Mobile laundry service for the homeless, Orange Sky, had to suspend its operations due to COVID-19. Chair Andrew Fraser shares how board and management has dealt with the pandemic.

    In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brisbane’s 2017 Young Australians of the Year Nic Marchesi OAM and Lucas Patchett OAM GAICD faced a conundrum. How can a not-for-profit help the vulnerable when their staff are self-isolating and their clients are already among the most isolated in the community — even before a pandemic?

    Marchesi and Patchett set up Orange Sky, the world’s first free mobile laundry/shower service for the homeless, in 2014. The organisation’s 2018–19 annual report noted Orange Sky had delivered $9.5m in social impact. It employs 36 paid staff, has hundreds of volunteers and runs 31 vans.

    The duo had to make one of their toughest decisions in six years of operation. In the last week of March, Orange Sky announced it would pause its work for three weeks, or longer. Volunteers were informed they were on hold pending government advice it was safe to resume services.

    “Orange Sky is a people-based entity,” says chair Andrew Fraser GAICD. “Our challenge has been reconciling what we do and who we serve with the risks to our people. We exist for people already marginalised with poor access to healthcare, so the risk of us being transmitters into a vulnerable section of our community has been a very real one. We listened to authorities, to our people, and calibrated accordingly.”

    Fraser notes the crisis has put him in much closer dialogue with the leadership team. “You have to be fully engaged, available and agile, but you have to back leaders to lead,” says Fraser. “Guide, suggest, challenge, support... but don’t supplant. Boards can risk grabbing the wheel in these circumstances. There is a real and live tension in getting the governance overlay right.”

    You have to be fully engaged, available and agile, but you have to back leaders to lead... Boards can risk grabbing the wheel.

    Andrew Fraser GAICD
    Chair Orange Sky

    The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission reports Australian charities made $142.8b in revenue in 2016. The sector employs more than 1.3 million paid staff and has nearly five million volunteers. Pro Bono Australia reports many charities are facing reduced fundraising income and job losses just as demand for their services is actually increasing.

    Orange Sky founders

    Orange Sky staff used the break to collaborate on innovative ways to keep isolated and vulnerable people in the community connected. “We are working feverishly to redesign what we can do,” says Fraser.

    He notes Orange Sky is in a strong financial position as the organisation runs on a low-cost basis. “Obviously, we rely heavily on donors and philanthropy so the medium-term context is potentially challenging.”

    Joint managing director Patchett says this is the biggest challenge Orange Sky has faced, but he has no doubt that the organisation will continue to operate. “We paused operations while we analysed the way it’s best for us to work now. We need to fit in with the guidelines to keep everyone safe and work out how to tap into the government subsidies. It’s difficult, because while we pause, we know the number of people who need our services is increasing.”

    As for managing risk, Patchett says the organisation’s board and leadership team had planned for tough times and halted services so the team could focus on changing service delivery for the short to medium-term. “Challenge is in our DNA,” he says. “It started with getting the public to trust us with the idea, then came convincing people we could do it, finding our first volunteers and building our networks. We knew at some point we would face tough times. How we deal with this situation will affect how we operate when we come out the other side. One option we’re considering is to move to a hub-based model where, instead of 280 different locations nationally, we use the assets in fewer locations and ensure we can control how services are delivered.

    As of mid-April, Orange Sky was out of hibernation and trialling a new service model with increased health and safety measures. It has announced it is slowly bringing back limited-service shifts across the country and looking at other innovations.

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