Tips on managing through a crisis from the ‘Emergency Room’ doctors of impact

For social sector leaders seeking advice on steering through uncertainty, listening to the Open Road Alliance team may be a good place to start.

The New York-based philanthropic fund offers fast, flexible funding (below market-rate loans or grants) to nonprofits and social enterprises that are otherwise stable, but have met unexpected roadblocks such as delayed funding, government policy changes or currency fluctuations.

As a result Open Road Alliance has become something of an expert in what CEO Maya Winkelstein calls “the Emergency Room of impact”.

Founded in 2012, the fund has been banging a drum since then for more consideration of risk. It’s still a topic that tends to be avoided – in fact, fewer than 20% of foundations currently budget for the unexpected, according to Open Road – but its mission is to see risk management become as commonplace as monitoring and evaluation.

We picked up some insights from Winkelstein, who was speaking on a Skoll Virtual Forum panel, hosted by The Bridgespan Group, earlier this week. 


1. Know that a crisis will hit again, whether small or large

Even if the current pandemic turns out to be a black swan, organisations will continue to face crises on some level.

“When this is over, guess what: getting held up because your programme officer went on maternity leave a month early, and now you’ve got to wait three or four months before you can finish the process – that’s still going to be there,” said Winkelstein.

“Hopefully we can take this experience and design a better, more resilient system. You can’t eliminate risk, but you can increase resiliency. And if you can increase resiliency and flexibility,  [then] whatever it is, whether it’s a pandemic or something else, we’re going to have a stronger sector.”


2. Plan for the next phase, too

Winkelstein advised thinking in phases. A crisis demands fast responses, but if the first three months are about survival, planning for the next three months – and the next three after that – is just as important.

That approach can also help for anyone feeling paralysed by the current situation: “Plan for June, plan for August. Someone once said to me: ‘If you don't know what to do today, make a plan for tomorrow. Because soon enough tomorrow will be today, and then you’ll know what to do today.’ That’s really the essence of contingency planning.” 

‘If you don't know what to do today, make a plan for tomorrow. That’s really the essence of contingency planning’

Funders also need to think beyond the immediate. So, while emergency funding for grantees might be the first priority, be sure that other actions aren’t causing issues a few months down the line. Don’t delay your April board meeting until July, for example, if that would mean grant approvals also get delayed. (Previous research by Open Road has found that funder-created obstacles account for nearly half the triggers that prompt organisations to seek its emergency support).


3. Nonprofits and social enterprises: Don’t stop fundraising

Should organisations continue to ask for money when there’s so much uncertainty ahead about what they can actually deliver?

“Yes, yes – absolutely yes,” said Winkelstein. “Because this will end, and we’re going to need your services more than ever, most likely.” In any case, while some funders are stepping back right now, “most are all about responding and stepping up and not going away”. Being open about your financial situation, as well as about what your frontline workers may be facing, is entirely compatible with fundraising, she said.

One positive: there are no rules anymore, and that’s opening up new opportunities to get creative. Winkelstein cited a nonprofit faced with the cancellation of its annual fundraising gala – but which managed to pull off an online campaign, complete with ballgowns. It raised $280,000, surpassing the original $200,000 goal (the staff share how it worked in this video).


4. Funders: open the door – and stop worrying about your reputation

Funders can play their part by being proactive.

“Open the door first. Especially in this time of crisis and uncertainty, we actually hold the power more than ever to be the one to open the door and say, ‘We invite this conversation. Tell us what you’re worried about. Tell us not just what you’re working on in the next three months but what you’re thinking about for later, and how can I help’.” That will encourage grantees to stay in touch and communicate openly, she added.

Funders also need to overcome any reluctance about communicating their own intentions, even if it’s to say that they don’t yet know what those intentions are , we don't know yet. 

‘If anything, reputation risk is actually the one risk that we can all easily take’

“Information asymmetry is always a challenge in our sector between those who have the money and those who seeking the money... We can’t afford that anymore and we certainly can’t afford it in the coming months.”

Some funders may be concerned that saying too much about their own uncertainty or even financial instability will damage their reputation. There’s no time for that, said Winkelstein. “If anything, that is actually the one risk that we can all easily take.”


5. Schedule time to step back

Finally, whether you’re providing or seeking money, recognise that this will be a marathon, not a sprint. 

For Open Road Alliance itself, the pressure has been mounting, with more than 100 Covid-related enquiries received in just the past few weeks. The first response: examining the funder's own operational budget, to ensure every dollar possible could be squeezed into grants or loans. 

But that's not all.

Several weeks into the new reality, Winkelstein and team are now getting back into scheduling “moments of pause” a couple of weeks ahead to reconsider budgets, staffing or strategies. That helps avoid going too far down one path and making it difficult to change direction later.

“While we need to keep churning through applications, we need to keep getting dollars in, getting dollars, getting the help where it needs to go, we have to also build in moments to breathe… to let that creativity flow back in.”


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