Phases of the Pandemic

Stack of masks

It is surreal and exhausting to think it’s been seven months of working in this way. I am tempted to predict the future and talk about what the sector might learn from this, but I know I can’t get bored with the present even if I don’t like it, I can’t ignore the steps it will take to get through this.

This year started out like many others with workplans, schedules, in-person trainings all slated to allow us to support the nonprofit sector. We also had tenacious and exciting plans to work through a strategic planning process as a staff throughout the year following an in-person retreat in February. And, during that time, we started to see indications that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) might affect our work.

As people sang songs together from their apartments in Italy, and as cases of COVID-19 grew in Seattle, and then New York, it was clear that leadership at Propel had to start making decisions. Do we work from home now or wait for a stay-at-home order? What about the Finance and Sustainability Conference scheduled for mid- April? What gets included in a policy about working and delivering services virtually? How do we continue to support our partners during this time?

Once the reality of constant change sunk in as a global pandemic and economic crises took over our lives, it was hard to know which sources to trust, let alone make decisions with ever shifting and incomplete information. It is surreal and exhausting to think it’s been seven months of working in this way. I am tempted to predict the future and talk about what the sector might learn from this, but I know I can’t get bored with the present even if I don’t like it, I can’t ignore the steps it will take to get through this. Thinking about the pandemic in three phases: reaction and response; recovery; and rebuilding and reinvention, has helped me keep perspective in the middle of mind-boggling days.

I’ve been thinking about these phases as terms like “recovery” started showing up in requests for grant applications and as journalists asked me how the nonprofit sector would fare. I hate to make medical analogies, but it felt like asking someone who is still being assessed for a heart attack in the ER what plans they have to implement lifestyle changes. Similarly, for nonprofits, the first step is to stabilize and diagnose before prescribing treatment.

Today, as it was in mid-March, nonprofits are experiencing these phases differently, and it is important to recognize each organization, with different programs, revenue streams, and models, has their own challenges ahead. As new problems arise – loosening shelter in place restrictions, re-opening commerce, school starting, Paycheck Protect Program money running out – nonprofit leaders will go through the same short-term stabilization they did months ago even if they happened to be recovering from the initial change. That’s ok. This is a continuum, and we are all moving on it every day.

While some nonprofits scale up services, others have been forced to face the painful reality of furloughs, pay cuts, and layoffs. Nonprofit leaders will decide whether to convert program grants into general operating if they are able. We know nonprofit organizations, leaders, and workers are learning how to operate within the pandemic: from working with strict health and safety protocols, to reinventing program services for virtual delivery, and learning the tricks for working together while remote. The reinvention and innovation are continuous and needed. Until the information coming at us is telling us a story, and helping us understand a story, we will be in this stage. Once a clearer story emerges, we’ll move on to the recovery phase.

During the recovery stage, it is likely you will have enough reliable information to make some decisions. What does that mean? That you have enough information to be more confident than not. You will know more about revenue sources, the delivery and costs of your programs and services … or at least you will know most of it. I would be remiss not to mention that this is why scenario planning is so helpful.

If you have done scenario planning, you’ll be able to assess what is going on in your organization and activate the right scenario. You’ll ask yourself:

How much reserves did we use? How much revenue was lost? What are our options? What is our cash flow and runway?

And, just as important, you’ll be asking what toll this has taken on your staff, clients, boards, partners, and what do you, and they, need to recover?

Most nonprofits are not in this stage yet, there are still too many unknowns. Nonprofits aren’t sure how their year-end fundraising scenarios will play out. They don’t know when they can reopen their offices safely, and they don’t know how to predict funding from government, foundations, donors, or program services yet.

So what do we do if we can’t even see the next stage?

This is not a step-by-step linear path, of course. The three phases – reaction and response; recovery; and rebuilding and reinvention – are stacked on top of one another as much as they’re in a straight line. Some information is more certain while other aspects are still a big question mark. I encourage you to practice living in all three at once. Write down ideas that come up so you can use later. It is a reminder to me that there is a way through this. For example, how is online learning working for your organization? What are you learning from it? If you can use volunteers remotely now, is that something you can sustain? Are you a foodbank who has started using a social media more? Great! Can you continue to do that effectively? What have you tried that didn’t work well, and what did you learn from that?

Recognize you are on a continuum, and wherever you are is a fine place to be. The number of decisions you must make is not likely to slow down. Working with incomplete info is uncomfortable, but we are all having to do it. Developing multiple plans and adjusting them frequently is exactly what nonprofits to schools to businesses will be doing for the foreseeable future.

I also encourage you to work on your own leadership so you are ready to be this leader, so you are keeping your board and leadership team in the loop, so you are comfortable with the discomfort of not having enough information. This is a shared experience, and you aren’t alone in it. If you are a board or leadership team member – have patience, decisions are going to change, you might make a decision today that you won’t make in two weeks. Make the decision, learn from it, and keep moving. Adaptability and leadership are the most valuable muscles to build right now.

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