April 9, 2020by Julie Martin

What It’s Like To Work in a Non-Profit During the Pandemic

The first day we closed our doors, a few women still came in the morning. They wanted to follow their normal routine. Five days after we closed our doors, only one woman continued to show up, sometimes before staff at 7:00 a.m. The first day, she pulled at the door every hour or so, as if we would suddenly re-open, and then returned to a spot on the sidewalk.

On the fifth day, it was raining. She no longer tried to enter the building. Instead, she pressed herself close to the corner of the brick wall to get some sort of cover and waited until lunchtime. Then she sat down, cramped in the corner, trying to maneuver the lunch bag, drink, and soup cup we had just given her. I watched her through the glass doors, saw her on the wet ground, and went straight into our kitchen pantry to cry several tears. Then I walked back into the kitchen to continue ladling soup into cups.

As the staff of a resource center for homeless women, we never imagined the day that we could not let clients (or volunteers) into our building. We had provided services every day of the year since the ‘80’s – even on holidays. Some women had come for showers, meals, and support for 20 years, and in a matter of days, we were forced to reduce our services to offer to-go meals and a few smaller services and tell them they could no longer come inside.

The hardest part about working at a non-profit during COVID-19 has been the inability to fully serve the human beings whose safety and well-being we have been entrusted with. The rippling effects of our circumstances can lead to huge losses for non-profits — mine and yours. Luckily, by identifying these losses and developing multiple action plans on how to manage a non-profit during the pandemic, you can begin to protect your mission and ensure that those in need continue to receive the life-changing and saving services you offer.

Four kinds of loss a non-profit may experience during COVID-19

Monetary loss

The economic effects of COVID-19 are yet to be determined, and this can have a huge impact on the monetary donations that your non-profit may depend on in order to provide services. One of your challenges will be how you can convince the community to INVEST back into your non-profit in a time when they themselves are uncertain about their financial future.

In-kind donations

While money is necessary to keep a program functioning, there are materials and supplies that contribute to a program’s success and typically come from donations. This can include clothing for those in need, school supplies, art materials for art therapy, and more. Without these donations, you’ll have to dip into your finances (which is not always an option) or do away with the activity that requires those supplies.

Volunteer power

Volunteers make up a huge portion of the non-profit workforce. They support day-to-day operations, such as meal services, or key skill-based resources, such as legal aid. Due to the current restrictions, this manpower has effectively been cut off — unless you can determine new and innovative ways to connect people remotely.

Heart & morale

The people you serve and your staff will all be emotionally impacted by what is occurring, just as every average citizen is. Being disconnected from community support is disheartening for everyone; no one wants to feel like they are alone. You can provide an opportunity for people to give back and help your staff and program get the support they deserve. However, for it to work, you have to be willing to ask the hard questions.

Asking the hard questions

When you’re thinking through how to manage a non-profit during these trying times, start by asking yourself these difficult questions:

  1. What is your most important service? If you had to get rid of every service except for one, what would it be? What is the bare minimum that your client needs? From there, what is the next most important service? Do this until you’ve gone through every service you offer.
  2. What is your bandwidth/capacity? How much money, time, and volunteer power are you ABLE (not WILLING) to put into this? You need to keep in mind that giving 200% is not sustainable — you do no good to the world when you are burned out. If there are other responsibilities that absolutely require your time, be realistic about how many hours it will take each day, each week, whatever works, and see how much time you have outside of that — while also making sure to take into account your lunches, breaks, etc.
  3. What does your team need? What resources, materials, and support do they need to succeed and provide the best quality of care? What support can you give (within your bandwidth) to address their very real concerns about their own health, finances, and stability?
  4. What is your timeline? How long can you continue to function as you are? How long do you have to firmly establish the most important service, and then what is your timeline to follow up and add on additional services? Are you re-building entirely or partially? The fact is, your plans will change. They are most likely changing almost every day already. But thinking through a timeline allows you to brainstorm realistic goals, and when adjustments need to be made you will be in a much better space to approach them.

Dealing with the constant change

One of our biggest obstacles has been the suddenness of it all. We needed to implement emergency contingency plans (and in some cases, design them from the start) in mere days. And the quality of leadership has shown through in the treatment of staff, who are often on the front-lines. Few of us imagined such drastic changes to happen so quickly, and we were prepared to witness people suffer from it.

The loss of a program or service reverberates throughout the community and is shared by staff, clients, volunteers, and partners. Just as COVID-19 has highlighted the intricate network of human connection, it has also highlighted the key connections between our missions, which thousands upon thousands of people depend upon for basic safety and health each day. These reflections and questions are key to getting back to providing care to our clients, and to prepare for those that will need us in the future.

There are many people and organizations who understand our loss and are looking for a chance to help. By adding missions to the Solve Up platform, you can give these volunteers the opportunity to firmly take a stake in the welfare of their community and share your common goals.