Nonprofit Leaders Respond to COVID-19 | Part 3

overhead photo of a person typing on a laptop with a white tabletop

This is the final part in my series about how organizational leaders are responding to and navigating the global pandemic, the most recent violence against Black people in our country, and the overall tumult and trauma of the moment we’re living through. As with the previous two articles, this piece is an attempt to organize and reflect the perspectives of leaders around the country as they come to understand what it will truly mean to rebuild stronger, more equitable organizations in the next normal.

We are in truly uncharted waters: Moving through this moment with no lighthouse and no anchor. The most recent examples of violence against Black people have deepened the trauma caused by months of an unprecedented global crisis and have underscored the urgency — if that’s strong enough of a word — with which every sector of our society must respond to the poverty, violence, and marginalization experienced by so many of our people and communities.

Over the past three months — and with greater intensity in the past two weeks — I’ve spoken, mourned, and strategized with nonprofit leaders who are on the ground fighting for the survival and humanity of their people and communities. I am reminded that in times of deep social and cultural crisis we have looked to our nonprofits as both a moral compass and as a source of frontline support for those most in need.

Throughout my conversations with these leaders, one question has remained at the forefront of my mind:

As we navigate these waters, how do we strengthen and equip organizations and their leaders to continue to do their critical and difficult work without burning out or going under?

The recent announcements by numerous foundations about increasing payouts to support nonprofit resilience and stability are just one example of the increasing recognition that we are at a unique inflection point as a sector. It is a moment that calls on all of us — both in the nonprofit sector and outside of the sector — to think creatively and expansively about what this new normal should look like for nonprofits, and about what support for nonprofit stability and resilience truly look like in practice.

As I have with the past two installments of this series, I will try to organize and reflect the perspectives and thoughts of the leaders with whom I’ve spoken, as well as ideas and best practices from the field. This article is not an attempt to provide answers to the wicked challenges that we all face, only to surface and share some trends that might be helpful in your thinking and planning in these difficult days.

Themes and Trends

One overarching theme is that leaders are grappling with questions about the very core of their organizations.

Not only short-term questions like, “Will I need to furlough my staff,” “How can we offset losses from canceling our gala,” or “What does my staff need to be able to effectively work remotely,” but also more foundational questions like “Do we have the right staffing model to support the ways in which we’ll need to evolve?” “Is the core funding model that we’ve relied on for years appropriate for the challenges ahead;” and “How do we maintain a staff culture rooted in trust when social distancing obliterates the strategies we’ve relied on so far?”

As we continue to face a raging storm of crises, leaders’ are also slowly beginning to contemplate recovery and rebuilding. Questions like these — at the core of how organizations are designed and held together — are gaining urgency and weight. This is because the organizations that have a strong enough infrastructure to allow them to adjust and evolve in continued service of their mission will have the best chance at survival. At a minimum, this means that it is critical that philanthropic institutions actively work to deepen their understanding of the nuanced types of capacity that organizations and leaders will need in the coming months.

I’ve spoken with so many amazing foundations doing this work already: Making more funding available for capacity-building and general operating funding, partnering with grantees to redefine and expand what counts as “capacity-building,” and talking with one another about how to make creative investments in recovery and rebuilding efforts. As efforts to craft the next normal take hold in earnest in the coming months, issues of capacity and infrastructure will take on increasing urgency.

Leaders talk about needing the space and time to work on- not just in- their organizations.

In addition to continued scenario-planning, fundraising pivots, and ongoing analysis of programs and finances, leaders describe really needing the mental space to think about the deeper, more generative questions that will shape and define their organizations in the next normal. This means everything from having time to guide their team through revisiting their theory of change, to working with partners to figure out what it will mean for their organization to evolve its programs. The tension between responding and planning, or acting and pausing, is always present in leadership. Now, however, there is a heightened need for the “time and mental space” to figure out how to move forward with purpose — both because responding to crises is taking up such a large so much time, and because there is so much potential to rebuild in a way that is stronger and more equitable.

Leaders need to be supported in creating the space to begin to act with intentionality, and from a place of purpose.

Leaders are taking a networked approach to supporting their own sustainability.

The loneliness and isolation that can be such a significant part of leadership have been heightened over the past months by shelter-in-place and the shift to remote work. Although this isolation — the feeling of being out on a decision-making limb alone — is not new, what I’m hearing and observing is that individuals are explicitly and actively tackling it more now than before the pandemic. Leaders are intentionally building networks of support: joining strategy calls with peers and experts, forming small groups with colleagues to talk regularly and workshop problems in real-time, and reaching out informally to other leaders to ask questions and get both professional and personal support. They are also seeing that the pace at which they are organically forming networks of support is increasing.

These networks represent an incredibly important form of organizational capacity support. They are enhancing both the psychological and tactical sustainability of the leaders themselves. The networks are helping the leaders build skills in real-time, develop thought partnerships that bring critical perspectives into their eco-systems, and access emotional support that wards off burnout and makes it easier for them to support their teams.

This is a time to look to an expanded list of “experts.”

There are organizations that have been strategically and effectively responding to crises in their communities for decades. Their assessment and response pathways are well-worn, and they have deep expertise about how to lead through trauma and manage through chaos. They are black and brown leaders, women leaders of color, and leaders from other marginalized groups who have heretofore been unrecognized for their critical expertise: These are leaders who can give us hard-won, concrete insight into how to hold a team together, how to build an institution with strong bones, how to deliver services in new ways, and how to balance the demands of leading through a crisis with the realities of being human. As we move through these months, the instinct to look for information, advice, and assurance is even more acute than normal.

This moment is an invitation — actually, an exhortation — to look beyond our list of usual suspects and recognize the other “experts” in the proverbial room.

Organizations need the freedom and safety to truly evolve.

Too often, the continuation funding is based — either explicitly or implicitly — on upholding the fallacy that the way an organization is currently operating is, in fact, the best, healthiest way for it to be operating. Organizations have often been afraid to be too transparent with funders about the vulnerabilities and even flaws in their existing models, structures, policies and/or practices, for fear that it will make them seem unstable. Even more than before, these past few months are providing organizations with deep insights into what works and doesn’t with their systems, structures, and programs. Many have already begun to identify and engage with new opportunities and innovations — both big and small — and to work with their boards and teams to refine — and sometimes pivot — their models and structures. In the coming months, organizations will need the freedom from their supporters — funders, donors, and partners — to truly examine their infrastructure, and to let go of old models and practices that do not allow them to evolve in relevant and effective ways.