The Pfizer vaccines are being distributed, and our country has approached the beginning of the end of a critically challenging time. COVID-19 has ravaged us, taking the lives of 1.8 million people worldwide and more than 350,000 in the United States. Life has changed dramatically, and many say there is no going back to the way things were before. How our world will change in the long term has yet to be determined.
One thing I continue to think about, though, as a leader of a nonprofit, is the story that will be told: How will our response toward our employees and our community be remembered when we look back on the pandemic?
An analogy to answering the above question could come from how we conceptualize a person’s life after they die.
We frequently hear family and friends recount the deceased’s life with less focus on their successes and more on the quality of their relationships and the choices they made. The memories of that individual are formed by their values and how those values guided their life.
Although it’s certainly not the same with the pandemic, the coronavirus is a force that has inserted its presence into our lives over the past year, and as we work to eradicate it, we can perhaps apply the same principles upon its death to how we existed during this time, providing life lessons on what is ultimately important — namely, how we take care of and support one another in the midst of unfathomable challenge.
Nonprofit organizations are guided by mission and values. When the coronavirus hit, the pressure to respond to those in need was enormous. Leaders were challenged to find ways for their organizations to not only survive this crisis but also to thrive. The drive to design innovative and sustainable opportunities to deliver services, the ability to be nimble and the openness to pivoting to new modes of outreach were integral to thriving.
In the many discussions I had with nonprofit leaders in the Greater Philadelphia area and across the country, conversations centered on how organizations were raising dollars to support new needs, which technologies could be used to reach those who were isolated, and how leaders drew on enhanced communication strategies to be transparent about decision-making and support staff.
I have found that the most profound sharing that has occurred with other executives has centered on our vulnerability as leaders. Looked to for answers and guidance, leaders at this time experienced the same fears and anxieties as their associates, consequently drawing them closer together and inspiring a greater ability for everyone to “hang in” and work through uncertainty.
For those in leadership at my organization, and I am sure at other nonprofits as well, our values of repairing the world and care for others have permeated all decisions. Reaching in and reaching out were our top priorities; our goal was to keep everyone who worked at JFCS employed and safe, while continuing to support those we serve in different and impactful ways.
To that end, we chose to close spaces rather than initiate layoffs. We partnered with other agencies to provide support groups for staff. We held meetings in safe virtual spaces where we could come together as a group to share feelings, fears and concerns. We mobilized our services, bringing food directly to older and homebound individuals. We shifted from pop-up shops to emergency clothing delivery. We launched JFCS In Your Neighborhood, bringing essential services right to people in their own communities.
The essence of who we are as an organization centers around supporting our community through challenging times, and although this refers to the specific needs of an individual or family, it also means service in times of more global crisis and challenge.
When life returns to some sense of normalcy, I believe the humanity in all of us and the way that we cared for one another will prevail as memories of how our organizations worked. We will reminisce about how we made decisions that enabled our industry to thrive. As the pandemic “passes away,” let us all reflect and focus on what held us together, and what inspired us and how we can harness it, learn from it and hold onto it in the future.
Paula Goldstein is the president of JFCS Greater Philadelphia.