It’s often been said that leadership faces its real test in times of crisis. With a global pandemic, a severe recession, social unrest on a historic scale, and an uncertain and enormously consequential election in the offing, this year is certainly presenting leaders with a test. That’s why I felt particularly privileged to share an hour in discussion with the CEO’s of four major Philadelphia nonprofits, hearing about their recent experiences and gleaning insights.
Those four gracious individuals were Jay Spector of JEVS Human Services, Loree Jones of Philabundance, Marianne Fray of Maternity Care Coalition, and Vik Dewan of the Philadelphia Zoo. Their organizations have each been hit by this crisis in different ways, and their responses provide fascinating and inspiring lessons. To see for yourself, you can check out our roundtable exchange here.
Do so and you will hear about stresses amounting to “nothing less than an existential crisis” for one organization, about “people brought together like never before” at another, about donors support hitting record levels, and about “confronting a new day” after the death of George Floyd.
You will also hear some resonant reflections on the nature of leadership—that this is a time calling us to embrace the model of the servant leader, that the CEO’s most important responsibility may be to empower other leaders throughout the organization, and that those accustomed to “leading from behind” may find it’s time to step forward into the spotlight.
Now that I’ve had time to think back on our conversation and connect what I heard with my own experiences working with many kinds of nonprofits over three decades, I’d like to share a few of the powerful take-aways that have stayed with me most clearly.
If I were to distill these into a single maxim, it would be this: Take care of yourself. Take care of your staff. Take care of your donors. It’s only by following this advice that you can then take care of your mission and the people your organization exists to serve. I believe the four CEO’s I spoke with agreed on this point.
All were emphatic when it came to the need to recognize the stress, uncertainty, and lack of control that staff members everywhere are facing, as professionals and as human beings. Leaders need to ask—and keep asking—how their people are doing, to offer every form of support possible, and to encourage self-care.
They also need to take that advice themselves. As an acute crisis becomes an ongoing one, leaders have to recognize there are limits to the superhuman efforts they can demand of themselves over time.
Thirdly, leaders need to attend to their donors, whose investment over time has allowed their organizations to thrive. If you view these donors as partners in a gift-making transaction, you might find yourself reluctant to be in touch during difficult times. But if you recognize that they are, in fact, partners in your mission, you will realize they need to hear from you and they want to help.
I like to say donors are like grandparents. They want to know how you are doing. They want to know they’re needed. And they appreciate your concern for them.
All this raises the question of how—how do you go about balancing these priorities, ensuring the well-being of your people, and sustaining the bonds that connect them? If I could sum up the answer in one word, it would be “communicating.” This was a key the four CEO’s returned to repeatedly.
Jay described once-weekly staff meetings now occurring daily. Marianne talked about town halls convened to process issues of racism screaming across the headlines. Vik underscored that this has been a moment for empathy and connection. In short, these leaders spoke about communicating more frequently and more openly than ever before. They also spoke about sharing their own feelings and vulnerability, acknowledging there was nothing normal about this “new normal.”
At the same time, as Vik pointed out, it has been essential to engage with donors. “There are ways to reconnect people with your story—what you do and why you do it, and it’s phenomenally important that you do this now.”
I fully agree. Every nonprofit needs to be thinking about intentional, creative, multichannel approaches for keeping donors informed and engaged. In this time of need, donors will continue to support worthy causes. But they will only support the causes that matter most to them. More than ever, it is essential to assert your position as a top philanthropic priority and maintain front-of-mind awareness among your donors.
One final take-away: Amid all the pressures organizations are facing, the CEO’s remained hopeful. They reminded us to never let a good crisis go to waste. They vowed to come out of this test even stronger. They spoke of a stubborn optimism they insist on maintaining.
As a believer in the power and value of the work nonprofits do, I found these views deeply affirming. And as a fundraiser, I found them a powerful message. Embrace hope, and your donors will too.