Social Services: How to Lead in Times of Crisis

First Republic Bank
May 1, 2020

Strength, decisiveness and clarity of vision are vital qualities for leading an organization at any time. As nonprofits, their employees and the people they serve face unprecedented uncertainty, leaders must also demonstrate empathy and communication skills. We spoke with senior decision makers at social service organizations to share their best advice on steering nonprofits through times of need.

Organizational Strategy: Set the Tone for the Challenges Ahead

In times of crisis, the short-term focus for leaders is to look after their staff and ensure continuous operation of programs and services, while safeguarding the long-term sustainability of the organization. Below are several unique challenges that social service organizations may encounter, due to COVID-19:

  • Maintaining continuity of service: While many local businesses, schools and nonprofit institutions have closed their doors for the foreseeable future, this is a time when organizations delivering direct services are needed the most. Although daily routines may be upended in this new environment, the everyday needs of the most vulnerable members of society don’t change.
  • Protecting safety of staff members on front lines: Remote work isn’t always an option. Those providing in-person services may struggle with balancing the needs of the clients and their personal safety. Staff members — who aren’t necessarily trained as medical professionals — may find themselves making on-the-ground decisions about how to best support the mission while following physical distancing protocols.
  • Reconsidering volunteer outreach: Many social service organizations rely on volunteers to fulfill their missions. If in-person volunteering is no longer feasible, the nonprofit must adapt its operations accordingly.

“It’s important to combine the calmness of effective stewardship with the heightened and visible leadership necessary to bring the organization’s workforce and service recipients through the COVID-19 crisis,” said Tony Hannigan, Founder, President and CEO of New York-based Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS).

Founded in 1993, CUCS currently works with 50,000 individuals through its housing, psychiatric, medical and social services programs in New York as well as its national staff training institute. In response to COVID-19, CUCS completely redesigned its program for adults with mental illness, assessing and prioritizing client needs to determine which services could be provided remotely. For individuals without the means to connect virtually or who have difficulty expressing themselves over video, the organization developed creative solutions for safely providing in-person essential services, including delivering and administering medication.

"Now more than ever, it is important to lead with empathy. If you try to skip past empathy and just focus on the job, you'll miss the opportunity to make your staff feel cared for, to root yourself in your values and to equip folks to show up mindfully to the work," said Cameron Van Fossen, Executive Director of Y2Y, the nation’s first youth-led, youth-staffed homeless shelter exclusively for those ages 18 to 24. As businesses in Greater Boston have closed, the student-run overnight shelter at Y2Y Harvard Square remained open in April; even with a mandated exodus from campus of many student volunteers, Y2Y managed to stay true to their student-led, youth-to-youth sanctuary and service model.

“Pandemic trauma is the elephant in the room,” Van Fossen said. “If you make the time and space to acknowledge it, you can create the psychological safety that’s needed to be able to get any other kind of work done.”

In times of duress, leaders can have an especially important role in protecting their employees’ mental health, according to Dr. Kita S Curry, President and CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. Based in Los Angeles, the nonprofit has provided mental health, substance-use and suicide prevention services for more than 75 years. For client and staff safety, Didi Hirsch moved quickly to give almost everyone, including treatment providers, the technology to work from home — no easy task with over 500 staff and 215 volunteers. The agency maintained reduced clinic hours for outpatient clients with special needs and continued 24/7 services at the Suicide Prevention Center and its residential treatment centers. Sites that remained open incorporated social distancing, screening for the coronavirus and aggressive cleaning into their routines.

“Make it clear that you are looking out for your staff’s best interests,” Curry said. “When people are going into work, their primary concern is, ‘am I going to be exposed?’ That is going to have the greatest impact in terms of anxiety, fear and resentment.”

Program and Service Delivery

To keep services running, leaders should consider all options, including reduced levels of activities, a different mix of programs and new means of service delivery.

Crisis calls for leaders to efficiently evaluate their options and then act with decisiveness, speed and transparency, according to The Center for Creative Leadership: “Do something even if it might be wrong; paralysis or over-analyzing is riskier. As you make decisions and take action, communicate those actions truthfully and honestly.”

Erin Hubert, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland Metro (BGCP), advised: “Often, difficult decisions are called for, and in our current situation, many of them need to be made quickly as conditions change on a constant basis.” Following guidelines from state officials around school closures, BGCP closed all Clubs and suspended all Club-based sports, rentals and events. To continue serving the community, the organization pivoted to distributing take-home meals, connecting youth with online counseling services and launched a virtual program to keep young students engaged and learning.  

Crisis Communications and Collaboration

In a fast-evolving environment, no single individual necessarily has a complete picture of what’s going on, yet all the important decisions have ramifications for an organization’s many internal and external stakeholders. Leaders should communicate and listen to grant makers, major donors, government officials, board members, paid staff, volunteers, clients and others whose support is essential for the short-term and long-term strength of the organization.

Hubert advised leaders to communicate early and often to keep their team psychologically safe and motivated.

“Focusing on the emotions of how staff will be impacted by certain decisions will get in a leader’s way of being clear-headed and resolute about what needs to be done in the best interests of the organization,” Hubert added. “At the same time, you can’t lose your humanness or connection with your team. They need to see you care while leading decisively in a measured fashion, with transparency and continual communication.” For example, Hubert ensures that she’s calling at least one staff member every day to check in and see how they’re doing.

Leaders can also take the opportunity to foster collaboration across teams, according to Van Fossen. “Generally, and especially if working from home, people feel disconnected and alone right now,” she said. “Crisis times are a time to knock down barriers and antiquated or siloed thinking. Host team Zoom calls and brainstorm strategy, facilitate staff lunch via Zoom, do virtual team-building and ice-breakers. You’ll find people warm, open and grateful to connect.”

Relationships Matter: Maintain Perspective and Lead Together

Based in San Francisco, Pomeroy Recreation and Rehabilitation Center provides recreational, vocational and educational opportunities for people with disabilities, serving nearly 2,000 individuals per week. The Pomeroy team worked swiftly to reinvent the center from a provider of services in congregated settings to a provider of services remotely.

“Don’t ask your staff to do anything you’re not willing to do,” said David Dubinsky, CEO of Pomeroy. “Listen, listen and listen again. Now is not the time to lead through people, but instead lead with people. We need each other to make it through this pandemic, and our choices should reflect our dreams and not our fears, so let’s dream together. If we do that, tomorrow will be beautiful.”

There are many ways to show up as a leader, whether you lead an organization, a department, a team or your family. As we look to our leaders for guidance and resolve, consider turning these insights into action to help navigate this uncertain time.

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