Lockdown orders during the COVID-19 pandemic closed society and created barriers to providing in-person services. Each state in the United States created its own protocols and requirements often following the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organizations guidelines.
COVID-19 continues to dramatically impact people, organizations, and economies around the world, posing challenges that few of us have experienced before.
Certainly, many organizations have dealt with the aftermath of natural disasters, economic struggles, and even some health crisis’ that have affected our staff and those we serve. Still, nothing in previous years have risen to the global crisis of COVID-19.
Many of us are now battling the new strain of the virus. Operations are shutting down again or organizations are undertaking changes to their protocols to ensure the safety of staff, individuals served, and community members.
Like most of us, we were faced with many challenges. Both our organizations, like many of you had to reduce expenses immediately through actions such as: furloughs or laying off staff, vacating leased or rented space if necessary and applying for any assistance offered to keep operations afloat, work with our banks and funders. The adage of “no margin, no mission” became very real. It felt like we were rapidly thrown into survival mode.
A major on-going challenge to nonprofit organizations is how to provide the highest quality service delivery. This became highlighted during the height of the pandemic. Many organizations found themselves shifting to virtual, remote services during their imposed lock downs. Admittedly, the most difficult function was to serve all our clientele/consumers, due to their level of disability and the lack of broadband capabilities in some areas.
While the rapid pivoting is certainly admirable and indicative of the creativity and innovation of the sector, it had its challenges. Many of the individuals served did not have access to the technology that would allow them to participate in virtual, remote services. Additionally, direct service staff found themselves in a “help desk” role, a role for which they were ill prepared.
Another challenge was in communications, with those we serve, our staff, and our board of directors. Staying connected with all stakeholders is extremely important during the crisis and to the recovery process. As the virus circulated throughout our communities, people lost connection to family, friends, and coworkers. In many cases our organizations were the only constant, so we were diligent in calling, skyping, and connecting in some way to engage with everyone. As a result, when it was deemed safe to return to full operation, there was little ramp up or re-ramp time needed.
In addition to the pandemic another challenge was the world-wide social unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. The incident underscored the racial tension that exists in many parts of the world. It also cast a bright light on the issues of justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many marginalized communities found themselves without access to the Covid vaccines, access to critical support funds and closed off from other communities.
As nonprofit organizations we are designed to address challenges and help create solutions. At Goodwill Industries of East Texas in America, we began conducting all our classes virtually, just 3 days after we ceased in-person services. At Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota we were conducting virtual training in just one week.
We also received grace and flexibility with many of our funding sources. They allowed us to shift the original intent of their funds to areas of ‘greater need’.
At Goodwill Industries of East Texas and Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota, all staff, board of directors, and stakeholder meetings were held by telephone or virtually, using ZOOM, Teams, WebEx, or other platforms. In many cases attendance at these virtual meetings was stronger than our previous in-person meetings. The Leadership Team used Google Hangouts to remain in constant contact with our team members. We all learned to say – “You’re on mute” to our colleagues.
Some of you may offer social enterprises as an additional way to fund your services and operations. At Goodwill Industries of East Texas and Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota we operate donated goods retail stores or charity shops. These mission-supporting, revenue producing operations were required to close for a period. During this time, we devised a method to receive “touchless” donations and we increased our ecommerce business.
We learned a few things that continue to help our organization operate with greater efficiency.
We value partnerships, knowing we can do more together than we could ever do alone. During the pandemic we were able to work with are partners to change funding to address the current need for technology or basic needs – food , housing assistance, transportation, etc. We provided excess personal protection equipment to community entities and offered our locations for vaccination locations. We also joined in with partners to address the disparities in our communities.
The new world post pandemic is all about flexibility. We quickly realized that we were more flexible and resilient than we actually knew. Staff were meeting people, at the appropriate social distance, in parking lots to do check-ins. Our homes became substitute classrooms. Our partners helped us with access and service delivery options. There are service delivery options that we will continue to use as we emerge from the pandemic.
We learned to “re-imagine” our organizations and its operations. Returning to a state of normalcy is not an option. Reopening in a crisis or after the crisis subsides does not mean that everything goes back to business as usual. Accept that fact and you’ll save yourself many sleepless nights.