The impact of COVID-19 and the widespread disruption of the past 18 months has created what one friend of mine refers to as the existential crisis that the entire world had to go through at once. Yet, for many of us, the pandemic forced us to reflect on what is essential and important in our lives, an element of what psychologists call post-traumatic growth. It offered an opportunity to assess and rethink how we spend our time. This is also true for organizations in our community – big and small, for-profit and nonprofit.
For many nonprofits in Southern Arizona, the pandemic created a demanding situation with increased community need and fewer resources. The sector responded with innovative solutions and continued to provide essential services despite an ever-shifting set of limitations.
As much suffering as COVID continues to create, there is a lot for the nonprofit sector to be proud of from this time of disruption. As one nonprofit staff member shared, “I believe that our community is figuring out how to work more closely and collaboratively than they were before, as well as given me more incentive to forge stronger relationships with the other organizations near us that overlap in mission.” This example of post-traumatic growth summarizes just a few of the opportunities that the continuing COVID crisis has created.
Post-traumatic growth is defined as a “positive psychological change experienced as a result of a struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.” Growth occurs when we are able to establish a “new normal” when the old normal is no longer an option (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 1999). Post-traumatic growth applies not only to individuals but to organizations as well. Just as individuals experience a sense of greater personal strength and develop new meaningful relationships through post-traumatic growth, organizations have an important opportunity to refocus on what matters most in fulfilling their mission and reimagine what might be possible.
For example, according to a survey conducted by the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, 74% of Arizona’s nonprofits closed their physical location during the pandemic, but less than 1% stopped providing services. Most nonprofits (66%) continued providing services through virtual options and, as of March 2021, over 50% were considering moving towards a permanent hybrid remote/in-person business model.
The pandemic has disrupted the expectations of grantmakers, too. Our nonprofit partners have shared their desire for greater transparency and understanding of grant processes, continued flexible funding with more emphasis on general operating support, and a willingness to provide training and capacity building beyond grants.
All these disruptions to work as usual have created the space to do things differently and refocus on what is critical because we must. When so much had to be done so quickly, it also opened a conversation about ultimate return on investment.
Do you really need that process, that mailing, that event? Is it possible to achieve the same desired result with different, creative approaches that are flexible and adjustable to ever-changing circumstances?
In a recent special report from McKinsey & Company titled “What Matters Most?” authors Hatami and Segel stated, “To prepare for the post-COVID-19 era, leaders need to do more than fine-tune their day-to-day tasks; they need to be ready and willing to rethink how they operate, and even why they exist. To put it another way, leaders need to step back, take a breath, and consider a broader perspective.”
I am passionate about stopping practices that no longer serve us. They take up time and energy and can crowd out the creative thinking necessary for innovation. Innovation allows us to work together to create a vibrant and equitable Southern Arizona.
There is the cost - financial and mental wear and tear, time, effort - for seizing the opportunity to change the way we work. But there is also a cost to NOT seizing the opportunity to take a breath and consider new – potentially more effective – ways to accomplish our goals.
I am not suggesting it is wise or even possible to revolutionize what you deliver to your stakeholders and cut all activities with low ROI all at once. Whether you are a nonprofit volunteer or board member, or a leader or team member at a nonprofit organization, I encourage you to lean into the idea of post-traumatic growth, pick your top opportunity, and start there.
Jenny Flynn is President and CEO of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.