Nonprofit Leaders Reflect
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Nonprofit Leaders Reflect: What We Learned From COVID, How We’re Moving Forward

by Paul O Grady
December 16, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations of all types and sizes to come together and find new ways to fulfill their missions.

At the 2021 Armanino Nonprofit Symposium, a panel of nonprofit leaders shared how the pandemic impacted their people, processes and goals, and how they are continuing to navigate these challenges while planning to minimize impacts of future disruptions. Below are some of the lessons they learned, followed by the inspiring stories of how their organizations pivoted to continue providing support to the communities they serve.

What We Learned From COVID

Remain Resilient by Staying Flexible

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to test our collective resilience. One of the most important lessons of the pandemic was the importance of flexibility and innovation. “We learned so much in 2020 that we can pull forward,” said Christine Benninger, president and CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit based in San Rafael, California. “I’m excited about our staff now feeling comfortable with trying something and realizing that if we try it and it doesn’t work, that’s OK. Let’s just learn from it and move forward.”

For GLIDE, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides daily free meals, shelter and other support to people in poverty and crisis, flexibility meant embracing the distributed model as a way to expand its services and impact. “We’ve got a legacy of doing things a certain way for more than 50 years, and [the pandemic] caused us to think differently about how we provide our services,” said GLIDE Chief Financial and Operating Officer Erby Foster.

For example, in partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and other medical and non-medical agencies, GLIDE set up a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site outside its building. When traffic at the vaccine site began to decline, the team began venturing out into the community. The “roving vax teams” helped boost the Tenderloin neighborhood’s vaccination rate to 80%.

Remote work really can work

The New York Philharmonic has been extremely effective working in the remote environment — so much so that most staff want to remain either fully or partially remote going forward. Given the high cost of living in New York City, “there are some economic efficiencies in having a distributed team,” said Philharmonic Executive Director Adam Cox. “Provided you can have the culture and overall work environment you want, and provided you’ve got a great management team and those people are managing their teams effectively and can do so virtually.”

Demonstrate impact to maintain board support

When performances ceased in the early months of the pandemic, a major portion of the Philharmonic’s revenue stream dried up. Fortunately, the board of directors remained supportive, “as long as we communicated regularly and effectively, we teed up the problem appropriately, and we provided solutions that were rational and business minded,” Cox said. “And the relationship between cost (or dollars spent), and the impact (or value that it generated), that relationship became much more important during this period.”

Monitor employees’ mental health

Another silver lining of weathering a shared global crisis is that conversations about mental health have become mainstream. Animal services organization Marin Humane, which is based in Novato, California, tried to ease staff and volunteers’ anxieties about the unknown with regular “situation reports” and direct outreach.

“We doubled down on communicating what we knew and being honest about what we didn’t know,” Marin Humane President and CEO Nancy McKenney said. “When it was going on for a long time, some of us divided up the staff list and did check-ins.” That focus on mental wellness was critical, McKenney said. “Our staff needed support, encouragement and recognition for the amazing work they did and the change they were going through to figure out how to do their work from home, when we had been so hands-on with the animals and volunteers.”

Give help where it’s needed most

Since so many animals were adopted in the early months of the pandemic, Marin Humane has shifted some of its focus to providing more human services to the community, including helping people pay emergency vet bills and donating pet food. “With our pet food pantry, we ended up having to deliver pet food to needy clients versus having them pick up the food at Marin Humane,” McKenney said. “We worked with our local food bank programs to distribute 20,000 pounds of donated pet food because people were unable to get the pet food or unable to afford it.”

How These Nonprofits Navigated Disruption

The lessons shared above are relatable to nonprofits of all kinds. The following stories of how these four organizations came to learn those lessons — stories of perseverance and innovation — will likely also strike a chord with anyone who navigated the most disruptive period in recent history.

New York Philharmonic: Taking Performers Outside the Box

Like most performing arts organizations, the New York Philharmonic went into hibernation mode in March 2020. Staff went fully remote and programmatic activities essentially ceased.

“Institutionally, we had to think about how to pivot and reach the community in spite of the fact that we couldn’t perform in our space by government mandate,” Cox said. The Philharmonic launched the following new programs to keep the music playing:

  • NYPhil+ is a digital platform that houses more than 50 hours of remastered archival content and recorded concerts.
  • The Philharmonic wrapped its logo and colors around two Ford F-250s (dubbed the Bandwagons) and performed 81 pop-up concerts throughout the five New York City boroughs during the summer of 2020.
  • In 2021, in partnership with six other New York performing arts organizations, the Philharmonic converted a 20-foot shipping container into a mobile, outdoor stage (aka Bandwagon 2) and presented a summer series of four weekend-long festivals of music, poetry and dance. These collaborative performances “give us the chance to partner with underserved communities and other community organizations that we might not get the chance to otherwise,” Cox said.

This opportunity to step out of the literal “box” of their performance space was a silver lining of the pandemic. “Being able to pivot and really think artistically about how to get the product out to the community, and really to the world — the digital platform has a global reach — I want to see that continue,” said Cox.

GLIDE: Creativity, Collaborations Keep Essential Services Flowing

Hibernation was never an option for GLIDE. “We pivoted and innovated to keep things going,” said Foster. The city shut down the entire block every day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. so GLIDE could set up meal-serving stations outside, complete with Plexiglas barriers, where they continued to serve 2,500 meals a day.

One of the biggest changes for the nearly 60-year-old nonprofit was that it could no longer hold big events — such as Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, and the holiday toy drive and grocery bag giveaway — at one central location. “So we said let’s collect all the grocery bags, put them on trucks and deliver them around San Francisco to other nonprofits where people could come there, locally,” said Foster.

Shifting from a centralized model to a distributed model enabled GLIDE, in partnership with 25 other agencies, to deliver more than 5,000 grocery bags throughout San Francisco during the 2020 holidays.

Guide Dogs for the Blind: Retooling Processes to Keep People and Animals Connected

Shutting down also wasn’t an option for Guide Dogs for the Blind. “We are an essential function,” said Benninger. “At any point in time we have 4,000 dogs in our direct care or oversight care, so we have been operating continuously.” The organization retooled its processes to enable physical distancing. Instead of bringing everyone to a central campus, they instead sent trainers and dogs across the country to train impaired people in their homes.

“The mind shift that we chose to take was focusing on what we can do versus what we can’t,” Benninger said. “The minute we started embracing that, it was amazing how much innovation came out of that — how much we ended up figuring out what we could do virtually or training people from a distance. I’m proud of our staff for not only hanging in there through some times that were pretty scary, but committing to the mission and being innovative about how we approached it.”

Marin Humane also retooled its processes to maintain physical distancing. The team divided staff into two shifts, moved as many animals as possible into foster homes, and switched to remote adoption interviews.

Early in the pandemic, Marin Humane moved its behavior training classes online, until it was able to start offering some of the classes outdoors. A side effect of the much-publicized “puppy boom” was an increase in demand for those behavior training resources. “All those animals that got adopted, and all those people who were at home all of a sudden noticed behavior problems with their animals,” McKenney said. “We have been really happy to provide resources and training to keep animals and families happy in their homes without the old-fashioned way of coming to campus and attending workshops.”

Community partnerships were essential to keeping Marin Humane’s animal services work going. “COVID forced us to have the community help become our facility and partner with us so we could place more animals in homes, and we could return more lost animals quickly without relying on our physical shelters,” McKenney said.

With the increased need for foster homes, Marin Humane was fortunate that it had already begun discussions in February 2020 with a foster agency about a potential merger. When COVID hit and the need for foster homes increased, Marin drew on the foster agency’s ready pipeline of foster homes. For their part, the foster agency needed Marin Humane’s infrastructure support to grow their program. “The partnership made sense for us strategically, but COVID accelerated it,” said McKenney.

To learn more about how to build resilience at your organization, contact our nonprofit experts.

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