February 16, 2021

Lessons for nonprofits from COVID-19

A year since the COVID-19 crisis began, here are lessons on weathering the storm, and building resilient organisations.

8 min read

Almost a year has passed since the COVID-19 crisis began. Institutions and systems all over the world have been reflecting on this stressful period, extracting lessons learnt, and preparing for the way ahead.

As organisations in the development sector, it is important for us as well to look back over the last few months, take stock of whether and how we have weathered the crisis, and think about how to get ready for the future. 

In this context, there has been a lot of discussion around notions of resilience: how organisations cope with challenges and threats during a crisis, and then adapt and transform themselves to survive (and hopefully thrive as well).

A lot of organisations have had to revisit their purpose (the heart of their mission), strategy (the mind of their organisations), and activities (the hands and legs of their work). We, at Pratham, had to do the same. Here are six key factors that helped us adapt to the crisis as an organisation.

donate banner

1. Decentralised decision-making

The pandemic has underscored the power of a less bureaucratic, and flat organisational structure. In a flat organisation, the middle management gives way to a group of staff who are entrusted with greater decision-making powers. Within the development sector this could mean relatively small teams, close to the frontlines, that function with greater autonomy. In contrast, centralised structures and rigid hierarchies with multiple layers of middle management can tend to move sluggishly. They might also be restricted in their capacity to deploy quick, agile responses in a rapidly changing environment.

The pandemic has underscored the power of a less bureaucratic and flat organisational structure.

By flattening the structure of an organisation, teams can more rapidly assess and respond to the new needs emerging in their ecosystem as a result of the pandemic. For example, they can modify existing processes or pilot new ones to respond to these needs. They can also track immediate outcomes in real-time and course-correct as needed. For example, the national lockdown that was imposed in response to COVID-19 was phased out unevenly across India. Local conditions affected what organisations could do and when. In this situation, decentralised and autonomous teams were able to take decisions quickly and effectively, depending on where they were based.

It can be challenging to balance decentralised decision-making and local initiative on the one hand, and adherence to a common set of objectives across an organisation on the other hand. However, strong lines of communication, accompanied by an active culture of learning helps in maintaining this fine but necessary balance.

For example, when daily contact with children suddenly stopped due to the lockdown, Pratham team members immediately started calling as many families as they knew. Where children’s phone numbers weren’t known, they phoned schoolteachers, sarpanches, or Anganwadi workers to stay connected with the villages they worked with. This was a natural, immediate reaction, rather than an instruction that came from the top through central coordination. Each team connected with their communities, and decentralised leadership supported these efforts. Our leaders then shared their experiences with this experiment, and knit their efforts into a flexible, national campaign.

2. Learning new skills

To stay relevant in a fast-changing world, organisations must have curiosity and scepticism built into their organisational culture. Developing new skills can help keep teams on a positive, upward learning trajectory. Curiosity about new contexts and domains, the ability to anticipate emerging gaps, restlessness about current practices, and a desire to experiment outside comfort zones all help build flexibility and strength in an organisation’s muscle.

Organisations must have curiosity and scepticism built into their organisational culture.

Curiosity about new contexts can serve organisations well today, as they are confronted with the challenge of rethinking their strategies or having to consider serving new stakeholders and designing new programmes.

Another motivating factor, when it comes to an organisation’s learning agenda, could be the feeling of frustration about the gap between desired goals and the current reality. For example, with the frequent and prolonged disruptions in the school calendar in 2019, the Pratham team in Kashmir was getting impatient with the discontinuities. The team started an experimental programme called ‘Nayi Rah’ (‘new path’) which focussed on setting up neighbourhood-based activity and learning centres for children.

A chameleon on a branch-COVID-19
An important task for leaders during a crisis like this is to help teams find a new and renewed sense of meaning and purpose. | Picture courtesy: Flickr

3. Collaborations and partnerships

As organisations grow, even internally, working across programme boundaries and silos of expertise can be difficult. Externally, forging partnerships and collaborations takes time and patience.

We know from our work over this past year, that the sudden and complete disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis led to an unprecedented number of organisations reaching out to each other for possible solutions. Looking back, it’s perhaps true that teams and organisations who were open and flexible to collaboration pre-COVID, were able to better use these opportunities than others.

New partnerships emerged between organisations in historically unrelated areas.

New partnerships emerged between organisations in historically unrelated areas. For example, nonprofits from the education and healthcare sectors have collaborated to design and offer health-related education material across urban and rural India.

Internal collaborations between different teams (which might otherwise have worked independently) have also accelerated during these times. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, SEWA’s health cooperative, Lok Swasthya SEWA, reached out to its sister organisations within the SEWA movement in 11 states, as well as other nonprofits, to distribute life-saving health information and education. Collaborating with other organisations enabled SEWA to reach millions of women and their family members in areas where SEWA itself did not have a base, such as Western Rajasthan and the Northeastern states of Meghalaya and Nagaland. These partnerships emerged spontaneously in response to the pandemic, and enabled the organisation to reach more than 3,00,000 women and a total of 1.5 million people at the grassroots (within just three months). 

4. Social cohesion within organisations

It can be difficult for people to operate in an uncertain environment, learn new skills, and be pushed outside their comfort zones, while also navigating the isolation brought on by the pandemic. The disruption of social relationships within organisations and a loss of connections can have an adverse impact on employees’ physical and psychological health. For example, research suggests that high-quality social connections within organisations—such as spontaneous hallway conversations and other ways of spending time with colleagues—are valuable contributors to employee well-being. However, the mandatory shift to work from home and requirements for physical distancing can enhance feelings of loneliness.

The disruption of social relationships within organisations and a loss of connections can have an adverse impact on employees’ physical and psychological health.

This is all the more significant at a time when the risk of employee burnout—the feeling of overwhelm triggered by sustained and high levels of stress—is high. However, recent research suggests that the feeling of identification with a team and a sense of belonging buffered the negative impacts of stress and burnout in front-line healthcare workers.

In pre-COVID times, meeting in-person also helped teams and their members develop greater trust and strengthen a shared understanding of organisational objectives. Post-COVID, organisations took to virtual communication channels to experiment with new ways of connecting with each other, sharing information, and continuing to collaborate in a virtual set up.

5. Frequent, simple, and honest communication

In times of crisis, it is all the more important for organisations to face reality honestly. Yet, it can be tempting for leaders to not reveal the true extent of challenges an organisation is faced with. In particular, it might be difficult to communicate the level of adaptation that the organisation will require in order to pull through the crisis.

Discussing hard news, especially about funding and finances, can come with the risk of people losing trust in leadership, becoming cynical, or losing motivation. At the same time, transparency can promote loyalty and long-term trust in organisations. Combining the realities facing the organisation with a focus on the possibilities and reminders of the team’s strengths, can be a challenging, but vital line for leaders to walk.

The COVID-19 crisis has required leadership teams to engage their people in hard questions around a range of issues.

One way that leaders can go about this is by engaging in frequent external and internal communication with supporters and teams to understand the situation from their points of view. The COVID-19 crisis has required leadership teams across layers and programmes to engage their people in hard questions around a range of issues, including funding and talent retention. A dilemma that many development sector organisations have faced during the past several months, for example, is whether there should be a reduction in the number of people currently on staff, or whether the current strength should be maintained but with a significant pay cut across the board.

At Pratham, for example, we designed multiple rounds of Zoom calls where groups of leaders across different verticals came together to talk to different teams about the hard trade-offs and decisions confronting the organisation. While these conversations were emotionally exhausting, the frank and frequent communication helped teams to understand the larger challenges faced by the organisation, and thereby feel part of the bigger purpose. In dealing with the unfolding crisis, honesty and transparency in communications with supporters, board members, and the teams can strengthen team spirit and build greater trust and cooperation.

6. Shared sources of meaning and purpose

For people working in the development sector, in particular, the meaning they draw from their work is a significant source of motivation. But known, reliable ways of finding this meaning can feel disrupted in these times, as people are forced to work from the confines of their homes and as the nature of work itself shifts for many professionals.

The shift to digital communication and working can empower a new cadre of leaders across organisations, and give them greater visibility and sense of purpose.

An important task for leaders during a crisis like this is to help teams find a new and renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Towards this, the shift to digital communication and working can empower a new cadre of leaders across organisations, and give them greater visibility and a sense of purpose. For example, Pratham initiated a weekly virtual town hall called ‘Rubaru’ to bring together the entire organisation (more than 8,000 members). Despite difficulties with language, the Rubaru sessions often had several thousand participants. The digital medium enabled this wide participation and interaction with the organisation’s senior leadership teams. Moreover, the shift to virtual communication and the adoption of decentralised team-level functioning can also help leaders directly and more frequently engage with staff closer to the field and discover fresh leadership talent.

The three learning phases of the pandemic

Like looking at a series of time-lapse photographs, for many organisations in the development sector, the first nine months of the pandemic can broadly be broken up into three phases.

In the first phase, April to June, teams were absorbed simply in coping with the disruption in the best way possible. Often, it felt like a patchwork quilt of efforts quickly stitched together to serve an immediate need. For many, the experiences of the first few months of the lockdown made it clear that re-tooling organisations with new skills and reworking how we function was necessary.

The second phase, July onwards, was a time when organisations were beginning to see that the pandemic is here to stay. Adapting, learning, and preparing were all activities that many teams got busy with.

The learnings from the first two phases led to the third phase. Successful teams have not only adapted, but have also transformed themselves in fundamental ways to remain relevant for the current context and for uncertain times ahead.

In fact, it’s almost as if as a sector, we are in the process of identifying the core threads of our work, and are strengthening each one in new ways. As the crisis continues and stretches, we should be getting ready to weave these core threads together into a new fabric that is better suited to the times that lie ahead. 

At Arthan’s Future of Fundraising conference, Rukmini Banerji spoke about building robust nonprofit institutions.

Know more

We want IDR to be as much yours as it is ours. Tell us what you want to read.
Stuti Shukla-Image
Stuti Shukla

Dr Stuti Shukla is a leadership educator and researcher. Her work focuses on helping leaders grow their personal capacity to exercise leadership on complex challenges. Stuti teaches leadership at Harvard University and her research centres around leadership, identity, and scaling feedback for people development. She previously spent a decade in the education sector in India with Pratham Education Foundation and Kaivalya Education Foundation. She holds an MS from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in education from Harvard University. 

Rukmini Banerji-Image
Rukmini Banerji

Rukmini Banerji is the Chief Executive Officer of Pratham Education Foundation and has been with Pratham for 25 years. She has extensive experience working with children in schools and communities and in partnerships with different governments in India. Rukmini led Pratham’s research and assessment efforts including the well-known nationwide ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) initiative from 2005 to 2014. Originally from Bihar, Rukmini is now based in Delhi and in Pune.