COVID-19 2008 LESSONS REPEATED MULTI-FOLD: Harnessing the Past, Welcoming the Future

Author: Neelam Sharma
On April 28th I googled the words “non-profits and covid19” and as I navigated through page after page of links, reading the headlines and the little blurb under them, it struck me that the articles were from diverse areas (issues and geography) of the non-profit complex. Just as I was wondering how many more there could possibly be and at what point they would begin to be repetitive, I read a message from google at the bottom of 32 pages of links;
“In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 320 already displayed.” Clearly the pandemic and its impact on non-profits was not just something I was thinking about.

A number of articles were about the precarious financial situation created for non-profits. The Council of Non-Profits sited on its website “Conversations about nonprofit sustainability have turned into conversations about their survivability.” Some writers predicted the demise of many non-profits during this pandemic and others pointed optimistically to the sheer creativity of so many grass roots agencies and how they have pivoted to serve their communities during this time. Some articles referenced the lessons we can learn in this moment from what is often described as the “great recession” of 2008. For Community Services Unlimited the experience of 2008 was deeply informative of how we have since built our work in South Central Los Angeles.
The general impacts of the 2008 economic crash and specifically of the looting of billions of dollars of entrusted foundation funds by Bernie Madoff led to the shutting down of a large number of non-profits in the USA. At one time in 2009 I read that some 40 percent of non-profits with budgets lower than $1 million had closed their doors as a direct result of the economic turn and the theft by Madoff. Already thinking about how to make Community Services Unlimited Inc (CSU) financially sustainable, I was alarmed by how easily and rapidly non-profit stability was affected. Reliance on one or two major funders seemed to be a commonality for those who had shut down. As a team at CSU we had already been working towards creating diverse funding sources, with earned income as part of the portfolio. We urgently stepped up these efforts and I also became interested in other factors that lead to the death of similar sized organizations. The reading rabbit hole I went down brought to my attention that a change in leadership, especially a shift from founding leadership is a major reason that leads to non-profits closing. Further, that even when an organization survives such a change it often goes through a period of instability and is highly susceptible to mission drift.
This broad systems learning has been underlined by witnessing specific leadership struggles in organizations CSU has directly worked with: Community Food Security Coalition, Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles and Growing Power. All three cases involved personal acrimony between the founding Executive Director (ED), staff and/or board, and two resulted in organizations ceasing to exist. I found it personally galling that people who had worked so hard for so many years to build viable organizations doing really important work were cast aside and isolated from the movement they had been part of for so long. Whatever the failure or fault was of these individuals it felt unconscionable that their years of experience and struggle was so summarily and wholly dismissed. Apart from feeling the injustice of the situations for them as people, I also felt then and feel more strongly now that this was such a deep loss to this movement.
As someone who became an Executive Director by default and not plan (read this interview) I have been thinking about and wanting my replacement from the moment I took on the role. Seeing these situations play out with people I had known and admired and worked with for some time made me determined to find a different way.
As I began to research how to carry out a healthy leadership transition, I found that materials that do exist about this subject are geared toward big corporate non-profits and often are using the same language and tools of the corporate world and do not speak to the needs of a very community based small organization like CSU. I have therefore tried to also learn from what I have seen first hand and from conversations with mentors and peers.
In thinking about some of the examples I have seen unfold, a common factor seems to be an absence by existing leadership of intentionality around leadership change. So at CSU we wanted to also look at examples where organizations had spent time and resources planning a leadership shift and we partnered with the Berkana Institute to create a learning journey that included this content. Four members of the CSU Leadership team travelled to Santropol Roulant in Montreal and The Food Project in Boston. Part of my purpose was to learn everything I could from the very recent leadership changes at both organizations. Both had recently transitioned from founding to new Executive Directors and in both cases outgoing and incoming leadership were gracious in sharing their time and processes with me. These were the major learnings from those interviews and dialogues:
1. Board Support for both the outgoing and incoming ED’s was cited as a critical factor by both the outgoing and incoming ED’s. This happened during board meetings, one on one time with board members, sharing of stories, just simply spending time together. The outgoing ED’s mentioned that this helped them deal with the difficulty of letting go of something that had been such a huge part of their lives for so long. The incoming ED’s both said this made them feel valued and seen as part of the team, even though they were new. Board members we spoke to also shared that by doing this intense connecting for a period of time, they were often able to see potential issues from a distance before they actually became a problem and that it made the ongoing work of the organization easier as they had already built a strong rapport with the incoming ED.
2. A strong formal onboarding process for the incoming ED with the outgoing ED, that included a clear timeline and perimeters for both, but with plenty of time allowed for introductions to partners, to staff, to funders etc. AND a clear mutually agreed time for this to end and for a clear break in the outgoing ED’s involvement.
3. A hiring process that did the maximum possible to ensure that the right person was hired. This included in both cases the writing of unique job descriptions, interviewing processes, and onboarding time. In both cases, outgoing leadership were fully part of the hiring process, and both organizations shared that they would have had a harder time finding the right person had this not been the case.
4. There was an intentional effort to be sure that there was a very clear expectation of the incoming ED that was communicated via a combination of the job description, interview and onboarding process and board communication, both group and individual. The time was spent leading up to the transition to be sure that all the staff team was fully aware of what was being planned and how it would be rolling out and that their expectations were also clearly laid out and managed, so that there was maximum stability for the transition to happen.
CSU has learned, shared and talked over these learnings numerous times amongst our staff and board team and we continue to refer to them and they have been instructive in planning our own leadership shift. Most recently this investigative journey has led me to propose and be part of a Wallace Center peer to peer learning circle: Healthy Leadership Transitions in Grass Roots Non-Profits. What has emerged from these conversations has underlined and emphasized what I have described above, but a lot of nuance is emerging as it does when many heads work together. Not least, is that to really engage in a thoughtful and participatory leadership transition takes dedicated time and resources and as a movement we have not done that work.
COVID19 has shone a clear light on all that is unjust and inequitable in the current food system. It is a system some of us have been working to dismantle for many years, whether through policy changes or by building new models. The additional financial hardships created by the pandemic for people already living on the edge are real. We are seeing through our work in South Central that more and more families are in need of assistance to just survive. This hard moment is potentially a time for major change. How can we who have been wanting and working for that change for so long maximize its possibilities to create an equitable food system?
In the past year I have experienced the loss of one dedicated food justice warrior who lost a long battle with cancer and am seeing other colleagues continue to work at full pace even when they shouldn’t, in a field where many have no pension plans, or safety nets. At the same time there are so many bright, talented, young minds coming to this work. And as a result of COVID19 people are now more interested than ever in growing their own food and are seeing with crystal clarity the advantages of a local food system. As a movement we must use the time to think created by this pandemic to radically re-imagine our work.
This moment is an opportunity for grass roots practitioners to challenge funders to support our work in ways that create sustainability and self reliance for the people we serve. One off projects that create marvelous news stories, take lots of resources and leave nothing behind when they are gone must become historical artefacts. Let us place resources directly into communities most in need to build equitable food oriented development projects ( that create solid infrastructure for long term and multiple community benefits.
To effectively do this we need to re-think everything. A critical part of this effort is most certainly the commitment of resources so that food justice movement organizations can make time to intentionally and collaboratively shift the roles of long time food justice warriors. How much stronger can our work be if we harness the leadership and experience of committed individuals to welcome, guide and nourish people entering the fight with their new energy and ideas. For a fight it will be, and if we are working together and not at odds we can and will change and strengthen this food justice movement and build the radically different future that is needed for humanity to survive on earth. 


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