Silver Linings to the COVID-19 Crisis
As the cliché goes, never let a crisis go to waste.
We are all adapting daily to the social, economic, and operational chaos COVID-19 has wrought. Our clients are rising to the challenge and have begun the necessary work to identify and act swiftly to accelerate major changes to structure, staffing, and programs. Many of these changes were long overdue, and the luxury to avoid or delay no longer exists.
La Piana engaged in a recent project with John Muir Community Health Fund (CHF) to learn more about the changes its community partners are making and how CHF might support those partners in their current and future efforts to adapt. We interviewed CHF grantees and surfaced changes many were making as well as notable unique challenges, as no two organizations are exactly alike
Based on our findings from CHF, along with the results of La Piana’s recent Impact on the Social Sector Survey and in our follow-up conversations with a broad range of clients, we’ve identified the following silver linings to the crisis. These are great issues for funders in particular to focus on when trying to support their grantees in the short term because they offer long term mission and financial success.
Nonprofit leaders are creating new ways to connect with people in their communities; this includes providing never-before offered services or making significant changes in their service delivery. For example, organizations that provide meals for people in need are shifting from congregate dining areas to delivering food and meals at home. Others have quickly established new ways to interact with clients — such as deepening relationships with families of those quarantined in skilled nursing facilities rather than talking with the patients directly. Many nonprofits are seeing new volunteers coming forward — especially younger people, students, and neighbors — who are looking to be part of the solution to the challenges happening all around them (we’ll expand on this below).
Providing new services or enacting significant shifts in service delivery are important shifts to meet community needs. However, these changes are often complicated and expensive to maintain, and they can result in confusion if they fall outside a nonprofit’s traditional area of expertise.
As a result, organizations are seeing value in embracing collective solutions that may include partnerships, collaborations, and even merger exploration. To draw from an earlier example, food delivery is an immediate need during this crisis. Organizations working with immigrants, seniors, students, disabled people, or people experiencing material poverty are scrambling to develop food delivery and distribution solutions for their clients. Instead, these groups could join forces to work with a single food service provider, reducing duplication, ensuring fewer points of contact and clarity for clients, and providing a better service together.
Given our sudden and sharply increased dependence on the internet, reducing the oft-lamented digital divide has become a top priority for nonprofits working with students, seniors, and those at risk of isolation. Several groups coming together to form a geographic-based consortium will have better results addressing the issue than if each works independently. Collectively, they can identify sites to install internet hot spots and to provide shared computer access in areas like the lobbies of senior living facilities. Doing this in collaboration will lower overall costs while reaching a greater number of people more quickly. Furthermore, a consortium model is more attractive to telecommunications companies that are willing to donate solutions in the community but less able to prioritize competing community needs.
A third example is office space. As nonprofit administrative operations resume, the demand for space may be diminished (many are discovering remote work is viable and results in cost savings). This is an opportunity for nonprofits to consider co-locating, which has benefits beyond cost savings. The results of working on a four-way merger with our client Sierra Community House are a powerful testament to what can come from shared space.
The current crisis is ushering in a new generation of volunteers. To best accommodate the influx of interest, some nonprofits are revisiting their volunteer management systems. Volunteer programs that require everyone to work in person are being re-designed to work virtually. For instance, one crisis center has adopted an instant messaging platform that allows staff to provide immediate support to volunteers at home taking calls from those in need.
- We are also witnessing increased informal, direct volunteerism through social media and online community and neighborhood message boards. People volunteering to help neighbors directly is well intentioned, but it lacks the safety and protection that established organizations can ensure for vulnerable people. Nonprofits with strong volunteering systems can mobilize and support these informal volunteer networks for greater safety.
As nonprofits learn to serve constituents virtually, their sense of geographic boundaries continue to shift. We’ve heard from an organization serving refugee immigrants that they’ve dropped their formerly rigid geographic boundaries for clients participating in group support sessions. Rather than having each of their four geographic regions redesign the group sessions as a virtual service, regional staff are working together in a single effort and then inviting clients from any geographic area to participate. It’s an obvious solution to provide long-term benefits to the people they serve while reducing the costs associated with providing the service.
Looking to internal operations, we’ve heard from several organizations that previously siloed departments are working together in new ways. For example, one large nonprofit is conducting more frequent, all-staff video meetings and that, in turn, is promoting more cross-departmental collaboration as they seek better ways to serve clients.
- COVID-19 is affecting everyone — both staff and the people they serve. Although efforts to improve staff support are not new, this crisis has led many groups to re-examine policies to capture positive change. For example, organizations with previously inflexible in-office work requirements are realizing they can adjust their expectations and still achieve results. Our survey of nonprofits showed that 83 percent of respondents have moved operations from an office space to home environments, and many will maintain this option to increase staff satisfaction going forward. For staff with young children, long commutes, or financial instability, the ability to work from home or work flexible hours can result in cost savings, drive greater satisfaction, and bring about a more equitable workplace.
In this moment, funders can provide high-impact support that goes beyond immediate grant dollars. The position funders hold — observing scores of individual organizations within nonprofit sectors or in specific regions — puts them in a perfect position to document, analyze, and support the changes their grantees are making. Funders are not only able to support the short-term survival of their community partners; they are also in a position to enhance long-term mission impact and organizational sustainability by supporting immediate changes that yield long-term improvements.