The last few weeks have felt like living in a whirlwind.
It’s only gaining speed, with more and more questions surfacing every day. It can be an incredibly difficult situation for all leadership, but especially for nonprofit leaders. When uncertainty and a lack of control come together, they sometimes result in chaos, fear, and short-sighted decision-making.
We are seeing some of these factors now in our purchasing decisions, the stock market gyrations, and some of the language being used on television.
The coronavirus has arrived and we’re all asking a lot of very good questions, mostly about personal safety and how to protect oneself and family from the virus. That makes sense and we should continue to do so.
At the same time, while each agency has very specific questions to address based on their unique services, location, etc, all leaders and boards are facing a several equally important and very similar questions.
- What should we do now?
- How do we respond to this crisis?
- How do I lead when I have as many questions (and fears) as everyone else?
- What should I say…and to whom?
- What about our clients…staff…volunteers?
To be fair, I along with most leaders, have not led an organization through anything like the coronavirus crisis. The closest I came — and that was still pretty far away — was leading an organization through the Y2K transition. I’m definitely not equating the two, as we were not talking life and death then, but we were called to lead while in uncharted territory with no lack of doomsday-sayers predicting total chaos.
How should nonprofit leaders react in times of crisis?
While I can’t specifically tell you what steps you need to take in your unique agency, I can however, share a few lessons I learned during the run up to and immediately after January 1, 2000.
1. Step up and lead from the front. Do not sit in your office all day. Your team needs to see you fully engaged and out there “with” them. If you’re currently working from home, find new ways to be with your team. Leverage tools like Zoom, Slack, or even Facetime if you don’t have other options.
2. Don’t look for perfect answers. Make decisions as they are needed, using the best available information. Make changes as needed along the way. I know this one can be hard… brutally hard, but remember, a good decision made today is better than a great decision held up for two weeks.
3. Get with your board of directors fast and develop a strategy; communicate it widely and be sure everyone understands it. If you can’t hold a physical meeting, touch base via phone, email, or text. Setup a quick conference call to address the most vital elements that might effect your agency. Talk to your board members about the impact on their own lives.
4. Determine what steps to take. How should you proceed? If you haven’t enabled your team to work from home, can you? Are there any individuals in your organization that might be of particularly high risk? How can you help? How will your clients be effected, and what can you do to help?
5. Determine if there are activities you should start doing or maybe stop doing. Will the way your business operates need to change?
6. Protect the safety of your staff, volunteers, and clients. Do you have a safety policy in place to help with situations like this? Many agencies don’t. If not, you can try researching what other larger agencies are doing. How do the guidelines suggested by the CDC help your agency?
7. Meet with your team, even remotely if necessary. Talk to them. How are they doing? How is this impacting them? What do they think you should do going forward? They probably will have some great ideas once their initial shock wears off. Try to hold frequent team meetings so everyone feels informed and remains connected to each other and your mission.
8. Keep your head and display a confident attitude, when possible, assuring everyone we’ll all get through this together. They will be watching to see how you carry yourself. If you panic, they’ll panic.
9. Open the lines of communication as much as possible. Be completely honest about what you know and don’t know. Stick with the facts and do not assume or project how things might turn out, or when. Communicate what you are doing widely, to staff and volunteers, community partners, local elected officials, key supporters, and your clients.
10. Find a way to connect to those you serve. Get into their hearts and heads. Are they losing jobs or experiencing a reduction in hours? What do they need to cope? Can you step into those gaps? Can you help with food, rent or utilities expenses, transportation, or medical services? Solicit help from those who can provide what your clients need. If your organization can’t help, can you find others that can?
I strongly believe we will get through this crisis.
It won’t be easy, and I don’t think we’ve seen the worst yet… But I believe in this country. I believe in the resilience of its people. I believe in leaders — and especially nonprofit leaders. I believe in our ability to come together, deal with incredible challenges, and find hope during terrible situations.
Like other crisis’ we’ve faced, we will get through this one, too. It is the leaders who stick with the basics, remain calm, and lead with integrity whose agencies will shine. I believe in you and your ability to lead.
I would be honored to donate a few moments of my time to help you as a leader during this difficult time. If I can offer you support, or lend an ear to listen, or advice to help you strategize, please reach out. I want to help however I can. You can contact me via my site, or reach out on Linkedin.