Leading a Social Impact Organization During COVID-19: Eight Ways to Navigate the Current Crisis
In the nearly two decades I spent as president and CEO of Grameen Foundation, I encountered some exceptional leaders and learned countless lessons about running an impact-focused organization. Many of those lessons remain relevant as I watch today’s mission-driven leaders tackle the growing challenges facing our world – including the COVID-19 crisis.
For instance, Paul Maritz, a renowned technology executive, entrepreneur and investor who also chaired Grameen Foundation’s board of directors for six years, took me aside one day and told me something simple, obvious, but also profound: “Alex, at some point in my career I realized that most of what I would accomplish from that point onwards would be through other people, rather than from my own actions.” (Another of his pithy and thought-provoking statements: “In philanthropy, the easiest person to deceive is yourself.”)
I have thought a lot about both of those pearls of wisdom and their implications for my approach to leadership ever since. One way I applied the first one was to push myself to delegate more, to be a more appreciative and forgiving boss, and to take time to mentor the next generation of changemakers. Mentoring in particular can be deeply satisfying when it works – which I, like most people, can attest to from having been both a mentor and mentee.
But mentoring isn’t a very scalable way to help large numbers of people achieve important things, avoid serious mistakes and lead balanced lives. To address that limitation, in 2013 I began writing down what I had learned in my career. Five years and 800 pages later, I had a mélange of stories describing the most important things I had learned (and wished I had known earlier) as well as hundreds of freestanding tips, techniques and mindsets that I found useful.
With the help of Karl Weber, a terrific editor, I turned the best of those stories into a book titled Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, which NextBillion helpfully featured last year. Weber also helped me turn my laundry list of lessons into a second book: When In Doubt, Ask for More: And 213 Other Life and Career Lessons for the Mission-Driven Leader.
The nuggets that make up this new book fall into eight categories: board management, fund-raising, leadership, people skills, personal wellness, public speaking, running a meeting and travel. Readers have reported that they are useful not only in running non-profits and social enterprises, but in many other professions and fields as well.
Like many others, I am searching for ways to be useful at this time of national and global crisis. To that end, here are eight of the lessons from my new book that I believe are particularly relevant today:
Be approachable and responsive
Social impact work can be both exhilarating and intensely frustrating – and these feelings are amplified during a crisis. Combat the tendency to take out your pent-up frustrations on colleagues. Among other drawbacks, doing so makes the mission-driven leader less approachable and thereby less likely to be in the loop about what is really going on in the organization they lead. Additionally, avoid delaying your responses to employees and to key donors who want your advice or decision, or who want to give or receive feedback. Make the call that you are dreading making, and make it today – and with as much equanimity as you can muster. (And don’t forget to pat yourself on the back after you’re done, even if it doesn’t go perfectly.)
Remember that advice is often unnecessary … and that it’s not all about you
People in and around your organization are probably suffering in many different ways. When they share what they are going through, resist the well-intentioned urge to give them advice, especially if they don’t explicitly ask for it. Instead, express confidence that they will figure out what to do next. And don’t default into the all-too-common response of telling a story of your own travails that their situation reminds you of. It is often best to simply listen and finally ask, “What can I do to be helpful to you now?”
Unlike early in my career, when I feared that praising colleagues would make them complacent, I now do it frequently. In times of crisis or tension, I do it even more, mostly in order to keep people’s spirits up and make sure they feel appreciated for their efforts, lived values and results.
Engage with your board of directors
During times like these, spending time with your board of directors – individually, in small groups and as a collective – is not something a leader should deprioritize. In fact, it is essential and should be given even higher priority compared to more normal times. And if you are proactive and drive the agendas of these sessions most of the time, you can probably preempt any tendency on their part to micro-manage you and your team – while also ensuring that they don’t go missing in action.
Get back in touch with lapsed donors and former mentors
During this time of physical social distancing, lots of people are picking up the phone when they used to screen calls. They are also fondly recalling past times when they felt they were making a positive impact on others and the world. By contacting people who contributed time or money to you or your cause in the past, you may prompt them to offer more assistance now – or at least you may start the process of slowly reigniting their commitment.
Listen to your in-house pessimists
One of the most common qualities of effective leaders is optimism. Nonetheless, it is important to pay attention to and validate the fears of people in your organization who see the glass as half empty and who are worried. If they feel silenced by you and your reflexive optimism, it will simply drive them underground and may contribute to a narrative of you as an out-of-touch leader. Being heard will help the pessimists focus and get back to work. They might even teach you something about how to manage through today’s crises.
Spend time around people who nourish you
As a leader, you are often required to spend time around people and to do things that drain and deplete you, especially during a crisis. To balance that, make it a point to spend as much time as possible around people who admire you (and whom you admire), who can teach you new skills and useful perspectives, and who make you laugh.
Make the most of your mistakes
Call a meeting of your staff and surprise them by sharing the three to five worst mistakes you have made since the onset of the pandemic, what they cost the organization and what you learned from them. Will this diminish you in their eyes? I don’t think so. In fact, I predict that they will respect you even more as a leader. They may also forgive themselves for the mistakes they have made, and be more committed to learning from them.
These are exceedingly difficult times for social impact organizations and the communities they serve. Those challenges will inevitably have an impact on these organizations’ employees and the people who direct them. But history shows us that hard times can also bring out the best in individuals and organizations, and in the leaders who guide them. As my mentor Muhammad Yunus once told me, “Captains can’t show their skills on calm waters.”
As you consider your own approach to leadership in these troubled times, don’t lose sight of the opportunities that accompany even the gravest of challenges – and the key role you can play in leading your organization, and the people who depend on it, toward a brighter future.
Alex Counts is the author of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship, an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations, and an affiliated faculty of the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.
Photo courtesy of John T.