We surveyed a bunch of leaders in the Mulago network who survived the 2008 recession—and a host of other crises—as to their best advice for all those who are now facing this one. We’ve distilled that advice here. There’s a lot of noise in the system right now, but these guys gave us pure signal. It’s tilted toward early stage organizations—for those later and more experienced, bear with us, and pick out what’s useful. It’s written as if for CEOs, but of course for the whole senior team—because no one can do this alone. It’s short, but really dense. You actually need to read it, not skim it (you can download it in PDF here).
Special thanks (in no particular order) to Alasdair Harris, Andrew Youn, Christine Su, Chuck Slaughter, Anushka Ratanyake, Raj Panjabi, Ella Gudwin, Paul Skidmore, Reade Fahs, Jim Taylor, Judah Pollack, John Arnhold, Russ Siegelman, Emily Bancroft, Ari Johnson, Peter Seligmann, Willy Foote, David Weekley, and Gustav Praekelt. We asked for bullet points in the survey and used thoughts from everyone. A few of our respondents provided longer material. It’s pure gold (you can read the full responses here).
So. This crisis is going to be long and deep. We’ve never had a one-two punch like this. It’s likely to be 12-18 months for the pandemic alone, and god knows how long for the recession. We’re talking to people about 1) how will you survive, 2) how will you maintain impact, and 3) how will you respond specifically to COVID?—and in that order, not the reverse. There is a generosity-mindset bump right now; there will be a scarcity-mindset trend to follow. Prepare for the latter. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself. You need to last. Here we go:
If you’re committed to a scalable solution, the vast majority of your impact is in the future. You need to get there. Nothing else even comes close. Let your dedication to those you serve in the present extend to those in the future. Let your dream for impact at scale drive the decisions you make now, and help you maintain your peace of mind as you face the hard choices ahead.
You got where you did by doing things, by taking action. Stop for a bit, now and periodically. Find a state of calm, and assess what’s happening while in that state of mind. You’re considerably smarter and more creative when all that fight-or-flight stuff is turned down. And take care of yourself. The first rule of rescue is to avoid becoming a victim. Again, this is going to be a long one. Sleep, eat, exercise, be with your loved ones (virtually, if need be)—the things that sustained you before are even more important now. Treat them like a responsibility, not a luxury.
Throw out your pre-pandemic plan. Your admirable visions of growth, those ambitious targets—all of it. You need a new plan, and you’ll need to adjust it continually. Scenarios are an essential tool to help you generate a new plan. Here’s one approach:
- Focus on the next 12 months.
- Create at least two scenarios: Bad case and worst case. (Best case is already out the window.)
- Focus on what you have to do to survive and what you need to do to maintain impact.
- Figure out—rigorously—how much money you have to work with: That’s only what you have on hand and what you’re certain will come in. (Anything else is unlikely and even “certain” is suspect.)
- Allocate that money given a) what it will take to survive and b) what it will take to maintain impact.
- Decide ahead of time what developments should trigger you to shift to the worst case scenario.
- As in all crises, keep your eye out for unexpected opportunities.
That’s the basics, anyway. You might find a “premortem” exercise useful: With your team, imagine you’re out of business in 18 months. Why did that happen? What could we have done to prevent it?
Cash is king. Get it, hang on to it. Cut early, cut fast, and cut smart—err on the deeper side. You will have to shrink your payroll—think first about how to protect your most vulnerable employees. Freeze hiring, freeze payables. Become exquisitely aware of cash flow and know at all times when, at your current burn rate, you will run out of money. Decide on a cash flow window—like, 6 months until the money runs out—that will trigger a move to a worse-case scenario. Get funders to give you now whatever money they were going to give you later. Then ask them for more.
The fact that you’re a leader may mean that you’re a different kind of cat. Others may experience all this in a way vastly different way than your own. Use that insight proactively. Assume people are anxious. You’re going to have to do hard things fast: Do them with a conscious compassion and empathy. You almost certainly don’t need to hear this, but take care of your team. Rally and comfort them, keep them safe, keep them informed. Create a sense of shared sacrifice, starting with pay cuts at the top. Expressly look out for your lowest paid workers: They are the most vulnerable and what you do to care for them will resonate up through your organization. Enlist everyone at all levels—you’ll find out who shines. Bias toward action: It’s mostly better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
More than seems necessary, more than seems reasonable. With your team (including your board): Communicate at regular, frequent, and predictable intervals. Balance honesty and transparency around bad news with a pervasive spirit of optimism. Reach out to individuals as much as you can.
Ask funders for more support, with an emphasis on particular things you can accomplish with their help.
With funders: Reach out to them individually, starting with the most important and most likely to double down. Ask them for more support, with an emphasis on particular things you can accomplish with their help. Keep them connected and updated. Impress them with the quality of your planning and response.
With others: Think about those who can help you now, whom you can help, and who will be important to you when you will be trying to regain your momentum. With all: Take the time to think through and craft what you’re going to say. There’s too much noise in the system right now; make sure your communiques are all signal. Generally, less (crafted well) is more. Everyone’s inboxes are jammed. With clarity, brevity, and thoughtfulness, yours will stand out. Time spent getting your communications right is absolutely worth it.
Most of you will need to respond directly to the COVID-19 crisis itself. Some of you may not—don’t be afraid to simply focus on survive/maintain. If you do respond directly, think about whether you have a relevant comparative advantage to drive it. Some—those in ed tech, mass media, highly digitized stuff, etc—may have opportunities that can yield rapid impact at scale. If you do, think about how your “wartime” initiative could yield ongoing “peacetime” impact dividends when this is over.
Make sure whatever you do is timely, high-impact, mission-relevant, and visible.
For the rest of you, make sure whatever you do is timely, high-impact, mission-relevant, and visible. Visible doesn’t mean flag-waving; in fact, you should do all that you can to make others look good, especially government officials and those who will matter to your future impact. Don’t use your cash for your response unless you absolutely have to; raise it separately. Again: The first rule of rescue is to avoid becoming (an organizational) victim. And make sure whatever you do is effective: You can’t afford to squander money, bandwidth, or reputation on something that isn’t ready for prime time.
Some of you will in fact have unused bandwidth—extra people, time, energy, maybe even a little money—because of things you have to put on hold. Use it. Think about what it will take, someday, to get to the next stage of the path to scale. There might be experiments you’ve needed to or could do that will lead to future impact, things you could re-design, strategies you could rethink. Talented, trained people can be given new tasks and roles. You may find that experts who seemed inaccessible to you are now eager to talk. You may also find that with some time and ingenuity, you can figure out a way to do some of the stuff that you thought couldn’t happen. Innovation may prove to be more important than cutbacks. And there may be ways that you can build the goodwill and connections that you’ll need when you’re ready to regain your momentum.
Someday this will be over, and you will have that chance to recapture, even accelerate, your momentum. Think about what that might look like. There is a kind of Zen in all this: As you focus on what it takes to survive in the near term, you need to continually keep in mind what effect decisions you make now will have on your ability to regain momentum later. Doing the hard thing now can be structured in a way that makes you that much stronger a couple of years from now.
“The stories of what you do now will echo down the years.”
This is your chance to shine. The way that you lead, how you respond to the crisis, the hard choices you make, and perhaps most important, the way that you stick it out among those you serve—these are things that will shape your organization’s culture, its reputation, and its impact in the years to come. Let that in turn shape the decisions you make now. And perhaps make the hard ones just a little easier.