Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash
4 min Read
May 7, 2020

Instead of seeking stability, nonprofits should seek change

Recently, we’ve learned what “sheltering in place” means, how to work from home, and adapted to a host of wholly unanticipated difficult circumstances. For many people, the first few weeks of navigating COVID-19 were spent in crisis mode. We wondered how we’d stay healthy, educate our children, where we’d get groceries, how to keep working or get a new job, and how to be helpful to our families, friends, and colleagues.

Nonprofits are innovating all around us.

For New York City’s 35,000 nonprofits operating in the epicenter of the pandemic, the past two months have required dramatic changes, and many are facing this challenge with creativity and moxie. 

In a matter of weeks, The Brooklyn Community Foundation raised $2.5 million dollars and started funding new COVID-19-related grants, with a focus on serving needs of people of color, who make up 70% of Brooklyn’s population and are dying at twice the rate of white people. 

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual cherry blossom festival, Sakura Matsuri, sees as many as 80,000 visitors in a typical year, but in 2020 the cherries bloomed in private because the garden was closed.  So Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s staff brought their cherry trees and more to the world through an immersive eighteen-minute video  “walk” through its Japanese garden, which was viewed 72,000 times within its first six days online.

Green-Wood Cemetery, which offers unique historical, educational, and cultural programs on top of its “essential business” practice as a working cemetery, expanded access with extended hours and staffed additional gates to provide a quiet respite in the heart of hard-hit Brooklyn, where the sound of ambulances has become a constant. 

Nonprofits around the world (not just in my Brooklyn backyard) are innovating in ways like this that inspire us all. Who hasn’t loved watching animals at the zoo? Taking art classes on Instagram? Participating in online educational or fitness programs? 

With constant change and uncertainty, self-care is even more essential.

But all of this innovation has a human cost. Staff people are working overtime to spin up these new initiatives, support their communities, and overcome obstacles. Simultaneously, many of them are also home-schooling, concerned they might lose their jobs, wondering if they might run out of toilet paper, living in compromised circumstances, and worrying about those who’ve been sick or or grieving those they’ve lost. 

The importance of maintaining stamina and practicing self-care isn’t new for people who’ve worked in front-line advocacy, social work, and other fields. But for the rest of us, it’s hard not to simply wish things would go back to normal.  I wish I could work in the office. I can’t wait for my kids to go back to “real” school. I just want to have a meeting where I can shake someone’s hand or at least give them an elbow bump.  And for those living in communities that expect to be closed for weeks (if not months) longer, we’re just getting started. 

Embracing change and reinvention as we move forward.

When we look back at this time, we will feel proud of many things. How health workers and others in essential businesses have stepped up, risked their own lives for ours, and inspired us all. How neighbors and communities have come together. And how mission-driven organizations have innovated, adapted, and helped us in countless ways. 

The opportunity before us now, as we look ahead into the unknown impact of COVID-19, is to embrace new ways of innovating, taking care of ourselves, and experimenting with how we live, work, and play. 

Perhaps this is the time to stop thinking about how to patch things together and imagine what designing it for the long-haul in new ways would mean. In a world where physical distancing is no longer required, what programs might still be worth doing, or maybe even better, online? Which initiatives should be redesigned or abandoned? 

This isn’t just about the shift to being more digital and rethinking programs. It’s about the opportunity to redesign how we work together. To shift toward trusting our colleagues and co-workers to do great work when we can’t see them and under all sorts of sub-optimal and challenging conditions. It’s about wondering if that 9-5-in-the-office culture is really necessary to foster a productive workplace. It’s a new doorway into conversations about fairness, access, and privilege. Those of us with the capacity and privilege to entertain these questions have a rare opportunity right now to move past responding to crisis and start a renaissance of reinvention. 

How will your organization not only survive but thrive through these dark days? How will you personally manage and sustain yourself and those you love? I am eager to hear the many stories to come.