significant amount of their time to collecting and collating volunteer hours on behalf of employees that could have submitted those hours themselves – if only the technology was in place. (Take a look here for the technology options!) The cost of this employee’s time goes well beyond the equivalent of their hourly salary; in fact, it extends into the near impossibility of scaling program operations beyond the capacity of the Social Impact team. If your company can cut all of their Social Impact programs simply by cutting the team that runs them, you have a problem. When your team is highly effective, your programs scale far beyond the capacity of your team due to efficient systems supported by technology. Invest in workplace giving technology!
Did you know that many Social Impact teams are still trying to track down resources and network connections via Google searches and by attending conferences? Don’t dedicate the high-value time of high-value people to doing something that’s already been done for you, better. Instead, invest in the technology provided by memberships with organizations like ACCP, Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, and Volunteer Canada. These key memberships and network groups will help give you what you need before you know you need it.
Did you know most Social Impact team members feel isolated and disconnected from their peers at other companies? They’re unclear on best practices, unaware of innovative ideas, and they’re building their respective programs from scratch. But all this work has been done before! There’s no need to spend months devising strategies and months more building toolkits and recruitment programs and training resources. Instead, invest in self-serve consulting with affordable technology platforms like Social REV.
Get a leg up on the competition
Let’s be honest, telling an impressive story is still what catches the attention of most executives. When was the last time your CEO or the VP of your department reached out directly to encourage you to go bigger with your programs? Or asked how your programs are changing hearts and minds? Let me guess. It was either immediately following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 or it was the last time they heard big news about a competitor’s PR-worthy program or investment. So, why not capitalize on their interests? Without ever failing to center the needs of the community and prioritize meaningful impact, get a leg up on the competition and focus your efforts on something worth telling a story about.
Start by finding out what’s going on with everyone else. What’s the most compelling story being told? And please, please don’t start from scratch. Those technology solutions we talked about earlier? They’ve already done the work.
As you learn about the stories of others, go back to recommendation number one and revisit your answer to the question, “What is the one objective, over and above anything else, that our programs exist to achieve?” When you achieve that objective, what’s the story you hope to tell?
Now, find the angle within your story that no one else is talking about. For example, Niagara Bottling focuses their Social Impact programming on what works best for plant and manufacturing employees. Doesn’t sound like much of a story, does it? But it is! Engaging frontline employees is a nut the entire field is trying to crack. When Niagara Bottling shares their story from the perspective of plant employees, it will display their absolute commitment to ensuring those employees have a true place in the program. No existing Social Impact program to date has taken that stance – or, at least, if one has, no one knows about it because they didn’t tell their story.
Articulate why you exist and identify your differentiator. And then? Tell your story and get a leg up on the competition.
Take yourself seriously
If we do end up in a recession, this one is likely to be different from the past – and for Social Impact programs, we need to make sure it’s different. Programs that have secured support before they need it, built an agile team, invested in technology, and gotten a leg up on the competition will be better prepared to make the case that they are essential to the business and therefore avoid dire consequences. We need to take ourselves, our programs, and our place in our companies seriously. As we’ve seen, recessions can create wide and long-standing gaps in the perceived value of corporate Social Impact programs. Programs that neglect strategic preparation may find that the next recession makes those gaps insurmountable.