3 Encouraging Signs From the Front Lines of the COVID 19 Crisis

A Window Into Our Sector

In the nonprofit sector, most of us are stuck in our own physical isolation, wondering and fearing what is going on - especially for our most vulnerable residents.

We here at CWR have had a distinctive window into the front lines. One of our major current projects is Silicon Valley Next, a training program for 12 highly promising nonprofit leaders in the region. They are 30-40 year olds, most are one level below the Executive Director (ED) on the org chart, and are viewed widely as potential EDs in the future. The program is funded generously by the Heising-Simons, Knight, and Sobrato foundations.

The Fellows are leading at our most critical front line agencies, anchor organizations such as Somos Mayfair, Sacred Heart Community Services, YWCA, Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, Downtown Streets Team, and others. Most of the Fellows are tasked at the highest levels with organizing the rapid changes needed in the nuts and bolts of service delivery. Thus, how the Fellows are faring provides an excellent window into how our overall nonprofit safety net is faring in this time of crisis.

When we look at the Fellows as such a window, we see of course the inevitable stress, struggle, anxiety, and grief. The pain that has already occurred in their communities is very real. They feel the losses intensely. It is obvious that there is considerably more suffering (especially economic) to come.

But you know that already.

What I want to convey is that alongside this real suffering are encouraging signs of strength and growth. It is of course too early to make any confident assertion about the future. But from my vantage point - formed through hours of leading them together last week at our virtual half day retreat and also via many sessions of follow up executive coaching - I see the following three initial signs of hope:

  1. Personally transformative learning is happening
  2. New collaborative connections are being formed
  3. Long overdue adoptions of online efficiencies are being massively accelerated

Let me say a few brief words about each sign.

1. Personally transformative learning is happening

Anxiety is both a barrier and a catalyst to rapid learning for human beings. If the anxiety is too unmanageable, humans shut down. But we often need some form of crisis to motivate us to learn, especially the things that are most challenging (which in stable times, we have the luxury to avoid).

This is why last week we pivoted our scheduled monthly retreat so that we could still meet virtually even with the shelter in place order, and we moved up a topic originally planned for August. The topic was: “How great managers manage anxiety.”

At the most immediate level, just getting together was incredibly helpful for the Fellows. They themselves have been feeling isolated and in pure crisis mode, without much space to reflect and share. The half day session featured personal sharing (both as a whole group and in smaller "breakout" Zoom rooms), mutual encouragement, and grieving together. Once we saw each others' faces on the screen and heard familiar voices, we could all feel the anxiety levels come down to more manageable levels. 

However, the primary purpose of the retreat was learning how to manage anxiety. These leaders are being forced on the fly to master one of the most challenging management tasks: managing one’s own anxiety first, and then out of that, responding to others’ anxieties in a productive fashion.

The Fellows dove into the learning magnificently. I have attached below some feedback quotes at the bottom. I welcome you to sample them for your own encouragement.

Since the retreat, the learning has expanded to other leadership tasks beyond managing anxiety. In follow up one one one coaching sessions this week, I am seeing leaders tackle topics such as:

  • Running more focused meetings (because attention spans get strained especially when looking at little screens for long times)
  • Starting with the ‘Why’ (not the 'What') in rapid program redesign
  • Creating strength based messaging in a crisis moment
  • Building team cohesion and morale in a remote context
  • Using crisis to exit under-performing programs quickly

I have taught for years on the faculty at American University, instructing seasoned NGO leaders in Washington DC. I have never seen leaders gobble up learning the way that the Fellows are doing right now. Their hunger to adapt and grow is intense. They realize they have to do so in order to just make it as a leader for the very next day. They feel viscerally that their communities are depending on them.

In order to further accelerate this critical learning, for the duration of the crisis, we are empowering the Fellows to make unlimited requests for more executive coaching from us. We will do our best to fulfill these requests as fast as possible. Our firm, Consulting Within Reach, will bear this additional cost.

One of the beautiful things about personally transformative learning - motivated by immediate and intense need - is that it sticks for the rest of our lives. This COVID 19 crisis will pass. Their learning will endure. They will lead in profoundly stronger ways for the rest of their lives.

And our sector will be immensely stronger for it in the long run.

2. New collaborative connections are getting formed

One of my hopes in starting Silicon Valley Next was that if we could build trust and friendship between emerging leaders of different organizations - before they became executive directors - then it would be that much easier for durable organizational collaboration to occur after they took the helm.

I am seeing this happen before my eyes. The group as a whole - even before this crisis - was bonding already in very deep ways. As part of the program, we have also paired them up for monthly peer coaching with each other (in addition to the executive coaching from us). So for example, we paired up Regina Williams of First Community Housing (the most important developer of homelessness housing in San Jose) with Saul Ramos of Somos Mayfair (one of the most critical community organizing agencies on the East Side). Both Regina and Saul have recently been elevated to what are essentially "second in command" positions within their organizations.

The two of them have connected immediately. They are already talking about how they can collaborate together on building more affordable housing in the Mayfair. As much as the current CEOs of both organizations value collaboration (which they do), there is no substitute for the kind of trust that is being built between Regina and Saul. It is at their organizational level that good intentions turn into substantive action.

Moreover, I am highly confident that Regina and Saul will eventually become the senior executive leaders of their own organizations in the near future. Both are deeply committed to the South Bay. Both are immensely talented. The prospect that these two strong, confident leaders of color will be friends and partners for years to come is thrilling to me. They will do great things together. Theirs is the sort of bond - forged in crisis - that will endure past the crisis.

3. Long overdue adoptions of online efficiencies

We have known for a while - long before the crisis - that because of the cost of housing in the Bay Area, we as a sector were struggling with deep seated structural issues: keeping talent living locally, how to afford office space, how to manage costs overall, etc.

Online technology is no panacea for those structural issues, of course. But it is probably one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to adapt creatively. However, it was an irony that here in Silicon Valley of all places, the nonprofit sector was slow to adopt and experiment with the full potential of this technology.

The multi-faceted reasons for this slowness are not worth exploring here (suffice it to say, that it was not just the fault of the agencies; the restricted nature of government funding is also responsible). The reasons are especially not worth exploring now because that slowness has evaporated overnight.

The Fellows are reporting all sorts of rapid adoption and experimentation. These range from getting DocuSign for clients to sign remotely to doing tele-health for trauma treatment of sexual violence victims to more texting for homeless at risk outreach and tracking. The list goes on. Quite often, I hear something to the effect of: “Why didn’t we do this earlier? The long term potential is amazing!"

In order to accelerate further this adoption process, Silicon Valley Next is immediately giving each Fellow $1,000 to outfit their home office technology setup. Each Fellow can use this money as they see best, including purchasing better webcams, desks, screens to set aside space in apartments, noise cancelling headpohones, purchase higher bandwidth, and anything else they best see fit. 

We are of course very early in the technology adoption process. But I see this crisis as setting in motion an unstoppable wave of innovation and adoption. The leaders are just beginning to explore the outer edges of a whole potential world of cost-efficiency. This innovation, unleashed by crisis, will not stop after the crisis is over. It will transform our sector.

Let me conclude with a final word to my fellow partners in the nonprofit field. The pain is very real and may very well be greater than we even envision right now. But the truly sustaining resource of our field has never been funding, smart thinking, or technology - as important as all of those resources are. The most sustaining resource is and has always been hope. Join with me in holding on to that hope, wherever you are laboring today.

And as a further little bit of hope infusion, take a look at the immediate feedback below from the Fellows from their learning session on "Great Managers Manage Anxiety."


It was a comfort to see all your faces yesterday! Adjusting to a new "normal" has been a challenge, but our session reminded me to get my bearings and to stand firm on my faith and values, and be receptive to the blessings that are a little bit harder to see each day. My key takeaway: I don't have to "give in" to being hijacked by anxiety, I can actually do something about it! And I don't have to let "anxiety" change my authentic self! Thank you, Curtis and Kris, for sharing your knowledge, wisdom, and vulnerabilities with us. Have a relaxing and restful weekend!

Thanks Curtis and Kris for creating this space today even in the middle of a crisis.  I needed this connection with everyone today. My key take-away is that I want to keep working on the radically accepting of the potential loss part of managing anxiety.  I do it sometimes, but I want to really start leaning into it.  I liked the visual of holding and that freeing up the other hand.  I view the confronting what it is I most fear losing as such a failure and such a BIG loss and instead this visualization helped me to reframe and see letting go of the loss as an even better opportunity to gain and have more of myself to work with and to share if I have that other hand free!  

Thank you for another insightful session. For me, even the concept of getting to the source of my anxiety so that it no longer has power over me is a revelation. Also, understanding that when I am running around like a maniac that it is from a place of anxiety, not productivity, will help me be aware of my actual mental state in those challenging moments. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones.

Thank you for this resource Curtis, and for leading an impactful session today. My reflection from today is that I need to be more forgiving of myself and of others, especially during times of crisis. I need to approach each situation with the belief that everyone is doing their best, and operate from that mindset. Thanks again to Curtis, Kris, and all of you for today. I needed that time.

Really helpful session today. My key take-away was to feel and accept current anxieties and emotions, rather than try to keep busy/fix them or feel shame from those feelings. It was also helpful to dig deep to find out more about those core anxieties. Thank you for creating this space, it was incredibly helpful and healing.

This session was affirming in so many ways about the importance of managing our stress, anxiety, trauma, etc. The session reminded me how important it is for me to go back to my mediation practice. I haven't been as consistent of late. My family and I have agreed to meditate everyday while were home to keep us grounded through these hard times. Meditating daily will be a big help me for me as I navigate a really challenging time at my agency. I am grateful to have seen and spend some time with all of you. You are all so amazing and even in this difficult time, I can see how all of you are working on staying strong for those around you and for yourselves. I send lots of love to all of you. I look forward to all us growing stronger through all of this.

A key takeaway for me was learning how to get present and the exercise really helped me take the time to prevent anxiety hijack my mind and time.  It was during this exercise that I learned I can take some time to focus on myself instead of frantically writing out a to-do list of all the things I need to do/complete within an allotted time.  I also learned that taking this time should not make me feel guilty or unproductive. I practiced getting present this morning and I intend to continue that practice during and even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Thank you Curtis and Kris for leading this very much needed session yesterday. One of my takeaways from this session is to nurture the capacity to hold my anxiety so that I can see more opportunities to handle difficult situations that come my way. Really appreciated the example that Curtis presented with holding our anxiety  (holding the ball) -- I am going to practice this today :)  

Reading everyone’s responses today has been just the medicine that I needed for today. Thank you all for sharing deeply and showing up so authentically. For me a big takeaway from yesterday’s content was identifying that “anxiety is most powerful when it is hidden.” This made me realize just how powerful and overwhelming anxiety can be when I don’t take the time to recognize what is at the root of my anxiety and naming it. Having the time yesterday to think through what is at the root of my anxiety over the past week was a true gift. I feel like I am in more alignment with my authentic self for having taken the time to identify and name those things. It has brought me a sense of peace. 

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