12th November 2020
By Leonora Buckland, Principal Consultant at Stone Soup


As the pandemic struck, a universal and hopeful sense of pulling together in adversity emerged resulting in many offering to help others worse affected, for example by supporting a local food bank or delivering essential items to vulnerable people. We might look back and say that the pandemic has changed the very concept of volunteering and community (in a positive direction) – it is too early to say.

In the immediate light of Covid-19, Stone Soup consultants wanted to care for each other, their families and their local area, but also the social sector which is a place of so much striving, hope, brilliance but also struggle. Many social organisations on the frontline in the pandemic were buffeted by uncertainty, drastic potential funding cuts and facing major strategic decisions. They desperately needed to keep their organisations open and serving their beneficiaries (with houses, trainings, food, a lifeline) and to adapt their fundraising and business models whilst keeping their staff safe. Funders moved into emergency mode engaging in a free spirit type of grant-making which has not been seen in many years whilst looking for collaborations. Never before had the proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together,’ seemed so true for the social sector.   

This is the background to the grain of sand that just under 20 Stone Soup consultants brought to this crisis. As a consultancy with a heart, Stone Soup consultants offered two hour-long pro-bono sessions for social sector organisations to discuss what was troubling them, whether that was their business model, fundraising, strategy or communications. The initiative was open to any social sector organisation, client or not. The idea was to get peers together, with Stone Soup being a facilitator of important exchanges and learnings. This initiative was called ‘Recipes for Impact’ to illustrate how many different combinations of ingredients there are for achieving social and environmental impact.

Prioritising the listening and facilitation

Having been involved in many pro-bono initiatives, and after running a charitable foundation relying almost completely on pro-bono support to diligence and distribute grants, I have seen how the road to hell can sometimes be paved with good intentions, particularly from the business community. It is important that pro-bono is amongst equals (i.e. no patronising know-it-alls). Bearing this in mind, Stone Soup was keen to prioritise the listening and facilitation element, where those in the social sector faced with the enormity of the pandemic and its consequences could talk freely about their fears, concerns and challenges. The decisions facing different organisations who signed up for the sessions were immense, such as how to adapt their business model to likely declining fundraising streams coupled with rising demand, how to adapt their services and organisations to the on-line environment, how to communicate in a crisis, and whether their core purpose, desired impact and strategy needed to evolve as the pandemic reconfigured society.

19  Stone Soup consultants had 23 pro-bono sessions with 31 participants from 8 countries (Portugal, Spain, UK, Estonia, Iraq, Mexico, Mozambique, Peru) during July 2020. Stone Soup, true to form, launched a survey for both the consultants giving the pro-bono and the people from the social sector receiving the pro-bono. For the organisations receiving the pro-bono, these sessions seemed helpful, with the average rating of the sessions 4.5/5. Recipients shared how they were inspired, got some new ideas or knowledge and helped to create ‘drive’ and a ‘push’ to make the next steps. The most practical result of the conversations appeared to be in changing or improving the organisation’s strategy. 40% of recipients agreed with the statement that Stone Soup’s pro-bono session contributed or would contribute in the future to improving the social impact of their organisation. Sometimes an outside perspective can catalyse significant change and even light-touch interventions can create unpredictable and enduring value.

Pro-bono is always an exchange and often it is the giver who receives the most. The consultants themselves felt that they improved their competencies, had a chance to hear from different organisations about the challenges they were facing and also to meet and work with new colleagues.


No magic wands available

One of the intriguing insights was how far many organisations, despite clear communication that this was an exchange rather than a training, still expected a pedagogic download from the consultants. This harks back to the dark age of consultants as the Rasputins of impact. Some people were initially disappointed but quickly found their way in this more equal, flat environment where there was no waving of magic wands to solve problems, but rather consultants and peers who through active listening and facilitating techniques, helped organisations to identify and unpick key challenges. This opened up new possibilities to resolve them, with Stone Soup consultants bringing their experience and insights to bear on this process.

As with many navigating the pandemic, launching new ideas and initiatives and testing those stormy waters, Recipes for Impact could be improved (and don’t worry, we have captured that as well!) But the ingredients of wearing our heart on our sleeve and creating a space for organisations to work through their difficult dilemmas is one that we will carry into the future. 

In this brave new world, there are no experts but rather people helping each other to build resilience and adapt, like we have been doing for centuries.

 

Note: for Stone Soup insights on how organisations are adapting their communication in times of the pandemic, please see https://www.stone-soup.net/index.php/en/news/608-communication-in-times-of-pandemic-social-organisations-pull-their-socks-up