Planning for the New Normal

by Molly Penn

Is it too soon to begin thinking about the “new normal?”  Organizations that are not ready to consider how Covid-19 will change our work are risking their future health and sustainability.  We recognize that many organizations are still reeling from the impact of the economic freeze and health crisis taking place.  Therefore, we are grounding these recommendations in human care and empathy for now, and smart planning for what’s next.

Care and Connection

The one thing you can be doing right now (and you can’t do enough of it) is to show care and concern for your community and your donors.  Who do we mean by community?

·       Recipients of your services

Those people most deeply affected by the economic and health crisis we are fighting.  Make sure they are connected to systems and resources to help them navigate this period and stay healthy and sane.

·       Your staff

Your staff are worried about their and their families’ survival and they (we all) are dealing with pervasive grief, anxiety and financial stress.  Acknowledge what they are feeling and understand that these emotions will affect their job focus in the short term.  Ensure that you are being as flexible as possible about FMLA and PTO policies.  Show empathy and care for your staff and recognize extenuating circumstances while maintaining equity and fairness across your internal system.

·       Your donors

Take a few moments to call and connect with your major donors.  This is not a solicitation call, just a check-in.  Remember they are human beings who are also frightened and worried about money and may have friends or family affected by the virus.  A simple call to ask how they are doing and let them know you are thinking of them is a great way to strengthen the relationship you are building with them.

·       Your audiences

It is instinct, when feeling threatened, to curl up in a ball. To turn inward and drop your outward persona in favor of just surviving.  But don’t be short sighted.  You will want your audiences there, waiting for your return, so taking some extra effort to connect with them even now, when you are not even sure what to say, is hugely important.  Just let them know you’re still there, let them in on what you’re planning for when things restart, and tell lots of stories to remind them of how important you’ve been to them in the past.

For everyone you communicate with, it is important to maintain transparency and frequency of communication.  Keep the channels of communication wide open – we are all in this together.

Leaning Into the Marathon

We’ve all heard the expression this is not a sprint it’s a marathon used to describe this Covid-19 pandemic.  When the health crisis ends, we will have the economic crisis to deal with next.  We can’t afford to be curled up in a ball right now.  We have to be dealing with the hard truths and beginning to adjust.

Sketch scenarios and time horizons

Start by sketching out scenarios to work with:

1.     The virus gets vanquished relatively quickly by a vaccine or effective treatment

2.     The virus temporarily recedes only to be followed by a resurgence in the fall as the weather cools or we begin to re-congregate too soon
The time horizons for each of these scenarios look fairly different.

1.     Virus contained but damage is done – this scenario assumes the virus is contained, but there is residual economic damage done to our economy, and nonprofits are not able to recover quickly – it may take several years before restoring to previous levels of economic success.

2.     Virus recedes then resurgences – this scenario reflects a delay in the economic recovery – more like 5 or 6 years before there is recovery.

3.     Virus is contained, strong economic rebound – this scenario assumes we contain the virus and, as a result, the economy springs back to near former levels more quickly than anticipated.  Within a couple of years, things are back to growth mode.

Use these scenarios and time horizons to think critically about where you will be and what you will have to work with.

Crafting Your Future Scenarios

Here are some prompting questions to get you thinking about your future scenarios and some recommendations to consider.

What is your core purpose?

Consider the essence of your organization – why you exist – what makes you unique and what adds the most value to those you serve or to the world.  If you had to distill that essence, how could you still provide that value in a much more streamlined way?

·       Recommendation: Don’t think in terms of lopping off programs that are less effective, but in terms of entirely recasting your work in a more distilled and direct format. 

What is your overarching goal?

What is most important for your organization to achieve in the next couple of years?  How can you frame that as a goal that will motivate others to join you in achieving it?  If you became single-purposed, what would that single purpose be and how would it represent your mission?

·       Recommendation: Engage in agile, adaptive planning to determine how to reach that goal and adjust your efforts along the way based on early results. 

How many staff will you have?

It is important to consider, for each of these scenarios, how many staff you will have for the next several weeks, for the next several months, for the next couple of years, and then for the foreseeable future.

·       Recommendation: Once you determine the number of staff, consider thinking strategically about organization redesign to be thoughtful about who to retain and how to deploy them to best execute your work.

What kind of leadership will you need?

What makes leaders freeze in times of crisis is that they don’t know how the crisis will resolve, so they can’t figure out how they should lead.  Leadership is not a about having a predefined plan of action, but of building the behaviors and mindsets that maintain an adaptive, future forward focus.

·       Recommendation:  Assemble functional teams whose jobs are to adjust routines and adapt them to the new environment.   These teams should have the capacity to iterate and adjust based on early evaluation.

 Above all, when leading your organization through an economic or systemic crisis, it is extremely important to spend significant amounts of time “on the balcony” (Heifetz) – keep your eyes on a broader view of where things are and where they are headed.  You can’t afford to get caught up in the minutiae of daily decisions or you will suffer decision fatigue.  You are needed to make key strategic decisions along the way.  To do this, you need to take a breath (literally – it reduces your stress level), keep your eyes on the horizon, and consider both the big picture and the implications for your team.

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