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May 12, 2020 | Insights

Weathering COVID-19’s Disruptions Across the Sector: How Nonprofit Leaders Are Managing This Experience

Our consulting team at TSNE recognizes that we are all living through a challenging time, and that operational, financial, and emotional disruptions, paired with uncertainty about what will happen next, is creating complexity for us all. Our goal in sharing this and future resources is to leverage our team’s expertise and experience to help make the way forward a little clearer for our nonprofit partners.

We are all grappling with the challenges that COVID-19 has brought in different ways — drawing on different resources, perspectives, and values to make the choices that feel right for our organizations. TSNE spoke with four leaders from across the nonprofit sector about their experiences navigating the crisis:

No matter the field, there were common themes throughout our conversations. From cancelling programming to looking to board leadership for guidance, nonprofit organizations are finding ways to adapt their work while continuing to support their communities. (Responses have been edited for length.)

Q: What choices have you had to make in response to the impact of COVID-19?

Nick Adams, Cantata Singers: Like almost everyone else, we’ve lost all public events beginning in March and extending through at least June. We’re making contingency plans for a variety of scenarios in the fall, from losing those events as well to concert halls with limited seating. We still have all of our staff, which is comforting. Our board has committed to making that happen. Everything else is on the table, both near and long-term.

Sue Chandler and Jessica Cohen, DOVE, Inc.: We have made two significant decisions in recent weeks. First, we’ve moved our program participants, the residents in our shelter, to a hotel. We wanted to ensure that they would be safe. But it was also important to keep our staff safe.

The second decision is to keep our part-time shelter staff on the payroll through June 30, the end of our fiscal year. These are people who wouldn’t be able to qualify for unemployment if we eliminated their hours.

Shavel’le Olivier, Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition: The biggest choice we had to make is canceling and/or reinventing our programming. Most of the programming that we implement is in-person or in a group setting, since we promote healthy eating and active living. Now that everything is moving towards a virtual state, we have to find ways to implement interactive programming online.

Q: What did you draw from to make these choices – What people? What resources? What experiences? What instincts?

NA: It’s important to have folks around you whom you trust. For me, that’s my Music Director and Board Chair. I was in constant communication with both of them, and we still are as we determine the path forward. I think it’s helpful to set some operating principles, and for Cantata Singers, it’s people first. From our decisions to our continued communications, we’re trying to operate in a way that demonstrates that we’re thinking of our people – board, staff, musicians, subscribers, donors.

SC and JC: We were on a call with a sibling organization, and heard that they were moving people to hotels to pre-empt the possibility that someone would get sick. The fact they were doing this proactively, caught our attention. So we spoke with their executive director who has a background in epidemiology. We reached out to a former board member who sits on our city council to talk about possible places we could relocate folks. In the end, the city in which we work provided support to house our residents in extended stay suites in a hotel.

In terms of keeping our part-time staff on payroll, of course, we wanted to do right by them. But we also realized that we are going to need these folks on the other side of this crisis. If we couldn’t pay them they might be forced to find work elsewhere. Or, if we just cut them off, negative feelings might keep them from returning. 

SO: To make these choices, we had internal discussions with ourselves and with organizations with similar programming as ours. For example, to figure out what kinds of interactive activities we could do with our young people during the summer, we have had discussions with youth-serving organizations to generate ideas.

What is also helpful is that our leadership members live in the communities that we serve, and some are a part of neighborhood associations. We have on-the-ground insight of what our residents need and how they are feeling.

Q: What opportunities are you finding, if any, in the midst of all this change?

NA: At our organization, we’re trying to allow space to imagine what the arts sector 18 months from now will look like. That’s the start of the 2021-22 concert season, and by then, the new “normal” might be established. Those are the spaces we need to start planning for today. On a practical side, our annual gala, which is normally an in-person event of 150 people, is going virtual! The expenses are far lower and will allow us to be more nimble in the future with these sorts of events.

SC and JC: The pandemic has given us time to pause and reflect. We are reconsidering what we ask of our program participants; thinking about what is absolutely necessary and what isn’t. Moving residents out of our shelter has raised the question of how we support domestic violence survivors in real life because now there is more distance between them and our staff, they are more independent.

SO: We are finding that there are a number of ways that we are able to seize opportunities, or learn to do things differently. We are learning how to use virtual platforms for collaboration and program delivery, connecting with organizations in new and different ways beyond event collaborations, finding that we are able to attend more community meetings now that travel and time aren’t as much of a barrier, figuring out what activities/resources that we could provide virtually, and how to be more intentional when it comes to the safety of individuals who participate and/or volunteer with us.

nonprofits know how to respond

The entire sector has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, but what we have learned through these interviews is that by connecting, sharing, and working together, nonprofits can adapt and survive in order to be there for our community.