It’s M*A*S*H Time
I grew up in an immigrant family of blue-collar workers in Ohio and coal miners in Pennsylvania. My family experienced plenty of anti-immigrant bigotry—and, of course, we saw Black families getting far worse treatment. Even so, I grew up in a household with deep faith in America.
If you were from our part of town and of our ethnicity, the ladder of upward mobility wasn’t quite as safe or sturdy as the ladder for “better” families from the communities where my mom cleaned houses. But at least we had a chance to find opportunity. The American Dream felt legit.
But today I feel fearful—more so than I did at any time during the Sputnik years of my childhood or the fateful years of 1965-1973, when riots broke out in our cities, Dr. King was assassinated, students were massacred at Kent State (one of my alma maters), and friends were fighting in an unjust war.
My fear today comes from this deadly health pandemic we’ve allowed to rage as a result of gross mismanagement, a reflexive rejection of science, and outright denial. It’s this longstanding racism pandemic and the gut-wrenching videos that keep reminding us that we’ve made even less progress on race than we thought. It’s the hypocrisy of calling millions of immigrants and working-poor citizens “essential workers” and treating them as utterly expendable. It’s this economy that, while churning along for many, has thrown tens of millions out of work and brought even greater economic hardship to communities that have no rubber in the rubber band. Perhaps most of all, it’s the vitriol that’s killing efforts to address our country’s daunting challenges. Too many of our elected leaders and their supporters—left and right—have become “permanent enemies who treat each other with contempt and are convinced of the utter worthlessness of the other,” in the words of The Gathering’s Fred Smith, a leader I greatly admire.
All four of these crises, which amplify each other like sine waves in synch, cry out for a strong, thriving civil society. And yet many parts of our helping-and-healing sector have been hit hard by COVID-19 and its economic fallout. In the words of SeaChange Capital Partners, this crisis could be an “extinction-level event” for many nonprofits.
Independent Sector surveyed 110 mid-size nonprofits (500-5000 employees) for the period between May 27 and June 9. Overall, 83 percent of respondents are experiencing a reduction in revenue, 71 percent a reduction in services, 67 percent have furloughed employees, 55 percent have closed offices, 51 percent have laid off employees, and 30 percent have reduced employee pay and benefits. Last week, Candid estimated what percentage of nonprofits will have to close their doors. It said 11 percent is the probable (realistic) scenario, 3 percent is the optimistic scenario, and 38 percent is the dire forecast. If the virus continues to surge and the restart of the economy sputters into late fall, the next 12 to 24 months may well be the most trying time for civil society in generations.
So what can nonprofit leaders do in the midst of this chaos and uncertainty? In the coming months, our team will share recommendations, including a simple list of references, suggestions, and questions you can use to help your board and management team focus on what really matters.
In the meantime, I urge you to rally your team with an unrelenting focus on the here and now. Using a set of “scientific wild-ass guesses” (SWAGs), develop a triage assessment of your organization that takes into account all that is changing around and in your organization.
If you remember the TV series M*A*S*H (’72-’83), consider playing the role of Hawkeye (without the snark). As a new batch of soldiers was carried into Hawkeye’s field hospital, he did a quick scan to judge the seriousness of each person’s injuries. He made quick calls as to which to take on, how, and in what order.
In your organization, pinpoint what needs immediate treatment, what can be queued for priority treatment, what’s non-urgent for now, and what’s stable or just fine—and do this for your 15-20 most critical elements. For example, are you seeing a major drop in revenue? A big spike in costs? Are those you serve and your staff at high risk for COVID? Is a government grant at serious risk of termination? Has a major sponsor backed out? Has your line of credit been cancelled? Does social distancing radically change program delivery? Can you get funders to accelerate their commitments or even double down? Are you seeing an increase in demand that threatens to overwhelm you—or, conversely, a sharp drop-off in demand? What changes must you make to increase racial equity in your organization?
Ask these questions ASAP; yesterday wasn’t soon enough. Don’t make this a big to-do project. Bring together six to nine of the best thinkers from your team, board, and stakeholder groups. Make sure you pick people who are truth tellers, who will help you face the brutal facts. Be sure this group includes a diversity of experiences and backgrounds. Devote up to a half-day for a brisk, focused review of critical elements. By doing a quick scan of each aspect of your organization, you’ll know which areas are steady state, where immediate triage is needed, where you need to dig further to know what to do, and where you might even find new opportunities.
I was encouraged to see so many foundations sign onto the pledge (Philanthropy’s Commitment during COVID-19) spearheaded by the Ford Foundation. I’m also excited to see that some social justice organizations that were getting very little love from funders are now seeing record donations. But nonprofits across our sector will need a lot more love and money.
America needs our voice and leadership like never before.
With an unrelenting focus on the here and now,
Updates From Around the Leap Community
Monitor Institute, a division of Deloitte, has just released An event or an era? Resources for social sector decision-making in the context of COVID-19, which will help nonprofit leaders prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. It’s a clear-eyed look at all the key factors that may play out as a result of America’s intersecting crises and how organizations can improve their ability to cope with them. The goal: “We have found that the most resilient organizations are those that have a broader array of choices and alternatives as the future twists and turns—and our hope is that the work here can help funders and nonprofits figure out how to plan and move forward amidst the uncertainty.” (Full disclosure: I was interviewed by the authors.)
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s New York Times op-ed “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?” is a must read! In bold terms uncharacteristic of most foundation leaders, he lays out a masterful case that our society-rending inequities aren’t the natural outcome of the “invisible hand” of markets: “American inequality was decades in the making, one expensive lobbyist and policy change at a time.” And he acknowledges that reducing these inequities will require sacrifice, not just good intentions: “If we, the beneficiaries of a system that perpetuates inequality, are trying to reform this system that favors us, we will have to give up something.”
The Fund for Shared Insight, a national collaborative that has grown to more than 100 grantmakers, has been working for six years to make listening and feedback a new norm in philanthropy and the social sector. In response to COVID-19 and the urgent demand for racial justice, the Fund for Shared Insight is offering a special opportunity for COVID-19 pledge signers to follow through on their commitment to listening and feedback. Through the new initiative Listen4Good Online+, pledge signers can access the expert tools, resources, and targeted coaching support for a low, subsidized fee.
I’m a fan of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity, so it was no surprise that its new “CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity” is such a valuable resource. It helps companies understand and address the intended and unintended consequences of all their products, policies, and practices on people of color. The blueprint provides actions in three key domains: 1) inside the company, 2) within the communities where the companies are headquartered and conduct business, and 3) at the broader societal level.
The Center for Investigative Reporting’s recent article “How the US’ massive failure to close the digital divide got exposed by coronavirus” exposes corporate malfeasance and a government asleep at the wheel. “Some of the country’s largest internet service providers―Frontier Communications and CenturyLink―took billions in government grants to improve broadband in rural areas, only to later admit that they were failing to fully deliver on their promises. They were never punished or asked to pay back the public money.”
Events/Webinars for Raising Performance
Aug 6 — Online
“Digital Storytelling to Inspire and Attract Funders” webinar; GrantSpace by Candid
Aug 10 — Online
“Position Yourself for Catalytic Philanthropy” learning lab; Exponent Philanthropy
Aug 13 — Online
“Streamline, Let Go, and Engage with Your Community” learning lab; Exponent Philanthropy
Aug 18 — Online
“Understand the System” learning lab; Exponent Philanthropy
Sep 22-24 — Online
“COVID-19: Reshaping Social Innovation” virtual conference; SSIR
Sep 29-Oct 1 — Online
“ASUGSV virtual summit” (for leaders in education and talent tech) summit; Global Silicon Valley
Oct 19-23 — Online
“Social Capital Markets virtual convening” convening; SOCAP