Supporting our organizations through uncertain times, when there’s no script

5361319682_f5cffc8f13I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose. Maybe it’s because I was on sabbatical earlier this year. Or maybe it’s because I’ve struggled to figure out how to explain what’s going on in this country to my kids, who are seven and ten years old. I’ve been thinking about  what I have to offer, and what my job requires of me. Especially at critical moments, the ones that put an organization to the test. I spend a lot of my time making sure I’m prepared for those moments. But what happens when one arrives, and I’m not around? Earlier this month, I found out.

The Wednesday morning after election day, I boarded a 7am train at Union Station in DC, where I live and work. I’d been up since 3am, slowly coming to terms with the results of the election. In a stroke of bad timing, our entire senior team was out of the office for the two days following election day. More than a year ago, when we scheduled our fall board meeting to be held in New York, we couldn’t have guessed that the day after election day would be such a ground shaking moment in time.

My organization, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, tries to help funders figure out how to get better at providing nonprofits the support they need to be effective. On the train that morning, I started to come to grips with the fact that the challenges facing many nonprofits were about to get vastly more complex. By the time we reached New York, I was still in a fog, and I struggled to get my mind in board meeting mode. Our board members are an incredibly thoughtful and supportive group of people, and it gave me peace of mind to be with them. There was a part of me, though, that felt a loss at not being with the people I work with every day, in our office. Like many, I hadn’t really prepared for the impact the election would have, at a personal level, on so many people in my organization. As I hurried into the board meeting, I sent a quick message to our Director of Operations, Andy Freeze, letting him know we understood that it was an unusual day, and that he and the team should do whatever they thought best to make sure people had what they needed.

I’ve now heard countless stories of people gathering in corridors and conference rooms across the country to comfort each other, search for understanding and, for some, to grieve. Later in the day, I finally had a chance to check in with Andy about how things had been going. I should have known that our team would be on the case. One of our organization’s managers, Emily Wexler, decided to walk around to check in individually with staff as they arrived, and to let them know our main priority that day was for them each to take care of themselves. Andy and Emily crafted a message to the staff saying they should show up in the way that felt most real to them, and that they should take the time they needed to process or talk with colleagues or friends and family. Another one of our managers, Wing Li, invited whoever was interested to gather that morning in the conference room to watch Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. Our operations assistant, Shayda Rezazad, recognizing that food is comfort for the soul, ordered lunch for everyone. What struck me most about the way my colleagues went into immediate action that day was that none of it was scripted. In fact, we couldn’t have planned for it if we tried. And most importantly, it didn’t rely on any one individual. The team responded in a way that just felt right.

It’s gotten me thinking about what we can all do to make sure our nonprofits are ready for these moments when they come. The world has changed dramatically for many in our sector. What is the role for people in operations-type jobs in this post-election reality? In these past few weeks, I have gone through a range of emotions. I have been enraged. I have been afraid. I have felt guilty and naive that I didn’t see this coming. I have told myself it can’t possibly be all that bad. I have wanted to crawl under the covers and never come out. Nonprofit leaders I’ve spoken with over this past month have shared similar experiences with me. It has given us the opportunity to reflect that, in our organizations, we are more than a group of people who happen to show up to work each morning at the same address. We share common values and we work in common cause. We experience joy together and, at times, we experience pain together. For people who run the day-to-day operations, defining our purpose will be one of the greatest challenges in the years to come. As nonprofit unicorns working to create a more just, inclusive and healthy world for us all to live in, our colleagues may be worn out by the task that lays ahead. Our teams will need all the support we can give them.

To start, we will:

  • Set the tone, create the space – We don’t all need to agree. In fact, people in our organizations may be experiencing this moment in time quite differently. But we do need spaces where we can show up, say what’s on our mind, and know that others will listen openly, respectfully and with empathy. We can set the tone, including making sure everyone knows we won’t solve it all at once. We’re living in a time of great uncertainty, and only one thing is for sure – we have a long road ahead.
  • Maintain stability, without rigidity – No one knows what new challenges we may face. We can provide the stability and continuity that gives our colleagues the confidence that, whatever is happening out there, things are solid on the home front. At the same time, because things may shift rapidly, we should seek to be flexible, wherever possible. This may be the time to revisit some of those old rules to see if they still make sense.
  • Listen, listen, respond, listen – We will need to pay more attention than ever to what is going on in our organizations. After listening, and listening some more, we can respond. After we respond, we’ll need to go back to listening again. We can create spaces for learning, reflection and action. One tool I like for this is the After Action Review.
  • Give people authority – Make sure people running operations have the authority to make decisions on their own. On the day after the election, when the entire senior team was away from the office, my colleagues knew we trusted them to take appropriate action and to get people what they needed in that moment.
  • Invest in stuff that allows people to come together – In organizations, we work in common cause, and we need the infrastructure to support that. For example, about a year ago, Andy arranged for a ceiling-mounted projector to be installed in our conference room. It seems like a simple thing, but this small investment allowed some of our team to watch the Putting Racism on the Table series together this fall. On the day after the election, it also allowed my colleagues to watch Clinton’s concession speech together, rather than watching in isolation on their phones or at their desks.
  • Prepare to adjust, from the beginning – Operations jobs tend to attract people who always have a plan, who are systematic in everything we do, who get stuff done on time (or ahead of schedule – because, you know, we get more points that way) and who are amazing at putting everything in its place. Color coding stuff is our jam. It’s what our colleagues love about us. It’s also what can drive our colleagues crazy. Our best laid plans may not play out just the way we dreamed. By clearly saying up front that we will need to adjust as we go, we’ll set the table for the changes we’ll need to make.
  • Make sure everything works – O.k., maybe this should be the first thing on the list. Our teammates may be experiencing added levels of stress as things change around them. Simply put, we can reduce stress by making sure they have everything they need to do their jobs. They need technology that allows them to do their work effectively, and with minimal disruption. They need supplies to do their jobs (those multi-colored markers and sticky dots don’t order themselves). And last, but not least, they need to get paid on time.

Defining our purpose is important. It gives us clarity, especially in times of instability. These are a few things I think we can do to make sure our organizations are ready to respond in times of rapid change. I’d love to hear from you. What else can operations staff do to help organizations manage through times of uncertainty?

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