2020 has been the year of challenges and disasters and while our economy is expected to recover in the medium term, the scarring and damage to individuals’ economic situation will impact on the social sector for years to come.  Not-for-profits have started to adapt and COVID-19 lockdowns in particular have forced many to offer new services, discontinue or modify their services (Michael 2020). Although most restrictions have been lifted in states and territories, new ways of service delivery are here to stay or yet to evolve.

Last week, I attended a half day training workshop via Zoom. Instead of driving into the CBD for a whole day session I had the opportunity to learn and meet like-minded people across Australia on-line. For me this service delivered the same outcome as a comparable face to face workshop.  Without lengthy coffee and lunch breaks in between, the content could be delivered within in a shorter timeframe, offering time savings for all.  The provider was able to reduce the costs of running these events, while reaching more people – including participants in remote regions.

We all know about the down side of online meetings and turning to Zoom is certainly not a solution for most services and programs provided by not-for-profit organisations. This however is one of many examples of how providers have managed to adapt their service. By changing service features and the mode of delivery, providers are achieving the same outcome for customers while creating more value for both, the customer and the service provider.

When Hotel Housekeeping, a social enterprise to secure open employment for refugees and asylum seekers, ran out of work during COVID, the Spring Services group was born – creating new job opportunities in the cleaning industry (Michael 2020). By focusing on the outcome to give refugees personal independence through earning an income, the social enterprise modified its activities successfully and is now delivering a greater social impact.

Adaptability will be essential for the social sector to pull through the recession. Investing into service design will be the enabler for innovation and create opportunities that deliver more with less. Here are some key considerations when re-designing your service:

1. Understand the needs of your customers

You should be able to give a clear and concise answer who your organisation is seeking to help or who is accessing your service. As the world around is changing, so are the needs of your customers. Giving your customers a voice will help you understand their needs.

  • What pain points and barriers do they face?
  • What do they hope to achieve?
  • What do they need to get done?

2. Clearly define the outcome that your service is trying to achieve

You can always modify how you are doing things, as long as you are clear about what you are trying to achieve for your customers or beneficiaries. Staying true to you mission will help you stay on course and provide an anchor when times are tough.

3. Question the value proposition of your service

What value does your service deliver? Which pain points and barriers do your customers avoid or overcome? What do they achieve and how does it help your customers or beneficiaries? Making sure that this aligns with what your customers or beneficiaries need will guarantee that your service remains relevant and in demand.

4. Map out your service, review all steps and resources involved

Challenge the way you do things. What matters to your customer and what is not important at all? Instead of doing what you have always done or trying to copy your competitors, think about how you could do things differently. Innovate and take inspiration from other industries and keep an eye out on what is happening in other countries. Mobile phones and digital solutions are widely used these days, even in remote communities where connectivity has often been limited. If you cannot use technology in your direct service delivery, there may be ways to simplify your supporting systems, e.g. the way you recruit, train or how you roster your team.

5. Co-design possible improvements or changes

Conduct small trials of new ways of delivering services, or different services with your existing customers and staff. Seek their feedback and suggestions for improvementDon’t expect these trials to be perfect or smooth sailing. Innovation is iterative and a result of trial and error.

6. Review and modify

Review your services and programs regularly. Zoom in and out between what you are trying to achieve, what your customer is experiencing and how you are delivering the service. Ongoing learning and adjustment will motivate your staff if they feel involved and their ideas are heard.

7. Make sure the business model fits

Service delivery comes at a cost and ultimately this must be covered. In times of funding scarcity operational savings are a must. Start by looking at your biggest cost buckets. While you cannot and should not squeeze your staff’s salary, you can look at how they use their time. Removing time wasting activities does not only improve productivity and motivation, but can improve your service and customer experience.

Reducing labour costs could come through partnerships. When Foodbank SA ran out of staff and volunteers during COVID-19 restrictions and food could not be distributed in the usual ways, it formed a collaboration with Port Adelaide Football Club whose players stepped in to deliver food boxes to vulnerable people in the community.

Customer interactions greatly impact the cost of service. A customer who does not understand the service and what to expect, never comes on time or does not go home when the service is finished, can keep your staff busy. Review which behaviours you want – and those you don’t – and what you can do to influence that behaviour. Also, question if your customers could do some work and what they could learn to do themselves. We are long used to self-service petrol stations and supermarket check outs, yet for social work we still feel we need to do it all for our customers.

The road to recovery will take endurance and persistence. Adapting your services and adopting new habits will help not-for-profits to manage through tough time. As ‘there is no going back to normal (Simon Sinek, 2020) your organisation needs to proactively reshape, to survive and hopefully thrive in the new normal.