How to Scenario Plan for COVID-19 (template and sample included!)

As your organization enters into its third month of operating during a pandemic, do you find yourself oscillating between wanting to plan for the future and worrying that the future is too uncertain to plan for? This is where scenario planning comes in. Scenario planning is the process of constructing narratives about what the future might look like, and considering what you might do if that future comes to pass.

Scenario planning now helps you avoid being unprepared when the future arrives—even if it’s not exactly what you imagined. It also helps you communicate with your staff, board, and other constituents to make sense out of uncertainty and ease into the future.

And, it doesn’t have to be complicated! Our 5-Box Scenario Planning tool (template and sample) helps you gather the information you need to construct scenarios and outline possible action plans.

The Basics of Scenario Planning

Create stories (aka scenarios).

Most organizations struggle to come up with the “perfect” scenarios. Stop! Perfection isn’t your goal. Your goal is to come up with stories that could describe a plausible future. Stick with three scenarios—an optimistic one, a pessimistic one, and one in-between.

First, identify your key assumption—the variable that drives the scenario. An example of a COVID-19-related assumption could be the “timing of restrictions.” Your assumption might be an answer to the question, “When do we think the restrictions resulting from the pandemic will end?” Your answers could range from “by June,” “by October,” or “end of the year or later.” The other assumptions (impact on programs, revenue, and people) follow the key assumption.

Step One in the 5-Box Scenario Planning tool helps you put these variables together to build your scenarios. For example, if you lead an immigrants’ rights organization, your in-between scenario might be “Most in-person gatherings will be barred until October, and most voting will be done by mail. We have to cancel all planned protests. Our finances will take a 30% hit.” Voila! You have a basic (albeit incredibly depressing) scenario.

Surface possible actions.

Think about the question, “If this scenario were to come true, what would we do to plan for and react to it?”

First, write out all the defensive (e.g., cost-saving) moves you’d make to survive until the pandemic is over. Your possible actions (for the pessimistic scenario for the immigrants’ rights organization) might be “furlough all organizers starting in August; operate with a skeleton staff and plan for 2021.”

Then, wear your “creative” hat. How could you get to your mission differently? How could you raise more revenue? What would it take? Continuing the pessimistic scenario, you might say, “So far, we’ve been using direct action as a way to build awareness. We could pivot to a massive digital media campaign. Our volunteers are mostly youth of color, and they’re digitally savvy. A digital campaign would help us get to our impact goals while keeping our volunteers engaged.”

Usually, organizations nail the cost-saving moves but ignore the creative part. Putting those two together will help you decide which actions to prioritize for each scenario.

Outline next steps and triggers.

A crucial part of scenario planning is surfacing immediate actions you should take now to prepare for the worst-case scenario (or at least extend the runway). Lay out those action items (such as “schedule calls with major donors” or “talk to constituents to understand the impact of the pandemic on immigrant communities of color”) and assign owners and timelines for each.

In addition to immediate next steps, you need a way to determine the likelihood of the scenario and to see which actions are bearing fruit. Outline indicators to measure and assign an owner to keep track and periodically report back to the leadership team. For example, an indicator might be “number of states extending shelter-in-place orders beyond May” or “percentage of major donors who’ve committed to renewing funding for next year.”

Set triggers for when you’ll decide on a specific course of action. For example, “If  >50% of major donors are still non-committal about funding by May, move forward with canceling the summer campaigns.”

Other Scenario Planning Guidelines and Tips

Conducting a scenario planning exercise

  • Workshop it. Set aside a half-day for a scenario planning workshop for your leadership team (or another group you’ve identified to be part of this process).
  • Outline before diving deep. The facilitator should take care to let the group not dive into one scenario too deeply—outline all three before getting into the details of one or the other.

Crafting the scenarios

  • Stick to three scenarios max. Resist the temptation to come up with every conceivable scenario. You’re looking for directionality, not detail.
  • It’s ok to flesh out just one. You may choose to flesh out only one of the three scenarios (maybe the one that everyone thinks is the most likely, or the most pessimistic one). That’s perfectly fine—it will give you something to build from and will help you avoid being overwhelmed.
  • Use a six to twelve month planning horizon. The exact number will depend on your organization, but a helpful guideline is to plan for the next fiscal year (if you’re a June fiscal) or through the end of this calendar year. Anything beyond that might be too uncertain to plan for right now.
  • Develop the financial projections for the chosen scenario. This will help you size the impact of the various cost-saving and revenue generation efforts and help you prioritize which measures to adopt.
  • It’s not all doom and gloom. Scenario planning is as much about lifting up new opportunities as it is about identifying risks. Make sure to spend time brainstorming ways to deepen your impact and increase revenues.

Communicating to the broader organization

  • Decide your “degree of disclosure.” A critical decision leaders must make is how (and in what detail) to communicate the scenarios to the broader organization. On the one hand, knowing that their leaders are thinking ahead may allay anxiety among staff and build trust in the leadership. On the other hand, seeing details of the financial (and staffing) cuts you may have to make might increase the collective blood pressure. You have to walk that tight-rope based on your organization’s culture and decision-making approach. Here is a range of options to consider:
    • Level 1: No one knows what’s up. The leadership team holds the cards close to its chest. (Note: We don’t recommend operating here. Inviting input from your team—especially on the programmatic part—will help build trust in the leadership team and get buy-in when the plan is activated.)
    • Level 2: Everyone knows the basics of the three scenarios, but people are not privy to detailed action plans.
    • Level 3: Staff are consulted on the scenarios (through surveys, team meetings, or other mechanisms), and offer input. (For example, you could ask each department leader to sit down with their teams to dive into the programmatic aspects of the scenarios and contribute ideas.)
    • Level 4: Full transparency. Everyone sees the full scenario plan.
  • Keep your board in the loop. Proactively seek their help in testing your thinking and making some of the ideas come to life (e.g., making partnership introductions, seeking out possible new sources of funding, etc.). Consistently engaging the board allows them to be helpful. They’ll also probably be more bought in to high-stakes or difficult decisions you may make.

Gathering input

  • Seek a diversity of perspectives. If you plan to seek input on aspects of the scenario planning (such as “how to reshape a specific program”) from the broader team, look beyond seniority and engage your staff on the front-lines. If appropriate, talk to the primary stakeholders of your programs to understand the impact of any changes.
  • Look for multiple ways to get input. Use surveys or 1-1 interviews, or ask team leads to spend thirty minutes getting feedback at their next team meeting. Some questions you can use:
    • What are we hearing from clients, donors, and partners?
    • How are they responding and what do we know about their future plans?
    • What are other organizations like us doing/planning to do?
    • What should we do about Program X if Y happens?
    • Have you come across any information recently that would impact our organization (such as polling data, economic projections, etc.)?

Ready to get started? Download our 5-Box Scenario Planning tool (template and sample) below.

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