Leadership in Crisis: Reflections from the Non-Profit Sector

Building Institutions | May 27, 2020

Dasra brought together the Dasra Social Impact Leadership Program (DSILP) alumni to share, reflect & revisit some of the leadership lessons amidst COVID-19. The cohort size comprised of over 60 leaders from various social sector organizations across the country. The organizations represented various sectors including Education and Health. The participants were a mix of Founders, CXOs, and Executive Directors from the senior leadership teams within their organizations. This article highlights some of their discussions and reflections.

In the wake of unprecedented challenges during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the world is seeing multiple disruptions affecting all sectors and walks of life. As non-profit leaders are employing response and relief measures, keeping the needs of vulnerable communities at the center of their approach – they are also finding ways to manage themselves, their staff and other stakeholders. Navigating through the ongoing crisis with moral dilemmas of having to apportion limited funds between end beneficiaries and field staff – the cascading effects of the pandemic may have lasting repercussions on the non-profit sector. 

Leaders play a critical role in steering non-profit organizations and driving on-ground impact. Dasras survey with the DSILP leaders showed that there is a severe potential risk to organizations in case of disruptions caused by health of the leadershipApproximately 67% of the cohort we surveyed reported likely to experience moderate to severe disruption in operations in the event of leadership falling ill.  

According to Harvard professor Nancy Koehn, it is important for leaders to provide both brutal honesty — a clear accounting of the challenges your locality, company, non-profit, or team faces — and credible hope that collectively you and your people have the resources needed to meet the threats you face each day.” Resonating with this thought, many sector leaders are already taking steps to manage themselves and those in their spheres of influence. 85% of the non-profits we surveyed strongly believed their employees are equipped with necessary support. Here are some early learnings and responses by sector leaders validating the above statement, in how they are taking the lead during the crisis. 

In a crisis, managing oneself is a precondition for ensuring the well-being of staff and stakeholders. 

As leaders, it is important that we find ways to handle our own stress because this can influence the staff. Taking care of ourselves is very important. Accepting that we cant do anything about the uncertainties that lie ahead, as we scramble for ways to emerge is important. 

 - Neju George Abraham, Industree Foundation 

Leading with compassion towards peers and stakeholders is important during this period.  

We all started with really high energy. Now, while people are fine with the working from home and focused on their work, they are also emotionally exhausted by the situation. So I am changing tracks and taking a softer approach than at the beginning.”  

- Mary EllenMatsui, CEOAtma 

Optimizing available resources helps in building individual and organizational resilience, which can be beneficial in the long run.  

It is important for non-profit leaders to filter out noise, and reflect on who and what we are as we respond to the pandemic. We have to make gains in the available resources and look for opportunities. As leadership, I have felt the intense need to be present in every interaction that one has in the day – internally or externally. Leaders have to tap the whole range of emotional intelligence while tackling this crisis. 

- Meagan Fallone, Barefoot College International 

Leaders must rely on a strong second line to avoid fighting the battle alone and for improving efficiency within the organization.  

Another thing non-profit leaders should realize is that we should not put a lot of undue pressure on ourselves. We are not in this alone. We need to co-opt a senior management team that can work together. 

 - Vanessa D'Souza, CEO, SNEHA 

Open channels of communication are key to retaining trust among different stakeholders when there are program implications. 

We need to negotiate and establish direct channels of communication with the funders. There is merit in explaining the needs of the community to them openly and it does work. 

- Geeta Malhotra, Country Director, Rural Education And Development (Read) India 

Streamlining internal processes to drive agile action is critical while in a crisis situation.   

As part of the essential services due to our work in financial sector where we cater to low income households – we quickly formed task-forces within the organization for employees and customers. We assigned two-three people as part of what we called a war room because the response time had to be quick. We didnt want decision making to be lengthy, going through multiple channels, as we were trying to assure customers. 

- Dhara Vyas, Head – Strategy and Operations, Grameen India 

Even in the darkest times, optimism inspires leaders to drive transformational change in the world. 

The NGO sector has a big opportunity to rebuild economy, social capital and reset existing structures. We are used to firefighting and dealing with crisis situations. We have the mental makeup to deal with this ongoing pandemic.  

- Agnes Nathan, Principal Partner, Learning Links Foundation 

Non-profit leaders, used to working in areas where things dont work out, are leveraging their experiences for responding to immediate needs during the ongoing crisis. However, in these difficult times, they are also struggling with limited funding, flexibility with program implementation and to meet salary requirements of program staff and shortfalls due to restrictions in mobility during the lockdown. It is difficult for non-profit leaders to deliver crisis response, reflect and pivot towards reinvention in the future. The current situation requires all hands on deck. Only the timely support of funders, intermediaries, board members and interested stakeholders can enable non-profit organizations to balance between reflecting and responding to the humanitarian crisis.


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