“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.
How can small businesses and not-for-profits thrive, or even survive, in light of the social and economic challenges that 2020 and COVID-19 have thrown our collective way? We started Bakker Business Services during Q2 of 2020 because we felt called to help answer that question and help these organizations transcend these challenges. But with very little time for research around product/market fit and other critical success factors, what’s the best way to rapidly examine market conditions and learn where to lean in the hardest to help the most?
The answer for us was to hold our first-ever brain trust meeting. Of course, the meeting was virtualized, but all the same, it was an exciting chance to bring together leaders from some of Canada’s most impactful not-for-profits (NFP). The goal was for everyone to get together and discuss the changes that COVID-19 had wracked upon their organizations and understand what people are doing to innovate their way to better organizational health despite the challenges. The discussion followed Chatham House Rules, freeing participants up to get very frank, making for an exciting, inspiring, and energizing session.
Here’s a taste of what we learned:
Where Are You Experiencing Some Wins?
A shining example of burning the playbook but staying on mission is one org whose core mission is providing meals to children in need. COVID-19 disrupted their how, but with their why firmly in place, they changed their distribution model, assembling volunteers in a basement to pack up weekly portions for their clients. Their other key service stream is providing sports activities to these same populations. With the advent of COVID-19, they built activity kits featuring books, puzzles, scooters, basketballs, and other means to engage their young stakeholders in moving, thinking, and creating.
An unexpected benefit of this tactical change was the relationship-building they did with local businesses. Through the emergency government funding they received, they were able to quickly source everything they needed through local businesses, helping the local economy, continuing to deliver their core services, and spreading the word about their mission.
With the sudden spike in government grant opportunities, a more responsive application process, and lower barriers to grants came a massive enabling wave for innovation in the NFP space. “COVID-19 gave us all permission to step outside our existing rigid frameworks,” said one leader.
For another leader, the win was that they went back to the drawing board as an organization. “Partly, it was driven by fear, partly by opportunity, but mainly it opened us up to any sacred cows that needed to be challenged in how we do stuff. None of us have been through this before,” is actually a liberating backdrop for these types of conversations,” he adds.
One leader of a national NFP had this to add: “It made us look at how we could lean less on the good nature of our donors and focus more on how to make our organization sustainable without any negative impact on those who benefit from our work. Part of that is having a look at who makes the ideal team member – has to be people with the hearts and the minds for the work.”
“We consciously chose not to ask people for money,” she said. “Instead, we focused our outreach on checking in on everyone; to see how they were doing, how they were coping, and if there was anything we could do for them.” The result of this intentional shift in outreach is that it reframed many of the organization’s relationships and built a genuine, meaningful, and more profound connection with donors and other stakeholders.
What’s Your Biggest Hurdle?
Ask this question at any meetup of leaders in the not-for-profit space, and you’re likely to get the same three-word answer: time and money. This was true pre-COVID-19 and may be true forever. While it was undoubtedly the pervasive quick answer in this group, the discussion unearthed some other very interesting and less obvious challenges.
Perhaps the most common theme was how the need to innovate and adapt revealed some challenges around competencies within the various teams. In the early weeks of the quarantine, many were able to find their way financially but found that the core way that their organizations were built was on social capital. COVID-19 necessitated so much functional change, especially in the realm of demands to innovate and work independently. This has brought competency levels into focus for some of the organizations that are now feeling the impact of some of the lower competencies. An example of the stark effect is that one leader said that the newly-revealed gaps had, at a minimum, doubled her personal workload. “The team we have may not be the team we need to move forward,” she shared, with obvious concern. “Hire for heart, train for competence may need a relook,” shared another attendee.
There are no problems within any organization that cannot be solved with great leadership, and this was another hot topic for some. Specifically, the leadership around intentional crafting of a culture, and leadership around strategy and a strategic plan. These leaders wondered aloud how they could maintain a strategic focus knowing the importance of staying agile through such disruption? These are huge questions as many still wonder what “the new normal” (sorry!) will look like. Still, broadly, most of these leaders agree that there is much work to be done to build cultures of resilience and adaptation within their organizations.
Finally, the group had a lively discussion about their newly contextualized pre-COVID challenges. Do they still matter? What do they look like now?
Broadly, it doesn’t look like “the new normal” means that these pains have disappeared, entirely replaced by fresh new ones. It’s more like the pile has grown: some problems are amplified by pressure on the system, such policies and procedures, HR planning, and the like. Many of us who have worked in bootstrapped or other fast-moving companies know how these gaps can creep up and nip us at unexpected times, and some attendees reported that 2020 had given this phenomenon new energy.
Engagement is another perpetual issue for nearly all businesses. These NFP leaders reported that meaningful engagement of their teams and all other stakeholders have become as challenging as expected in light of the reduced physical interactions we now deal with.
Finally, with the unprecedented distribution of team members, information-sharing and collaboration challenges, which were already important in an office setting, have become exacerbated by the physical separation between people and their workspaces. Many organizations found themselves forced into a digital transformation exercise before they even had a moment to think about what that could mean to their organization and how best to proceed. Luckily, our group is a resilient bunch of smart leaders, and everyone reports positive outcomes ongoing.
For more information on running impactful brain trust sessions in a business setting, we recommend the book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animations Studios.