COVID Forces Hard Decisions

I spoke with the CEO and several board members of an organization that focuses on immigrants and refugees. We talked about the impact of COVID, protests, and the election on their organization and the people they serve – and how the board was involved in the tough decisions they have had to make.

Work with Your Board to Develop Contingency Plans

CEO: We went into the pandemic thinking we would be tapping our board to do more. There were lots of questions of the impact it would have on the economy, on foundations, on philanthropy. Our board has a governance focus – big picture, budget, finance. So, we came to the board and said, “We don’t know what is going to happen.” We asked the board for guidance as we developed contingency plans. And we continue to engage them on key topics, especially budgets and fundraising. We connected them to donors and funders. The board members have been with us every step of the way.

Board Member: When the stay-at-home order was put in place, I remember the CEO shared the plans, what they were going to do, how they were going to do the work during this unprecedented time. We were informed what that was going to look like for the organization and for the staff. I would say we are very much looped into processes as well. I feel like I have a say and it is meaningful and powerful to have a say in the direction this organization is going.

Reach Out to Funders, But Be Ready to Walk Away from Grants

CEO: Fortunately, the philanthropic community came together to fund us and a lot of our partners. We even raised money that we did not expect. Part of our goal this year is to build up some reserves, particularly with the uncertainty about the ongoing pandemic and economy.

We also had grants with specific deliverables which do not make sense for us to engage in right now. We reached out to our funders. For the most part, the conversations have been good. Some said, “Use the grant however you want.” Others wanted to be accommodating. With two funders, we extended the grant period, thinking that we are not going to get to their work now, but maybe we will later. We told them we are not going to spend the funds until we know more. There were other funders that were focused on having their deliverables accomplished during a specific grant period. They were not flexible about how those funds could be spent. In one case, the deliverable was not a good focus for us right now. In addition, the grant did not fund all the work we needed to do to fulfill the deliverable. It did not make sense to accept it given everything else going on. We told them to redistribute the funds to other organizations.

There are some grants we are not accepting and some that we may actually send back. Most of these are smaller grants so I have not brought them to the board. But we have one large multi-year grant that would have a big impact on our organizational structure. We wanted to make sure we were thinking about all the implications of taking the grant. We did talk to the board and they asked great questions: Is this work that we were intending to do? Does this grant allow us to do more of that work or is it pulling us in a direction we do not want to go in?

Center the People You Serve

Board Member: As a board, we worried about fundraising, but we were more concerned about the immigrant and refugee communities we serve and what it meant for them. We all come from immigrant backgrounds, so we all have lived experience. When COVID hit, it was disproportionately impacting black, indigenous, and communities of color so each of us has our own stories about how it has impacted our families and our communities. We saw that our communities were left out of the federal stimulus packages and what that meant. Out staff really went to bat at the state level to make sure there was financial support for immigrant communities. 

CEO: As my board member noted, the people we serve are disproportionately affected by COVID. They are impacted by racial injustice. They are not eligible for federal support. We put our community first.

Support Staff and Provide a Safe Place to Share

CEO: With so much going on – COVID, protests, the elections – we knew we had to support our staff. More and more demands have been put on them. Working from home. Doing their best at their jobs. Taking care of family. Staff need to feel agency and control. We encourage people to be vulnerable and transparent. We have check-ins – perhaps not in every meeting but on a regular basis. We use a tool that helps people deal with stress. As managers, we don’t necessarily know everything our staff are dealing with. There might be something difficult that they are managing in their personal lives. So, creating an opportunity to let people share – if they want – is important. Having a structure that we all use helps. We have talked about the training and the processes we put in place with the board, so they have a good understanding of what we are facing and how we are managing.

Board Member: In addition to the impact of COVID, we are all impacted by racial injustices. Our staff are doing a good job of intentionally showing up for black immigrants. We have discussed how anti-blackness shows up in our immigrant and refugee communities. The team has also looked at our own internal hiring practices and how to best support colleagues who are black. The board has been part of those conversations and has provided guidance. On the board side, we have been allocating time during our meetings to discuss anti-blackness and how we can be thoughtful allies.

Prioritize and Focus Work

CEO: Right now, things look like they will be virtual for a while longer. At a recent board meeting, we were anticipating our 2021 work plan. We have been very intentional of creating a funnel. We are looking at all the different potential bodies of work and picking the most important. In the past years, we would start the year with 10 to 15 goals. This next year, we are limiting ourselves to five.

The process involved both staff and board. I worked with my executive team and senior managers to start the process. We had lots of conversations individually and in teams to look at the landscape for 2021 and to come up with a set of goals. We brought these goals and assumptions to the board and had some good back and forth. Next, we spent time to really dig into the goals. Are these the right ones? We had senior managers fill out a survey. We had follow-up conversations. We asked folks to think about them. We re-drafted and came back to the board for a full conversation. Then at a staff retreat, we rolled out the goals to the full staff. There was excitement and agreement that this was the right direction. The next step was a deeper dive by staff to create actual work plans. We brought these back to the board and worked to ensure that the budget reinforced the goals and direction.

Lessons Learned

  • Do contingency planning using your board for guidance
  • Be willing to say “no” to funding
  • Take care of your staff
  • Limit commitments for this year

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