Crisis Clarifies: Delivering Results During COVID-19
3 big ideas that have helped one non-profit navigate through this pandemic
About a month before the coronavirus came to dominate our lives, I got lucky. I’d been tracking the spread of the epidemic purely out of curiosity to see if SARS-CoV-2 would develop the way other coronaviruses had before it. My entire professional life was focused on public health and infectious disease, so I was interested to see how this played out. I didn’t anticipate how important that information would be to the months that followed.
Casually, in passing, one of our volunteers mentioned their excitement about an upcoming trip to Italy. I asked around and sure enough, several other volunteers and three staff had trips to Europe planned in the next few months. Suddenly I could see the direct line between the epidemic overseas and our operations in Colorado.
My organization, Project Angel Heart, provides medically tailored meals to adults and children living with chronic and terminal illness. We interact every week with the most fragile people outside of a hospital, and, I felt certain, this thing was headed our way. We needed a plan.
In mid-February, I pulled my team together to come up with a way to reinvent our operations – moving from an organization with 40 staff and over 500 weekly on-site volunteers to a skeleton crew designed to get more than 10,000 meals to 1,300 people every week without pause. We set up clear “triggers” – events that would move us from one phase of our response to another (e.g. the first confirmed infection in Colorado) and we agreed on how we would make key decisions.
By early March, we were moving through our “triggers” faster than any of us anticipated. Schools closed. Family members lost jobs. My senior team and I managed a tight list of risk factors to our organization and one factor remained at the very top: staff anxiety, morale and fear of the unknown. Our plan wasn’t enough. What I did next boiled down to three big ideas that have helped navigate our team through this pandemic:
1. Purpose is power
Everyone on our team was drawn to our organization because they believe in our mission. I needed to remind them of that. So, we talked at length about why we were an essential service and what would happen to our clients if we stopped serving meals. We fought back fear with purpose. They needed to know their jobs had value and meaning and the sacrifices they made to keep coming to work had a lasting impact on other people’s lives.
I also knew that if we were going to keep our office running, we needed to be explicit about how we were protecting the health and wellbeing of our team. Everyone was assigned specific safety tasks (e.g. cleaning work spaces, reporting travel away from home) and collective accountability quickly became a value. We openly discussed concerns, sometimes contentiously, and updated safety protocols often to address them. Team members ran daily mindfulness and meditation sessions and created a mini pantry of supplies to cover items that were hard to find at grocery stores. We took caring for each other as seriously as caring for our clients.
Effectively managing through crisis requires knowing what you have control over versus what you don’t. The most tangible thing I could do as a leader was foster calm predictability to our work. My leadership team and I tried to provide focus, clearly delineating what was important (developing a new delivery
method for clients in apartment buildings with confirmed COVID outbreaks) from what was not. That new organizational strategy we began planning in early first quarter – it is still on hold. I have no regrets about that.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
In the beginning, I thought the last thing my team needed was another meeting. I thought for sure they wanted to stay focused and undistracted. I was wrong. Hearing from me and from the rest of our senior team was what allowed everyone to stay focused. Similarly, our volunteers, donors, and partners wanted to hear from us, and they wanted to know how they could help. Amidst so much uncertainty, over-communicating and transparency were important and necessary to keeping our team at ease.
Leaders use crisis to clarify what matters most. If you continue to function as if everything is the same – as if those performance goals developed in 2019 are still equally relevant – you will seem out of touch, and, as a result, without control. That doesn’t mean just going with the flow. It means setting a course that recognizes and even embraces the crisis to serve the mission of the organization. That’s what we have done at Project Angel Heart. While our organization had to pivot, like so many others, we are learning what true resiliency is about and we are taking this challenge as an opportunity to make us stronger, more nimble and ultimately better in the long run to continue to serving our clients.
Project Angel Heart prepares and delivers medically tailored meals to people living with life-threatening illnesses across the Denver metro area and in Colorado Springs. For more information, visit www.projectangelheart.org.