The COVID-19 crisis makes leading a nonprofit more difficult than ever. Here are some reflections and recommendations to help guide leaders through this crisis.
“Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.”
– Wendell Berry
Who could have imagined that we’d find ourselves suddenly working from home and dealing with a health and economic crisis? More the stuff of science fiction or dystopian novels—we find ourselves suddenly alone and without purpose—and yet, alive.
Okay, our situation may not be quite so desperate, but it is demanding something new from us.
The experience of working from home is all too clarifying. Maybe you are now confronted with the pervasive presence of your spouse and children or roommates, while haunting in the background is concern for your loved ones far away. Perhaps, you are worried about those you know who to be at-risk for COVID. You wonder if you should reach out to your neighbors—especially the elderly or lonely—wrestling over your moral obligations to neighbor and stranger alike. And all the while, work is demanding, children are screaming, and spouses (perhaps) are nagging. We are, in other words, simultaneously lonely and surrounded, bored and busied.
The balance of private and professional relationships is a futile endeavor. People are people and deserve to be treated as such. In crisis, the responsibility of staying the course no longer primarily affects those who benefit from your mission, but the very people whom you share much of your life with, your colleagues. What about their jobs? The role of nonprofit leaders has always been essential, and in difficult economic situations, it is even more palpable.
No “how-to guide” exists, but there are some human considerations that may be helpful for those who find themselves in a situation with much influence and little knowledge during these unprecedented times.
LEADING IN CRISIS
This is the time for leaders to be exceedingly human. While keeping an eye on your budget, your goals, your organizational needs, keep an eye on the persons making up your staff. What are their needs? How are they faring? How can you support them in their work?
This is not the time to restructure your entire department, but it is a great time to re-evaluate and adjust as needed with regard to responsibilities. Being present to your colleagues goes a long way right now. With so much uncertainty, we are living day to day, and by remaining not simply accessible, but present, you do more as a leader. Moreover, do not underestimate simple reminders. We are working under new conditions and preoccupied with countless distractions and stressors, basic reminders about mission and culture are needed during this time.
Consider setting a three-month internal focus for your departments or entire organization. The shock of quarantine has passed, but we are still here. Take some time to accentuate the purpose of the organization and the value of your staff in advancing that mission—and how, together, you will navigate these stormy waters. This exercise of shaping temporary clarity will be collaborative, energizing, and hopeful. You will reinforce that there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and you will infuse your staff with a vision of who we are together during this time.
If you haven’t yet, consider drafting talking points for your colleagues: every nonprofit engages with the public in some way. Talking points needn’t and shouldn’t be pedantic; the goal is to help shape a culture of thinking. How do we want to present ourselves to others during this time? What are some important hooks that we can count on to frame the story of our mission during this time? Talking points are constructive and reassuring, bringing order to chaos and abating the temptation to despair or complain.
Your organizational health is what will sustain you through this economic recession. Trust and honesty are great measures for it. After all, humanity’s main currency is trust. With so much change, authentic and open-ended conversations will build the needed resiliency and collegiality to pull through difficult times. So, as a leader, when you don’t have an answer, admit it. We’re all in this together, even if the temptation to silo is hard wired.
Virtual community isn’t going away—even after quarantine is over.
We have to get used to virtual meetings and managing remotely. Which behaviors do the best virtual teams have, and how can technology be harnessed to promote them? For one, consider the different types of meetings and invest time in learning the tools of your online platforms.
For virtual accountability, consider shorter and more frequent meetings that provide an update and a check in. You will foster focus, alignment, and motivation with these quick 10-minute meetings. They key is to keep them short.
Tactical meetings for executing tasks should continue but be more narrowly project-focused. And do not forget the less restricted brainstorming and strategic meetings. They may need to be broken up more into more sessions, or have breaks scheduled, but these meetings are still crucial. While the tactical meetings are urgent, these meetings are important. Don’t conflate the two or overlook either.
Lastly, schedule social times and encourage your staff to be in touch in a personal capacity. We cannot take for granted all those informal conversations that take place in the office. The less you talk, the less you have to say. Lean into to being silly or trying out new games. Invite your kids and family to join in. Share your pet or some beautiful part of your house or garden. These are times to show your humanity—that at the end of the day we are people, living our lives as best as we know how.
What are you fighting for?
“Business, like war, can be a perilous undertaking, with livelihoods—if not lives themselves—at stake. In business as in war success is often given to the best discipled, the toughest, and the most prepared.”
—H.W. Crocker III
Business leaders are in the difficult position of hiring and firing. While the former seems less challenging, it comes at price if it is not done well. Hiring may still make sense if you have strong cash reserves and are in a sector that will not be affected as strongly, but that is likely not the case for many nonprofits. Regardless, you want to continue investing in your organization’s ability to execute its mission and to raise funds. Before hiring, think through any reconfiguration or even outsourcing. No matter what happens, to stay aggressive and successful in your fundraising efforts, you need people. The temptation to pull back and pinch pennies is understandable, but you should pinch those pennies from non-essential expenses (or, unfortunately, program expenses), not the investment that funds your mission: fundraising.
Many nonprofit leaders may have inherited disastrous financials or operate in sectors being especially affected by the COVID crisis. You are in the decidedly more difficult position of having to consider personnel cuts. First, do not make these decisions alone. Speak with friends and mentors; consider the benefit of third-party consultants and make use of the many free resources available right now.
Also, many are seeking creative ways to make the finances work so that no one has to be laid off. For example, executive leaders are taking agreed upon salary cuts in the interim. Some are inviting employees to volunteer for pay cuts themselves to support their colleague’s positions. As a leader, lead by example first, and then invite others. Do not underestimate the sacrifice people are willing to make to share in or to prevent the suffering of others. It may feel like a failure, but a key principle of being a leader is to see things as they truly are in order to make the best of them.
Your organization will emerge from this within the next several months, either stronger or weaker depending on how you respond now. Our economy will bounce back eventually, and our lives will return to some semblance of normal. The stronger your organization was—due largely to your success as a leader—the stronger your organization will be through and beyond this crisis. Your main responsibility right now is to stay faithful to your principles and people, in order to move forward with both humility and confidence.
Now, as ever, your mission and organization are important. Stay true to that belief to guide your decision-making in these trying times. And remember that no leader has ever faced these uniquely uncertain times. This is not a time to do it alone.
If you’d like to have free consultation about personnel-related concerns or a free organizational health meeting, please email me. I’d love to help you work through this difficult time.
For the next several weeks, Philanthropy Daily will be a resource for fundraisers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back daily for new articles addressing news about coronavirus and philanthropy and providing strategic and practical recommendations for weathering this storm as a fundraiser.
And please join us on Thursday afternoons at 2:00 Eastern time for a webinar on “Fundraising During Uncertain Times.” American Philanthropic leadership and Philanthropy Daily authors are hosting this weekly webinar to discuss the impact of the pandemic on fundraising and to answer your questions. Sign up here.