As the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes life around the world this spring, advocacy organizations have had to shift dramatically to respond to the new reality. On one hand, much policy and advocacy work can be done remotely, in-person meetings can shift to video or conference calls, policy papers can be written from a laptop from almost anywhere, and many policy or digital organizing shops are already accustomed to remote work. On the other hand, virtual meetings are not the same as in-person meetings. Relationship building with volunteers, activists, team members, funders, and other stakeholders inevitably takes a hit over video conferences. With schools closed, staff and volunteer productivity plummets for parents tasked with all-day childcare. There’s no formula for how to lead an organization through these challenges, but I wanted to share a few of my own thoughts, split into three buckets: mission, people, and fundraising. I’m very curious for different takes in the comments because I expect each organization will have unique needs and creative solutions.
For many progressive advocacy groups who advocate on behalf of vulnerable people, the public health and economic crises will disproportionately impact their constituencies. Crises like this one can reveal holes in our social safety net and strengthen the case for progressive policies. The scope of the pandemic and its impact on our collective psyche also provide an opportunity to drive society-wide shifts. Take paid sick days for example. The United States stands out among wealthy countries for not guaranteeing workers paid sick days. Yet just a few weeks of facing down a global pandemic was enough for Congress to dramatically expand paid sick days—even if temporarily and imperfectly. It’s worth asking, is there a similar opportunity on your issue where the COVID-19 crisis helps make a stronger political case for a needed policy reform?
An important corollary to the point above is to ensure you are adjusting priorities. You probably had a lot of work planned that is no longer relevant in the current crisis—or is still relevant, but not as important as responding to immediate opportunities or threats. For your team to have time to respond effectively, you need to let go of some prior goals and expectations. This is especially true when productively falls with the need for parents to pick up childcare, the inability to build relationships as effectively, or faltering mental health. Some of these shifts will require conversations with funders, as I’ll discuss below. Ultimately, if you are not delaying or canceling expected work to cope with new activities, you are not adequately responding to the crisis.
Finally, file in your memory how you wished you had prepared for the economic crisis. While global pandemics are uncommon, economic downturns are routine. What policies can be put in place now that will go into effect automatically during a crisis? I have a personal favorite example from my partner, who has been talking during our entire three-year relationship about a white paper she co-wrote back in 2016. The paper includes a series of ideas for updating our unemployment insurance program, with lessons learned from the Great Recession. The authors would have preferred the reforms to be in place already, the panic of the current crisis and search for immediate solutions meant that several of their ideas are now part of the latest economic stimulus package, the CARES Act. You can replicate this strategy after the economy recovers, but before the next inevitable recession.
Accomplishing your mission isn’t going to be possible without a safe and healthy team to do the work. By now I would expect organizations are following social distancing guidelines as much as is practical. Working from a distance is probably easier for advocacy groups than, say, direct service organizations who may still need to show up in person to carry out their missions. In a world with less in-person interaction, clear and constant communication becomes more important—and this is all the more true during a crisis in which work, expectations, assumptions, and the environment are rapidly changing. Taking the time to make sure everyone is aware of new developments and be honest about when you do or do not know something can help build trust. This includes updates on when you expect your offices to open again, your budget projections for the year, and how decisions about campaign priorities will be made.
Taking into account mission and funding, try to be as flexible as you can under the circumstances. Partly, that means setting new priorities and letting go of old ones as discussion above. You should also be thoughtful about what you are calling out and praising. If the only person you acknowledge during a staff meeting is the parent who stayed up all night to finish a project, you may inadvertently turn that behavior into a new expectation. That doesn’t mean you should stop rewarding your team members for going above and beyond, but you should also remember that for some, even keeping their own output at 50% or 75% might take heroic effort right now given the other challenges they’re facing. And finally, organizational leaders should keep that same standard for themselves. Make sure you’re doing what you need to do to keep yourself healthy and set an example by blocking substantial time for caregiving or personal health and thereby creating space for your team to do the same.
Of course, the top concern for many organizational leaders is that the ability to continue their mission and support staff rests on the ability to continue to fund the work. Your existing funding agreements may involve activities such as in-person events that are no longer possible during a pandemic. Or they may involve a policy report or starting a new campaign—projects that may come off as tone deaf in the changed reality. In many cases, you may want to push off or change deliverables so you can work on issues relevant to the economic and social challenges at hand.
Similar to the strategy with staff, it’s critical to communicate early and often with your funders. Most are likely fairly flexible when it comes to timelines and events that cannot or should not occur at this point. Organizations should take the initiative to reach out and flag how the current change in environment is impacting their work in specific ways. (Hopefully funders will also be taking initiative to let folks know they are open to adjustments!) Ideally, advocacy organizations will have some ideas to propose by email or phone about what adjustments should be made. This includes asking to push back events or other deliverables, changing projects entirely to respond to changed circumstances, or converting less flexible project grants to more flexible general operating support. Some organizations may wish to simply extend the time period for existing deliverables, while many others that depend on grant renewals to support staff time will want to change their deliverables entirely, and try to keep a hoped-for renewal cycle on the same schedule.
In many cases, your funders will have mission alignment, and fully support changes to accommodate new advocacy opportunities. For example, funders supportive of expanded paid sick day policies almost certainly support grantee organizations shifting to focus on advocacy for expanded paid sick days in response to the pandemic. In this way, having transparent, timely conversations about how you’re proposing to shift priorities can demonstrate how you’re being creative during the crisis and continuing to make progress on shared goals. Finally, grantees and funders should also be discussing organizational challenges such as increased stress and reduced productivity noted above. Expectations for everyone should be reduced commensurate with the challenges.
Of course, not all news will be good news. A final benefit of proactively reaching out to funders will be to gauge their ability and interest to continue funding your work. It is better to know sooner rather than later, for example, if an endowment shrinking with the stock market will no longer be able to support your organization at the same level, or at all. Here too, funders need to communicate anticipated cuts as soon as possible so grantees can plan and adjust.
The usual complexity of navigating mission goals, staff needs, and funder strategy gets all the more complex during a crisis such as this with no easy or predictable answers. Some may see increased relevance to their work, energized staff advancing policy, and funders bringing increased support. Others may see the opposite as previous campaigns poised for victory fall down the priority list in the face of the public health crisis and staff must pull away to tend to more pressing family and health priorities. The economic downturn also risks reducing funding, which may lead to difficult organization decisions. The ideas above offer a few things for organization leaders to consider as they respond to the new reality in the months ahead. What else would you add to the list? Please share in the comments.