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Planning Your Organization’s Return from COVID-19 Part 1: Who Will You Be When You Emerge?

Part 1: Who Will You Be When You Emerge?

I know. I don’t feel ready to think about it either. Moving back into the real world feels risky and uncertain. It’s hard to imagine hugging another human or standing in line next to someone. That’s okay. Because we aren’t ready yet. I’m writing this series as a resource for you to start planning now, so that when physical distancing restrictions are lifted, you are ready and have a plan. You, your staff and your community will be better served by your preparedness.

Every organization has adapted and responded to COVID. Some have closed their doors (temporarily or permanently), some have fully moved operations to a remote model, and some have modified services to be delivered in a new or different way.

As I have worked with organizations in the time of COVID, I have noticed shared patterns of experiences and realizations emerge: [1] Organizations are becoming keenly attuned to their strengths; [2] There is an increased understanding of organizational capacity limitations; [3] Heightened awareness of community needs and how the organization can best and uniquely meet them.

If you have had one or more of these experiences, consider them gifts. Crisis has a way of revealing what is most essential and important.  (I’m not talking about toilet paper.)

When it is time, it is important that you reemerge with intention – that you take your learnings from this season to heart and work with your team and community to define how you want and need to show back up. The process below will help you do this.

Recognize YOUR strength.

Close your eyes and think back on the moment you realized that your community would be under a shelter-in-place/stay-at-home order. You may have panicked. You may have called someone you trust and asked for help. Perhaps you felt relieved. Maybe you cursed and poured yourself a drink.  You may have cried. Or froze. Perhaps you prayed. Maybe you became calm and gathered. Regardless, from that point on, you emerged as a new version of the leader that you were before.

Let me be clear. Leaders that have mentored you, that you have looked up to, that have been your heroes…they have never done what you have done. Reflect on all you have accomplished since that moment of activation. You have led your team through not just a crisis, but weeks – months – of uncertainty, trauma, fear, and loss. You have invented strategies for meeting your community’s needs as safely and compassionately as possible. You have not given up. Even if you laid off your staff and closed your doors for good, you were brave, and I bet you did it with dignity and strength.

Take a moment (or a thousand) and celebrate your gritty and creative leadership. I know it hasn’t been perfect and you don’t feel like you are giving anything your full attention. That is what makes you human. And your humanness is what makes you the leader your community needs.

Reflect.

Let’s dig into what you have learned during this time. What personal, collective, and organizational strengths have emerged as you have navigated COVID-19 with your team? Write them down. How will these strengths serve your organization in the future? What steps can you take to amplify and sustain them?  

Now think about some of your biggest hurdles. Is it funding/revenue? Technology limitations? Systemic failures? Safety concerns? Communication challenges? Write down the challenges that have surfaced or intensified during this time. How have you addressed these so far? Which ones linger? What opportunities are there to address these challenges in the future?

Now, reflect on the impact that you have born witness to during this pandemic. Think about the stories that have made you think, “I am so glad we are here.” Or, “Wow, I never realized we could make this type of impact in this way.” What have you learned about the needs and strengths of the communities you serve? How have you seen your organization uniquely filling gaps? What has surprised you? What have you been most proud of?

Talk about it.

Bring your questions. stories and reflections to your team. Celebrate and acknowledge their efforts and commitment. Share with them what you have learned and the questions you have been pondering. Invite them to share their stories. Pose the reflection questions to the group and let them share. Look for common themes. Listen to those with unique perspectives. Hear their ideas for tackling the challenges that have emerged.

Discuss whether there are services that your organization should let go of. Are there new offerings to consider? Invite questions from your team. It’s okay if you don’t know the answers. Document this download of deep organizational introspection. Give your team time and space to sit with what you discussed together and make a plan for following up together.

Decide.

The next step is to make some decisions about how you will create space for these learnings to inform your future. You are not the same organization you were before this global pandemic. You may choose to operate the same way and deliver the same services, but you will do so with newfound perspective and insight. You may discover that your organization needs to embrace new values, mission, or strategies to maximize your impact in your community.

Gather your team again to engage in dialogue about strategy.  Based on what you have learned and shared, who will you be and how will you emerge from this pandemic when it is time to return to a new state of being? Come back to your strengths, challenges, and opportunities you identified together. What decisions will you make about your priorities?

Will you make a stronger commitment to advancing equity in your community? Will you aim to increase accessibility? Will you say goodbye to some programs to focus on the areas of greatest impact? Do you need to refresh your values? Is there a new community that you will start serving? Will you partner with other organizations in new ways? How will your organizational culture evolve?

Make decisions together. You can also decide to pilot some new ideas or pause some areas of the organization while you test and learn.  It’s also okay to decide that you need more time before you can make certain decisions (that is a decision, too).

You may be wondering, where does the board fit into all of this? When engaging in deep organizational introspection and tapping into direct experiences with your community, my belief is that these conversations are most relevantly initiated and led by staff, who have the closest proximity to the community. Community-informed strategy should be driven by your community, with the advocacy and support of those working most closely with them. Once your team has compiled your thoughts, ideas, decisions and/or recommendation, take them to the board. Share what you’ve learned. Invite your board to share their stories, what they are proud of, what they are excited about, and how they can help at the board level. When a nonprofit board is willing to recognize and empower leadership that comes from the grassroots, beautiful and powerful partnership transpires.In part 2 of this series, I will walk you through a transitional and iterative planning process for the logistical, cultural, and operational reemergence into the world. This approach will equip you with confidence and clarity and help you get your team on the same page and ready for what is ahead. I will also share a  Planning Checklist and a Sample Transition Plan.

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