Editor’s Note: The title of this article has been updated to better convey the author’s intention to offer this advice to those whose work has been severely curtailed or halted.
For the most part, I am grateful that I’m not in a nonprofit leadership hot seat these days. However, I am drawn to connecting what I learned from navigating past shocks — the aftermath of 9/11 and the global financial crisis, for example — to the current landscape.
Leading during times of turmoil, whether organization-specific or societywide, can be demanding, bewildering, taxing, and exhilarating. I don’t envy those doing this right now — except of course, when I do find myself feeling a bit envious.
In 2018, I stepped off the nonprofit leadership treadmill after 21 years. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on, writing about, and teaching what I learned during my three-decade nonprofit career.
Today, leaders must focus on two related priorities: ensuring organizational survival and adapting programs to the limitations and demands of this terrifying moment. In some cases, the nature of the work remains much the same, but the volume has changed dramatically. In others, it has required a major — and almost certainly imperfect — re-engineering of programs on the fly. Finally, for others, the bulk of their work is on hold.
If I were a nonprofit leader with extra time on my hands — due to scaling back or temporarily halting work or not commuting, making site visits, or traveling — here are eight ways I would spend my time.
Schedule one-on-one sessions at least every other week with the dozen or so staff and board members, donors, and volunteers you depend on the most and include a few peers running other nonprofits. In other words, roughly one such appointment per day. Some of those conversations would be highly structured, while others would meander. The common element to all of these contacts would be asking for advice about navigating today’s choppy waters and about what comes next, though they would cover other areas, too.
Make a list of "important but not urgent" tasks and projects related to organizational capacity building and efficiency that your nonprofit has kept kicking down the road for months, if not years. Then identify a handful of them to get done in the next 45-90 days despite the stay-at-home orders in effect. If time permits, create a second list of personal or family efforts, and dive into a couple of them, too.
Take whatever mindfulness practices you use — such as meditation, prayer, yoga, or art — to the next level. For some, this could mean engaging in something for the first time or reviving a long-dormant activity. Share what you do with your colleagues as a way of encouraging them.
Put a dent in your backlog of articles, books, and podcasts related to your work and the sector in general. Why? Charity executives have a well-earned reputation for generally not investing in their own learning beyond what is absolutely necessary, leaving many of us as "nonprofit illiterates." (Quick: How much money did U.S. private donors contribute in 2018? How many nonprofits are there in the country today? What are the meanings of key terms found in sections 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) of the tax code?) Use this time to catch up and perhaps develop new, long-term habits for your own professional development.
Organize a competition among your staff members to seek the most creative ideas to cut costs without impairing your organization’s ability to serve its mission, clients, staff, and volunteers. Implement the best ideas, and reward the people who came up with them in a way that is likely to be meaningful to them.
Post short weekly videos on your website about what you as a leader are doing during this time of crisis, why the mission is still vital (even if — especially if — it is on hold now), and how you and others can make sense of this terrifying time. Make additional personalized videos for individual stakeholders, and send them as links in emails. Complement these with personalized emails and good old-fashioned phone calls to donors and others, especially since (in my experience at least) some people who usually screen their incoming calls have stopped doing so.
Brush up on a language you once spoke well but are now rusty on, especially if proficiency could help you in your work now or in the future. A little effort is better than none at all.
Take your physical fitness and mental health to the next level, even if it’s just in small ways. Notice any positive impacts on the level of anxiety you experience and on your general well-being, and focus on activities that engender positive results. Encourage your colleagues to do the same. Have your antenna up for colleagues who are going in the wrong direction in these two areas; try to be helpful or at least attentive and empathetic, and of course direct them to qualified medical professionals as needed.
During times like these, it is all too easy to fall back on the familiar, the habitual, the comfortable, and above all, the urgent. To some extent, that is healthy and necessary. But there are other options that can help nonprofit leaders and their organizations survive and, later, thrive — and many take only a few hours and a willingness to leave your comfort zone.
Alex Counts (@AlexCounts) is an adjunct professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, a consultant, and a writer. He is the founder of Grameen Foundation, where he served as president and CEO for 18 years. His latest book is "When in Doubt, Ask for More: And 213 Other Life and Career Lessons for Mission-Driven Leaders."
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