Nonprofit Leaders Respond to COVID-19 | Part 2

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This is Part Two in my series about how organizational leaders are responding to and navigating COVID-19. This article is an attempt to reflect and organize the questions that leaders around the country are grappling with as they consider their organizations’ post-COVID resilience and stability.

As the drama and COVID-19 continues to unfold, many of us are beginning to acclimate to the fact that we’re going to be in this period of uncertainty for a while.

During the initial weeks, I saw and worked with leaders to assess and respond to the urgent and critical needs of their teams, organizations, and communities. That agility and responsiveness continues. In recent weeks, however, as I’ve continued my conversations and work with organizational leaders around the country, I’ve heard the beginning of a shift — or expansion — in focus and perspective. In the short-term, while they continue to process and integrate new information, and adjust staffing, fundraising, and program plans in real-time, they are also having to look ahead to where the organization is headed in the coming months. They are struggling to map out what their organization will need to recover and thrive in the intermediate and long term. As they think more and more about the world that will emerge post-COVID, they must begin to figure out how their organization will need to adapt to ensure its ongoing stability and resilience.

Leaders are being called to sit in both of these spaces — the urgency of the short term and the uncertainty of the intermediate-term — and that is extremely difficult. They are being forced to make decisions about the health and direction of their organizations without the benefit of a compass or north star. This requires — and I’ve witnessed — tremendous bravery, creativity, and resilience, as well as a willingness to reimagine the design and function of their organizations.

Ultimately, the goal is a resilient organization that’s able to maintain a high impact. One that can thrive post-crisis and that can stay strong in the face of the next challenge.

Based on my conversations, research, and experience, I’ve identified just a few of the questions that leaders may want to consider as they begin to refine and reshape the next version of their organizations in ways that are resilient and stable.

Crisis Can Be A Gateway To New Insight

It is often during a crisis that the core elements of our organizational design (i.e., the structures, systems, and strategies that allow an organization to achieve its desired impact) are laid bare. We are pushed to examine, and perhaps rethink, the assumptions, principles, practices, processes, and policies that act as the infrastructure around which our mission unfolds.

COVID-19 is no different. During these months of working away from the office, managing remote teams, making decisions without the benefit of a guidepost or plan, you may start to see some of the fissures and vulnerabilities in your existing design.

At the same time, you and your team may also be discovering unexpected strengths and opportunities that, but for being forced to think and work differently, may not have been illuminated. You may be discovering new ways of working together that are better than your old methods — shorter meetings, more personalized check-ins, distributed decision-making…

As you move forward through these months, it is important to find a mechanism that will allow you to begin to assess and process the implications of the current moment on your organization’s infrastructure and design. This mechanism does not need to involve long retreat-style meetings or long hours of deep reflection. Rather, you can go far by simply being intentional about asking yourself, your team and your board certain questions, and by creating time to discuss your reflections.

The questions that I’m suggesting in this article are an attempt to capture and reflect what I’m hearing in my conversations with leaders around the country and to integrate that with research and experience around best practices in organizational design. I’ve organized the reflections into categories based on the core elements of strong organizational design: Organizational Stability, Strategic Clarity, Mission In Practice, Resource Development, Systems, and Teams.

My hope is to provide a broad framework for reflection, analysis, and discussion for leaders and their teams.

Questions & Reflections

Consider the following big-picture questions as a framework for reflecting on how your organization can emerge from this time even stronger. As I walk through the questions within each of the elements of organizational design, these four overarching questions about how you are experiencing COVID-19 can serve as a backdrop for the more specific questions that I’ll lift up for consideration:

  • What are we discovering about what we do really well as an organization, as a team, and as individuals, that we can bring forward?
  • What about how we’ve always worked — our systems, policies, and norms — no longer serves us well?
  • What are we doing differently during this time that we want to bring forward into our new normal?
  • What patterns do we see in the explicit and tacit systems that are emerging? What contradictions do we see?

ORGANIZATIONAL STABILITY

This element of design is about the clarity of an organization’s purpose; how the organization adapts, evolves and innovates; how leadership creates space for intentionality (working“on” not just “in” the organization); how leadership creates space for and promotes ongoing learning and professional development, including for the Executive Director.

  • As we respond and adapt in the coming months, how will we remain aligned with our deeper organizational purpose and values? The idea of “pivoting” is being widely discussed these days. As simply continuing to do what you’ve always done ceases to be an option, organizations are faced with a reality in which they’re doing more the instinct for many organizations is to do more work than before, to can be to do more or to “pivot” are people are loving to say to different forms of work. I won’t get into the appropriateness of specific ways of responding to the chaos of COVID-19 other than to say that more and/or different work may be exactly right for your organization… and it may not be. It’s critical to pause and ask the fundamental question — what is our purpose and what are our values? Are they adequately centered in our decisions? Are they being compromised under the notion that times of crisis call for desperate measures?
  • What will be the most important drivers of the continuity of our organization? Often we think about funding as the key driver of the continuity of the organization. While funding is critical, consider what you and your team are learning about other aspects of your work, organization, and team that also support your stability and growth.
  • What type of support network will I need as a leader in the coming months? During these past two months, I’ve observed nonprofit professionals actively seeking thought-partnership, community, counsel, and/or a sympathetic ear. When I was running my organization, I always wanted to make time to connect with peers but somehow that always felt like a luxury. These days, such connection is often more of a lifeline than a luxury. Think about how you are maintaining your support network even as the immediacy of this crisis begins to fade.
  • Who is at the table as we reshape our organization? How can the decisions that we make during this time reflect true equity? As you reshape and refine your organization — or don’t — be cognizant of who on your team is part of decisions being made. Be conscious of whose perspective and experiences are being referenced and relied upon as you make decisions. This is particularly important as leaders consider things like pay cuts, work from home policies, and other actions and policies that impact multiple areas of people’s lives. Making sure that multiple perspectives are sought and considered can help organizations move forward from a place of true equity.

STRATEGIC CLARITY

This element of design is about the direction and momentum of organizational growth; how organizations plan and prioritize; how we engage the right stakeholders in the right way; how we integrate strategy into ongoing work…

  • Will the strategic direction of the organization need to change in light of a constantly shifting political/ economic/ social environment? The city and its political, economic, and social landscape have changed fundamentally in just a few short months. Many leaders are thinking through the implications of those changes for their organizational partnerships, their position within a community or political framework, and their organizational goals. Does your existing strategic plan provide the structure you need to move forward, or does it need to be revisited?
  • Are there opportunities for new and more diverse thought leadership? As COVID-19 continues to ravage low-income communities and communities of color throughout the City, there are organizations that have borne witness to these disparities for decades. These organizations are often well-positioned to provide meaningful insight not just into the depth of the impact of the crisis on their communities, but also — and significantly — into strategies for responding that do not perpetuate the underlying inequities.

MISSION IN PRACTICE (PROGRAMS)

This element of design is about an organization’s theory of change; the way that work is planned and evaluated; the way impact is defined and measured evaluated; the ways projects are initiated, canceled and completed…

Has COVID-19 highlighted ways in which we need to rethink/ shift our theory of change? An organization’s theory of change is essentially the roadmap for creating change in the world. It articulates the underlying assumptions about how change happens. It is not crazy to think that COVID-19 may impact how an organization believes change can and should happen. If that happens — if this time is changing assumptions and beliefs about the drivers of change in your work, you may think about using this moment to adjust your theory of change to reflect your new insights and learnings, rather than feeling pressure to adhere to the old theory of change just because it’s what has always been there.

Does our definition of impact need to change, and who should be part of that conversation? How might you and your team need to rethink the type of outcomes towards which your programs are aimed? How has your ability to measure and articulate your impact changed? How can you involve the people in your community and broader eco-system whose experiences of COVID-19 might offer new perspectives on appropriate outcomes?

RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT

This element of design is about how an organization demonstrates its priorities and values through the creation of a budget and financial dashboards; how we manage our finances responsibly; how we fundraise; how we communicate our brand to build support…

  • How will we define and measure our organization’s financial health in the coming year when our normal benchmarks have been erased. Organizations understand their overall financial health by looking at certain data, much of which requires a comparison to the previous quarter, year, etc. They use that data to understand not just where they are financially at a point in time, but also the implications of that position. For most organizations, however, knowing that they have less cash-on-hand in May than in March is only part of the story. As you rethink how to begin to redefine and track your financial health in the coming year, what baseline will you use? What indicators of health matter for your organization? How will you communicate that to the right stakeholders?
  • How can we prepare/ plan for fundraising during the recession that we know is coming? In the short term, organizations are adapting quickly to the new fundraising landscape. They are learning how to do virtual cultivation of new donors, online “site visits” with potential funders, and host virtual galas. As we head into an almost certain financial recession, how can the new competencies and patterns being established in the short-term inform your longer-term thinking and planning? Are there strategies you’ve adopted that can reduce your fundraising expenses in the future — e.g., is there a portion of our donor base that has responded well to virtual stewardship? Have you discovered a virtual cultivation event that you can continue even sheltering-in-place ends?
  • How do we create a meaningful budget when the external environment will probably continue to shift for many months to come? Some organizations are rethinking how they create their budget altogether. Rather than a single annual budget, they’re experimenting with quarterly budgets; Rather than undergoing an entire budgeting process, some are simply recommending a hold-steady budget that reflects pre-COVID thinking and projections. This may be a place for an organization to release itself from adherence to past protocols, and to think more broadly about the purpose that the budget process and the budget itself serves within the organization (e.g., forecasting, buy-in, fundraising, strategic framing, etc.). Once that underlying purpose is clear, the team can on developing a budget that reflects that purpose.

SYSTEMS

This element of design is about the role of policy and protocol within an organization; which processes are explicitly defined and which are not; how norms manifest themselves; how we share information; how we deploy tools & technology to make our work more efficient and effective; How we share and use data…

  • Does the structure/ hierarchy that we had pre-COVID continue to serve us? Most of the structures that we develop are about organizing the flow of work and decisions within an organization. Departments, teams, layers of authority — all of these may serve a purpose in one context but not in another. Consider whether the teams, divisions of labor, etc. that worked well pre-COVID continue to reflect the ways in which work is being divided, information is being shared, and decisions are being made.
  • Which of existing policies and norms around work and productivity will we need to revisit and perhaps let go of? Some organizations are looking ahead and realizing that — for varying reasons — they will probably never go back to a 5-days/week office schedule for most of their staff. Others are realizing that even when they do “reopen,” they will probably have to redefine how they track and measure staff productivity. Still others are having conversations about old policies, such as Paid Time Off and Work From Home, that are now based on a set of shared assumptions and expectations that have been fundamentally altered. What are the policies and systems that have helped to standardize and structure your work environment, and how might they need to be adjusted in the coming months to reflect new de facto systems?
  • Can we create a community of practice around the needs, vulnerabilities, and questions that are emerging throughout this crisis? It’s not necessary to have a response to all of the questions and challenges bubbling to the surface during this time. It can be powerful to simply acknowledge the questions and challenges, and then to create space for your team to be intentional about learning and exploring together.

TEAM

This element of design is about how an organization defines roles and accountabilities; how individuals convene, coordinate and make decisions; how employment relationships begin and end; how individuals collectively build and maintain a shared culture.

  • What are the right roles for the people on our team? People’s roles, projects, and accountabilities may have shifted during this time. Some people may have stepped-up in ways that they previously did not. Others may be impacted by COVID in ways that make it difficult for them to carry out the responsibilities called for by their role. This is an opportunity to look at the “roles” and titles of the people on your team and think about whether and how to reshape your org chart so that what people are doing, and how they are organized, fits how they are actually working together.
  • What important lessons are we learning about decision-making in our organization? As COVID-19 continues to unfold, decisions are being made at a different pace, about different topics than before, and (often) by different people than before. Consider whether your decision-making mechanisms are appropriate for the next version of your organization, and if not, how you might bring them into alignment. For example, is the decision-making system fluid enough to allow you to be as responsive as necessary, or are bottlenecks happening? Alternatively, is it centralized/organized enough to allow for cohesion and values alignment as decisions are being made. Are the right people involved in the right decisions? Do too many decisions rest on too few people?
  • What does “heading back to the office” actually look like? How will we relearn how to work together? People’s experiences of COVID-19 have differed widely. Many people have been forever changed by this experience. As you begin to explore what going back to a shared space looks like in practice, consider how your practices and protocols may need to account for people’s differing levels of “readiness.” Are there people on your team who have been struggling during shelter-in-place and are craving community? How will you meet them where they are while also honoring the fact that some people are also feeling anxious about returning to a physical space? What will people need to feel safe? What process will you use to reintegrate people back into the office? How can you be deliberate about naming and responding to the ways in which the months of working apart have reshaped your norms and sense of community?
  • How will I help my team navigate through trauma? People are experiencing a level of individual and collective trauma that, for many organizations, is unprecedented. Individuals and their loved ones may have been directly impacted by the coronavirus. Some people are also experiencing anxiety and depression that will not necessarily disappear when shelter-in-place ends. Inside organizations, furloughs and layoffs are taking place, and many more will happen in the months to come. When even a single person leaves a team the entire staff undergoes a shift in culture. When multiple people leave at once, the remaining staff may experience feelings of grief. What supports can you put into place that will acknowledge and provide support for your staff as they navigate their various forms of trauma?

CONCLUSION

We are all still coming to understand the long term implications of COVID-19. There is so much about our environment that we cannot anticipate or control, which can make planning difficult. Even so, what we pay attention to grows. By approaching the process of reshaping your post-COVID organization with intentionality, you can begin to ensure its resilience and stability in the months to come.