Managing Change During the Pandemic: Thoughts for Collective Impact and Nonprofits

This blog was written for The Collective Impact Forum and is reprinted below.


We are living in an unprecedented, unpredictable, and scary time. It is hard for all of us. After several conversations with colleagues and much reflection on how collective impact efforts respond, I hope the following thoughts and recommendations may be helpful.

“It’s OK to not be OK”

First, as Vu Le wrote on his great Nonprofit AF Blog, It is OK to not be OK. I myself am feeling malaise and my powers of concentration and action are definitely more limited than usual. I am a bit depressed, stressed, and worried about the health and economic concerns of friends and family. I know people who have the virus. I know people whose businesses or organizations are on the precipice. I spoke with an organization that was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Many of us are managing family concerns along with our work. Mental and behavioral health needs are rising as people are challenged by economic and health anxiety, social distancing, and sheltering in place. It is a really difficult time and if you are struggling mentally, physically, or in any other way, you are not alone.

Lean Into Empathy

This calls for us to really lean into empathy. Brené Brown, in her book, Dare to Lead, describes empathy as not about fixing others or just connecting to others’ experience. It is really about connecting with the emotions that underpin others’ experience, being with someone in their darkness instead of racing to turn on the lights so we feel more comfortable. Some of the skills we can practice to be more empathetic include:

  1. See the world as others see it. Step into others’ shoes and understand where they are coming from and why they might hold their perspective. Be aware of power and privilege and how others’ life context may differ.
  2. Don’t judge. We often judge where we are susceptible to shame. We don’t judge areas where we feel a strong sense of self worth and grounded confidence. People have lots of valid reasons for being where they are and doing what they are doing right now.
  3. Understanding another person’s feelings: We must be in touch with our own feelings. It is important to recognize and name the emotions we and others are expressing.
  4. Communicate your understanding of another person’s feelings: “Get under the surface. Become the listener and student, not the knower. Let them know you get it – “What I hear you say is…”
  5. Mindfulness: Pay attention and listen actively. Be aware of body language and verbal cues (even virtually). Paraphrase back, ask questions, and share what is coming up for you.

We are all dealing with different challenges right now in our work, in our homes, and with our friends and family. Some of us can’t stop reading news and others find it too stressful. Some are feeling glum, worried, or using time to learn or do something new. I am sheltered in place with three teenagers and a college student, and I am pretty sure that none of them wished to be stuck at home with their parents for a few months. Being grounded is usually a punishment. Getting on each others’ nerves is inevitable. People are scared about what this means for their health and their economic security. Some people are grieving for loved ones ill or who have passed. Others are feeling loss over special things they were looking forward to like weddings, vacations, and graduations. As we check in and do work with each other, always check in first with how people are doing and practice empathy for those who may be struggling to be present and productive. And let people know how you are doing and when you need support.

Put on your oxygen mask first.

Back when I was flying, every flight began with the announcement that if we have to use oxygen masks, put yours on first before you help others. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership the authors describe the difference between being on the dance floor and on the balcony. When you are on the dance floor, you are reacting quickly to what is right in front of you. When you are on the balcony, you can gain perspective, see patterns, and take a wider and longer view of what is happening. A crisis like this puts us squarely on the dance floor, but to work through this well we have to make time to get on the balcony to recharge and gain perspective.

There are many ways to step away and gain perspective or recharge. Do what works for you. It may be checking in with peer leaders to exchange notes on similar challenges and test ideas. It may be just playing with your kids, cooking, or playing a musical instrument. It might be exercising. It might be journaling, meditation, or reading. It might be virtual calls with old friends or family. Maybe it is binging on a guilty pleasure. Put some boundaries on your day and create time for you. Be unapologetic about unplugging and practicing self care. This is going to last a while, and we need you to sustain. Dr. Anthony Fauci is running 3.5 miles every day because it helps him relieve stress and center each day. If he can find time to unplug for self care, you can too.

What collective impacts and other organizations can do now

You have experience, networks, and other assets that can be very helpful right now. After speaking with leaders from various collective impact efforts during the past few weeks, here are some ways to think about your work right now.

  1. Guess what: You are going off plan and won’t make performance measures right now and that is OK

Your common agenda and workplan did not include a global pandemic, social distancing, and stay in place orders. Don’t fret about plans and measures right now, your funders and partners get it. Your purpose is to figure out how to be helpful and have meaningful impact in the current environment. I recognize this is hard, especially for groups that were building momentum and progress on results. You will come back to that, but after assessing what you need to do differently now.

2.  How can you support any special needs your intended beneficiaries are facing now?

What new or special needs are your intended beneficiaries facing? I’ve spoken to an organization that serves schools that has developed online activities for parents and students. I’ve seen behavioral health organizations advocate for Medicaid waivers for telecounseling to ensure people can be served at home. An arts collective impact created an emergency relief fund for artists. Don’t limit yourself to the issue you work on, but meet people where they are.

3.   What special vulnerabilities might your intended beneficiaries face if they get the virus? How can you prepare and support them?

Many collective impacts serve vulnerable populations. Not all communities have been prepared for what it will mean to quarantine, get care, and recover from the Coronavirus. If you can access your beneficiaries, how can you both help them prepare and help health systems reach out and support them. Racial and other disparities always show up in healthcare. Advocate for racial equity in your community’s and health systems’ response.

4.   How will your work be impacted if you or your colleagues get the virus and are out for 2 weeks or more? What contingencies or support might you or colleagues need?

I know people who have contracted the virus. If you or your family members get it, you will need to be prepared for your medical and other needs. You also need to think about how you and your colleagues will cover for each other if any of you contract it.

5.   How can you support any of your partners overwhelmed by demand and/or facing financial crisis?

I know organizations who have already laid off staff and others who may have to do so. Some organizations, such as food pantries and public health groups, are facing incredible demand. Other organizations are not able to do their work, and staff have some extra time and capacity. Reach out to your partners, find out what their needs are, and consider how you might be able to help them or mobilize others to help them. Also, make sure nonprofit partners understand support they can access from the stimulus

6.   What do your local system leaders need? What assets do you have – the collective structure, systems, relationships, facilitation and network management skills – that can be deployed to help them?

You have incredible assets that can be helpful to your public health authorities and others serving basic needs. In Jackson, MI, a recent headline read: “Jackson’s ‘collaboration muscles’ paying off, says nonprofit CEO creating COVID-19 fund.” The community’s collective impact networks and experience were able to pivot, raise an emergency fund, and serve the county’s emergency response team. There is a lot you know how to do that others need right now. Offer that help.

7.   Advocate for funders to take supportive steps like releasing restrictions on granted funds. Educate them on needs you are seeing among partners and populations.

The house is on fire, and now is not the time for funders to tell organizations that they can’t use grant funds for hoses or fire extinguishers because those are general operating expenses. We need to take steps to sustain our nonprofit infrastructure so that we can meet what will likely be greater needs of communities when we get back out in the world. The Ford Foundation and other national foundations are showing the way here.

8.   How will you adapt your strategies and timeline once things settle? What can you learn to strengthen your work and how will you have to work differently?

Once you have gotten a handle on helping in the current environment, then you can start thinking beyond it. If you are not meeting immediate needs, use the balcony time to re-assess your work. You will likely have to adjust your strategies and measures, and especially your timeline. Consider what intended beneficiaries might need differently when some restrictions are lifted, and how you might have to do your work differently. Also think about what we can learn about systems change from the response that we can apply to our agenda going forward.

9.   Become skilled at facilitating virtual meetings.

The same principles that apply to good meetings in person apply virtually.

      • Meetings should have clear results.
      • Someone should facilitate actively to move the meeting.
      • Begin meetings with check-ins and allow people to share how they are doing.
      • Call on people and do roll calls for comments to make sure everyone can be heard (and prevent dead air).
      • Use the chat space in most online meeting platforms to line people up or check in on responses.
      • Review results and next steps at the end of the meeting.
      • If everyone can be on video, that is better. It will allow more connection and keep people more present and less distracted (but recognize that for some because of culture or family or situation at home that might not be possible).

I have found that for generative meetings, where we are trying to really think and create together, that I’d rather break a group up and do three 2-hour meetings with 8 people each than one meeting with 24 people. Small groups are more engaging and productive. For less generative meetings relying more on sharing, coordination, and feedback, larger groups are fine. Platforms like Zoom allow you to do both, enabling you to place people in breakout “rooms.” Another helpful resource is Tamarack Institute’s Guidelines for Working Remotely 

10.   Be empathetic and patient with colleagues’ pace and productivity

 Can’t say it enough.

Manage change

Pay attention to basic principles of change management. You are probably making acute and immediate pivots in your work, and you will need to bring others along. Some of the basic principles include:

  • Empathy for people’s differing challenges and capabilities right now (people have different levels of stress and comfort with change);
  • Early, clear, consistent communication (but don’t overwhelm);
  • Disclose how and why decisions are being made (show your math);
  • Acknowledge trade-offs you are making and losses people will experience;
  • Clearly describe your change process; Give people responsibility so change is being done with them, not to them

In Jim Collins’ Good to Great, he writes about “The Stockdale Paradox.” It is named for Admiral James Stockdale, who described how he survived several years of torture as prisoner of war in Viet Nam. He said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality whatever they might be.” He claimed that the optimists were the ones that did not make it – they kept hoping they would be saved every few months and died of broken hearts. As leaders, we must be crystal clear and not be Pollyannaish about the facts on the ground. Don’t pretend or be naïve about where things are, but have faith you can make it through and take steps to get there. As Winston Churchill famously said: “When you are going through hell, keep going!”

We have never experienced shared sacrifice at this level in our country or on our planet. I do seen signs of care and beauty amid the craziness and grief. A friend described this time as a metamorphosis. As we cocoon and work through this, we will learn new things and hopefully come out of this being and doing better. Be well everyone, and take care.