Staying Strategic During Times of Crisis

I love a plan. I like to work within a plan. Plans make chaotic situations that are inevitable more manageable. There is nothing revolutionary about this thinking.

People who rely on planning are NOT immovable barriers, married to the status quo. I find change exciting. Change paired with a well-executed implementation strategy equals elation. Am I alone on this?

The COVID19 era has destroyed the solace that many of us get from strategic, mid-term plans. In some workspaces, each workday feels like a rapid-fire, scramble to roll out COVID responses. Asking questions like “How does this proposed intervention lend itself to the longer-term strategy?” results in the stare of death from colleagues.

We’ve developed euphemistic phrases to these questions such as “We just have to live in the unknowns right now”; which really means, just be quiet and react. If you are hearing these and many other responses designed to shut down questions, you are not alone.

It has been a struggle, but it is possible to work strategically during this and other crises. It is actually more important during uncertain times. “But how?”, you ask?

Avoid Mission Creep

This is simple. Minimize the number of new initiatives started solely for the funding. Many of us in the nonprofit world are facing a grim reality. Individual, corporate, and foundation dollars are being directed at COVID19 relief and associated causes. Organizations without a long-standing history with donors are either shut out or having to reinvent themselves.

Reinvention can be good for the soul but has to be authentic and mission-aligned in order to be sustainable. Be careful. Survival is essential but mission alignment is key to thriving.

Delegate “Rapid Response” to Others 

Responding to current events or in the case of 2020, a crisis, is necessary but does not have to be owned at the tactical level by every senior leader within your organization. In fact, it can’t be. Refocusing the attention of the entire C-suite on the microlevel, in the moment, responses will result in a lack of attention to macro-level strategy.

Instead, think about how to use the talents and strengths of the entire team. Can someone from middle management do research and align your organization’s policies and procedures with industry standards? Can the communications associate draft messaging that conveys the organization’s COVID19 policy and operating status? Small organizations that take a top-down approach and fail to involve the full team will result in your highest-paid employees focusing on a series of tactical, short term implementations.

Expand Your Plan, Do Not Abandon It

My organization started a strategic planning process at the beginning of our fiscal year. Beginning strategic planning in October 2019 and responding to a global pandemic in March 2020 was confusing. This is of course an understatement and true. What do you do?

First, take a breath. Next, ask yourself and your team a few questions.

1.    Are the established objectives still relevant? 

2.    Are they broad enough to accommodate the necessary short term, crisis planning? 

3.    What strategies and tactics need to be added to address COVID19?

The best pieces of advice I can give in this situation is:

1.    Don’t forget that you have a plan for the future.

2.     Review your plan and make sure the team has been as innovative as the time calls for.

Learn, Innovate, and Iterate

Last year, I wrote about updating legacy programs but never have I ever managed a legacy program during a pandemic and been thrust into sudden change because the program cannot operate in its traditional format. Thanks, 2020 for the gift of mandatory change and innovation.

For many of us, the portal opened as a necessity and a means of survival but nevertheless, the opportunity to innovate has arrived. 

Try piloting a couple of new ideas that need to be refined in order to be adopted long term. Avoid expending time and energy on one-time activities, but don’t be afraid to try new things that you want to be a part of your long-term implementation plan.

Most importantly, remember that decisions made out of fear or extreme caution have very little sticking power. Balance logic with boldness.

Explaining my time at Boy Scout camp

IMG_6356Last week was interesting. I spent much of my time at a Boy Scout camp in New Mexico and returned to the DC area to lead a public lands day event on a military installation in MD.

As a woman who’s well into her 30’s, I got a lot of questions about why I spent four days at Boy Scout camp.

“It’s work” did not sufficiently lower the questioning eyebrows.

In trying to explain this trip and other trips and events I’ve been privileged to participate in, I took a step back to think about how to clarify the programmatic work I’ve done over the years.

How do you describe what it means to be a program leader for a nonprofit? I wish it were like being an X-Man and I could name one “special” power, but the reality is, the role of lead program officer means you have your hands in a little bit of everything.

I think what I experienced last week provides a good illustration of what leading programs entails. Below are a few categories I came up with that begin to answer the question “Why were you at Boy Scout camp?”

Project Management
This element always causes confusion. People typically think technology when they hear project management but I assure you any good program manager understands the need to establish program goals, identify milestones and available resources, and establish timelines.

The fantastic thing about project management within a small to medium size nonprofit is that developing and managing project plans has to be done without all of the software available to IT project managers. In many cases, it is just me my trusty Excel spreadsheet and my much-beloved whiteboard.

Event Management
This is way more than finding a fancy venue for an awards ceremony. Managing events for a program is everything from soliciting volunteers and donations to popping tents up in the wee hours of the morning, and of course writing talking points for the Army Colonel to use when preparing his remarks.

I will say that aspect of managing programs has allowed me to be very creative and challenged me in ways that I can only be grateful for now. Three years ago, I was working with a film crew to produce a video for a program launch. Somehow it became my job to develop the storyboard for the video and work with Bob Dole’s team to schedule his appearance in the video.

Budget Management
This is an important part of project management but I call it out as a stand-alone because developing the budget for the program and supporting elements is only a first step.

A good program manager makes sure that the team is aware of the total budget and what financial resources are available for their specific parts of the project. A good program manager is reviewing and monitoring expenditures regularly and managing overages, gaps, and the unicorn situation of underspending.

People/Team Management
No one manages a program by themselves. Program leaders must be able to lead and communicate with small to large teams. You should know when to impanel an ad hoc committee when necessary and delegate to other team members without losing control of the project.

Finally, leading programs also puts you in the position to promote the organization. In so many cases, an organization’s programs are so deeply linked to many nonprofits mission, vision, and overall financial health.

Cheers to all the program leaders who perform in all the areas mentioned above and beyond.