Bridge at sunset

Non Profits: Managing in uncertain times

Bridge at sunset
Charities and other non profit organisations are facing much uncertainty 

Updated March 2020:

This paper was first written some years ago by Pesh Framjee when non profit organisations were having to adapt to changes such as economic and political uncertainty arising from the last big economic down turn. Uncertainty is ever present and its management sometimes becomes routine. At other times uncertainty creates a real crisis that requires immediate attention. Threats can be existential and circumstances are unprecedented and the scale and impact of risks and challenges make them different to routine challenges. The speed at which events unfold, change and impact does not allow time to interpret them using the usual approaches. 

Nonetheless many of the usual approaches for managing uncertainty can be useful in times of crisis except that there has to recognition that responses and actions cannot be based only on predefined response plans that were drawn up before the crisis.


Strategy and scenario planning

  • It is important to recognise that rigour in decision making is not the same as ponderous and charities need to be nimble and agile in their decision making. Care needs to be taken to examine some of the projects and programmes that have been planned.

Risk Management

  • Unprecedented events require a new awareness of the importance of remote events that can have a significant impact; this casts some question marks over the way organisations have traditionally identified and scored risks and adopted procedures to manage them.

Reserve and liquidity

  • As income levels are threatened, cash flow and reserves management inevitably demand more attention. Charities should reassess their reserves policy and ensure it meets operational needs. Unfortunately many reserves polices are often created to justify the existing level of reserves rather than what is realistic and operationally necessary.

Working it through

  • Charities need to avoid knee jerk reactions whilst recognising that change is inevitable. There are a number of steps before launching into responses to matters such as Brexit, new fundraising requirements or any of the many drivers of change that the sector will be facing.

Some key messages

  • Strategies have to become more dynamic and focused on the short-term.
  • Monitoring and measurement of progress against the strategy is more frequent.
  • Strategies and tactics have to be developed on the premise that several different outcomes are possible.
  • Scenario planning is valuable in helping cope with the uncertain environment and can help identify the drivers of change
  • There is a need to put values and analysis on different scenarios and this requires out of the box thinking from different perspectives. Horizon scanning is important.
  • Scenarios are often wrongly treated as forecasts and the range of scenarios is too simplistic.
  • Charities should develop action plans for different scenarios by setting and monitoring trigger points along with trend analyses.
  • Look beyond the obvious - consider both direct and indirect drivers and short and long term implications.
  • Be aware of the importance of remote events that together can have a significant impact.
  • Probability has less value for risks that occur outside the norm and the past is not the best indicator of the future
  • Lower significance risks can escalate to a very high impact risk because of risk interactions.
  • It is important to understand the core processes and sub processes and their role in achieving strategy.
  • Governance structures, board and management competencies and frameworks for decision making may need to be revisited.
  • The reserves policy should link with the risk management and forecasting process.
  • Understand what the reserves represent and look at the ease with which they can be made available in times of need.
  • The continued uncertainty and volatility of income has dramatically increased the exposure to liquidity risk.

Contact us

Naziar Hashemi
Naziar Hashemi
Head of Social Purpose and Non Profits