“Uncertainty. Uncertainty. Uncertainty.”
That was the response from Greg Gorga, executive director of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, when I asked him to describe his greatest challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Financial uncertainty, when can we reopen, when can we do events again, when can we hire all our staff back — all of it is unknown,” he said. “Communication during the age of Zoom is a close second challenge.”
Lori Goodman, executive director of Isla Vista Youth Projects, answered: “We are trying to figure out how to navigate reopening our Children’s Center without clear guidance. When should a teacher or a child be kept home? At the same time, we are committed to engaging in anti-racist work throughout our organization. How do we create the space and time for reflection, assessment, conversation and action with staff and with the board? How can we continue to live our values and fulfill our mission considering the level of uncertainty everyone is facing?”
Alana Walczak, executive director of CALM, said: “The greatest challenge is the tremendous influx of mental health support that we anticipate our community will request in coming months. The increase in abuse and neglect occurring during shelter-in-place, as well as rising stressors due to economic challenges, school closures, illness, grief/loss and growing uncertainty are causing tremendous stressors. All of us are experiencing trauma like we have never faced before, and CALM, as an essential mental health agency for Santa Barbara County, is here to meet the growing needs.”
Heidi Holly, executive director of Friendship Center, which provides day care for aging adults with dementia and other disabilities, said: “COVID-19 has shown us how unpredictable the spread of the virus can be, and we know our growth as an organization lies in our rapid response to the core needs of the people we serve, and our ability to shift our functions to keep meeting their needs. This in itself has been a challenge, because to respond to current needs, change must occur; and what was normal at one time soon becomes obsolete. In addition, we have concerns that when older adults are socially isolated, their health and well-being significantly decline. Secondarily, we are concerned about how to secure funding for our services during these difficult times.”
Lindsey Leonard, executive director of the California Central Coast Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, reported that her organization “is challenged with navigating an entirely new format of our largest annual fundraising event: Walk to End Alzheimer’s. This year’s walk won’t be a large in-person gathering. Instead, we are inviting our participants to walk in their neighborhoods in small teams of friends and family while others in the community do the same. We have five walk days scheduled across our region, which include Oxnard on Sept. 26, Santa Maria on Oct. 3, San Luis Obispo on Oct. 31, Westlake Village on Oct. 31 and Santa Barbara on Nov. 7. We have even designed a walk app to assist participants.”
Communicating with staff and stakeholders continues to be a challenge.
Gorga said he has found that one-on-one conversations are the most effective way to communicate. He has also increased the museum’s social media presence, started a more in-depth email-newsletter, added content to the website, and begun holding lectures as well as staff, board and committee meetings via Zoom.
Goodman said she communicates with her staff in writing regularly. She ensures that all written and oral communication is delivered in both English and Spanish. She admits they are still struggling to communicate sufficiently with their stakeholders.
Walczak said: “I’ve found it most effective to be authentic, honest and transparent about just how hard our lives are right now, given everything we are experiencing. At first I said that responding to the new reality of a COVID-19 world was like running a marathon. And now, it feels like an ultra-marathon! So, being open, empathetic and kind to each other — and to ourselves — is essential right now. And, it is absolutely important that we remind ourselves that there are many in our communities who are suffering more deeply than any of us even know.”
Holly said she tries to focus on “transparency, open communication, appreciation, humor and keeping safe by incorporating all the safety protocols to mitigate any contagions and fear regarding the virus. There are two viruses: fear of the virus and virus itself! Regular team check-ins are a good method, too, of maintaining a sense of connection with team members. With stakeholders, it’s honest and candid communication about what has changed within our organization and what we are currently doing to pivot our services to support our clients during this unprecedented time.”
Leonard has found that “phone calls, emails and virtual meetings on platforms such as Zoom have been effective to steward existing relationships and build new ones. Everyone is in this together! Our support base has been understanding, although many of them are facing their own financial challenges due to the economic downturn of the economy during COVID-19.”
One key may be focusing on the basics.
For many nonprofit organizations, long-term planning is the hardest thing to do well. There’s always so much going on now that it’s nearly impossible to make a long-term plan, let alone stick to one. But with so many limits on what we can do in this moment, this is the perfect time to rearticulate your vision, create your checklist and commit to making real progress during this crisis and after it.
Many nonprofit leaders find comfort in the basics. Remember: You know what your supporters respond to, you know why your cause matters, you know how to do good. Don’t let logistics and tech get in the way of applying that knowledge and experience.
The promise of a vaccine offers great hope, although it is no balm for our current emergency. So, this extreme level of uncertainty calls us to pay more attention to what we can control, to remember the basics and to maintain a positive outlook on our future.
It’s time to stick together.
During this time of isolation, it’s more important than ever to reach out to our colleagues, to partner with each other and to become part of a community of leaders.
For instance, Gorga with SBMM said, “The museum directors (including gardens and the zoo) have been in constant communication with one another since the early days of COVID via weekly Zoom meetings and emails. This alliance was already in place, and has been for as long as I have been with SBMM. Together, we have helped one another learn how to process PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan requests, develop reopening protocols, answered questions about state and county guidelines, and petitioned as one group to reopen our doors. Now work is being done to see how our organizations can help families dealing with remote learning and child care issues. We are doing a groupwide training on how to handle conflict as we reopen our doors to those who may not want to wear a mask, and will be debuting 805 Inspires with TVSB, which is a series of videos from our organizations designed to help promote one another.”
Nonprofit specialist Joan Garry offers us some great advice.
“Focus on your mission. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Be agile. Communicate well. Partner and collaborate.
“Stick to your core. When you are not sure what to do, make sure that everything you do comes from your mission. Collaborate with others, reach beyond yourself, and do this with total clarity about what you do, whom you serve and why it all matters.
“How can you be a leader in these times? Not just in your organization. You have a unique role in your organization, your sector, your community, your state, your neighborhood. People respect you, admire you and look to you as models. Use your platform to engage people in real conversation about what really matters.
“Remember that regardless of what you do and the anxiety you may feel, your work elevates society in deep and profound ways. The image to keep in mind is ‘The Karate Kid.’ Focus, balance, power.”
Remember to continue donating to and supporting your favorite nonprofit organizations.
These uncertain times are challenging all of us, but nonprofit organizations are particularly affected. They remain committed to serving our community with their essential services, yet the pandemic has sidelined their usual methods of raising vital revenue. Longtime fundraising events have been canceled, replaced by valiant virtual events bringing in a fraction of the need, and a dearth of opportunities for donor development.
Leonard points out that, “Until there is a cure for this devastating disease, we are asking those that feel touched by our mission to join us in support of this imperative cause.”
So, let’s all work together to intentionally support our favorite charities with larger donations than ever.
— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or email@example.com. The opinions expressed are her own.