As I See It | By Dwight Robarts | Consulting Associate
Ten thoughts on nonprofit leadership in a time of crisis
Recently, I retired from serving as the executive director of a small non-profit in Fort Worth. For nearly ten years, I had the privilege of serving in the leadership position. During that time, my team and I faced several crises.
Here are the lessons I learned about leadership in a time of crisis:
- During a crisis, the leader’s first job is to manage his or her own anxiety. Anxiety is contagious, especially if it comes from the leader. And, it can travel through an organization at warp speed. Leaders must be self-aware, acknowledge their anxiety and take steps to ensure that it is not driving the organization’s decisions and behavior.
- It’s okay to say to others that you are worried. Everyone is worried now. We worry about our health, our staff’s health, and our client’s health. We are concerned about this health crisis’ impact on our donors and on our revenue. It’s okay to say these things out loud. Then we need to move on and work to control what we can and let go of what we can’t control.
- In a crisis, the leaders second job is to take care of themselves. Do what you need to do to care for yourself, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Do something every day to pour positive energy into yourself, whether that is listening to music, reading positive psychology, praying, meditating, exercising, doing yoga, or reading sacred literature. It’s a great idea for leaders to have a written self-care plan and to encourage team members to do the same. Marcus Buckingham, an author and motivational speaker, encourages leaders to stay in touch with someone every week who lifts their spirit.
- A good question for every leader to ask right now is, “What is one thing we can do today to make a difference and move forward?” Perhaps it’s calling 10 donors and checking in with them. Perhaps it is visiting with every staff member and doing an emotional check in with them to see how they are managing. People feel tremendous stress right now. Maybe it is doing a little something extra for those we serve.
- Leaders, you are the biggest gift to your organization right now. What do you want for your non-profit during this time? How do you want the organization to respond to this crisis in this moment? What needs to be said? Be clear about it. Write it down. Share it with your team and board members and then listen for feedback.
- Marcus Buckingham says leaders not only need to hold virtual team meetings, but they need to be individually in touch with every member of their team. People are going to get lonely during this time of isolation. Find out what team members are focused on and what their priorities are. Buckingham observes that in team meetings, the leader’s job is to instill confidence. Help your team focus on what they can do and not on what they can’t. I read somewhere this week that “action squashes anxiety.”
- This is a serious time, but leaders don’t need to be too serious. Loosen up. Encourage humor (though sensitively). Have fun with your co-workers even if you are working remotely. Share cartoons, funny stories or whatever works. If you can loosen up, so can those who work with you.
- In crises, leaders may have to make decisions not knowing everything they would like to know. How long will this last? What will be the impact on our income this year? How widely will this impact those we serve and in what ways? Sometimes, you have to decide now and sometimes, waiting for more data is simply procrastinating.
- One item for your long-term agenda is to develop emergency fundraising plans and emergency communication plans. Crises such as the one created by COVID-19 are inevitable. In the past 20 years we’ve experienced 9-11, three major market meltdowns and other pandemics such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Incidents that have national and international impact and threaten the non-profit world happen with regularity. It is not a question of if, but when? Organizations should have emergency plans in place. They may be tailored to the individual situation, but a template can be created now for the inevitable future. Otherwise, we may find ourselves reacting rather than acting.
- When the worst of this is by us, leaders and their organizations should ask some questions. What did we learn from this? How well did our response to the crisis work? What do we need to do different next time? What do we need to do today to get ready for the next time?
About the Author
Prior to joining M. Gale, Dwight Robarts served for ten years as executive director of Christ’s Haven for Children in Fort Worth. An experienced, donor-focused fundraiser, he also brings deep experience with religious institution, having served as a pastor for 35 years with churches in Tennessee, Florida, and Texas. This combination of experiences enables Dwight to bring expertise to M. Gale’s faith-based and community-based nonprofit clients. Dwight grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana and graduated from Freed-Hardeman University. He attended seminary at Harding University Graduate School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. He also taught Bible and Ministry classes at Abilene Christian University. He holds a certificate in nonprofit management from Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas. A resident of Fort Worth, Dwight enjoys teaching, public speaking, and of course, fundraising.
Have questions for Dwight? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.