Four Upstream Questions to Support Next Steps

June 18, 2020 – This guest post was co-written by NNCG member Jessica Bearman.  It was originally posted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations on May 12, 2020, and is shared here with permission.


For the last two months, grantmaking organizations have focused on triage as we’ve rushed to keep staff safe, to communicate with and support grantees, to reallocate, shift, and increase funding, and to balance former priorities with new demands of the pandemic. Staff were suddenly far-flung, working from home in conditions that varied tremendously. Zoom meetings (so many zoom meetings), late night emails, and unclear boundaries between work and home quickly became the norm.

Now, the national, state, and local conversation is shifting to the highly complicated topic of “re-opening,” (in fact, Virginia’s Governor is announcing the state’s preliminary guidelines for re-opening right now, as we write this blog). Funders are beginning to ask themselves: what’s next as we move from triage to transition? Do we consider returning to the workplace and, if so, how and when?

Health, safety, and legal requirements and policies are obviously essential considerations as you start thinking about a transition. Many resources, articles, blogs, etc. (some provided in our reference list) cover this topic. In contrast, this blog proposes four upstream questions that arose from conversations within GEO’s Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship to help you consider next steps in a values-aligned way.

1. What are your staff members’ primary concerns and anxieties?

According to Eichakeem McClary, Senior VP and Chief Legal and Administrative Officer at United Way of New York City, “directly asking individual staff about their concerns and needs is a critical first step to begin developing a transition plan.” Unless you ask and encourage candid feedback, you really have no idea what’s most important to your team and stakeholders.

You want to be as explicit as you can be about your process and timeline for gathering input and how that input will be used to reach an eventual decision, because anxiety grows in the absence of information. One senior leader described their experience in this way, “When we mentioned we were starting to think about returning to the office in some capacity, we had a wide range of reactions from staff. Some seemed immediately fearful, perhaps concerned that discussing the topic meant a transition was near. Others seemed more at ease and willing to consider the possibility of a flexible, phased approach. Regardless, all staff wanted to know as soon as possible what the next steps were going to be. I had to back way up and make sure they knew there was no predetermined plan – that this was just the initial (and important) phase of gathering input.”

2. How do you ensure your process and decisions are collaborative and communicated in a clear and consistent manner to all your key stakeholders?

The conflicting and often surprising messages from elected officials have been a good model of what NOT to do as we develop and communicate next steps to our staff. We can engage staff and stakeholders throughout the process, both to inform decisions and to ensure shared understanding and buy-in of eventual plans. The Skillman Foundation created an internal “Return to Work Committee” to provide a collaborative effort for researching, developing, and sharing best practices and recommendations with the larger staff team. They have also actively encouraged all staff to provide feedback along the way. Based on their recent experience, David McGhee, Skillman’s VP, Organizational Excellence & Impact, recommends that funders also invite grantees to be part of this committee to provide input as to how plans and next steps might affect community partners.

Consistent, ongoing communication is more critical than ever during this rapidly changing time, when stress and anxiety are high and people are even more focused on being up-to-date and informed about what is happening in the world around them. As mentioned in Scaffolding and Support: How Senior Leaders are Setting the State for Change, many foundations are establishing, and increasing, opportunities to connect and stay in touch. Think about how you will set up two-way communication with staff and stakeholders so that no one is left wondering what is going on.

3. How do the mission and values of your organization inform whether, when and how to transition back to the office?

Unfortunately, there will not be one clear or correct path to whatever is next…no moment when everything returns to the way it was. The lack of clear guidance puts big pressure on organizations to figure plans out individually, within emerging legal and safety parameters. That may feel scary, but it empowers us to move forward in alignment with our core principles and organizational values. “The opportunity to make these decisions is a privilege that isn’t afforded to many people and organizations,” said Loren Harris, Chief Program and Strategy Officer at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, “And that’s all the more reason to be intentional about it and not default to a status-quo that doesn’t serve our staff and communities well.” To live this value, the Rainin Foundation has drafted principles of reopening with four priority areas: Business Plan and Key Priorities, Building Access and Safety, Office Space, and Workforce. For each, they have sought staff input.

We recommend a real conversation about what you are trying to achieve, and whether and how “reopening” furthers your mission and aligns with your values. Would being back in a modified office environment be more or less beneficial to what you are trying to achieve? Perhaps you are able to partially reopen your office, but it remains closed to community partners and guests. Can you reopen in a manner that lives your values around equity, or will staff who remain at home due to medical concerns, childcare, or other family obligations be at a disadvantage? Will you be able to welcome community members to use your space, or will this still be unsafe?

At the Robins Foundation, we have been intentional in asking ourselves whether working remotely has negatively impacted our staff and partners, our work towards our mission, and our impact in the community. Overall, the answer has been “no” as we have successfully drawn upon our core values in leveraging our resources to strengthen our grantees and partnerships in order to develop and implement new, innovative initiatives to meet the rapidly changing needs of Richmond’s emerging communities, all while our offices have been “closed.” More recently, we have had honest conversations about the costs and benefits of a potential transition to the office, resulting in a deeper understanding of the complexities and limitations of such a transition, and how it could adversely impact our work.

4. How do you honor and strengthen your organizational culture as the context keeps shifting?

Organizational culture is the way we are together: all the behaviors, rituals, unwritten rules, and norms of interaction that make an organization a good (or bad) place to be. While funders have been working hard to maintain any sense of culture these past couple months of “quarantine,” we now need to shift and take the time to assess the impact that a completely restructured workplace may have on our culture – or the most culturally aligned approach to the transition.

Think about the bedrock cultural attributes that are most important to preserve or reimagine as you explore scenarios for your organization’s next steps. Some cultures may be highly compatible with remote or partially remote work – for example cultures that already value individual autonomy and prefer scheduled meetings. Staff may have settled into efficient and effective routines and may relish the flexibility and balance of working from home. Organizations with a norm of on-the-spot collaboration or a consensus-based decision-making process might be more challenged to honor that culture in a remote working situation. Leaders need to work harder to maintain the levels of interaction, informal conversations (where great ideas might serendipitously pop up), and personal connection that happen with less effort in an in-person environment.

Culture is not static, so the changes of the last two months will have already started to affect yours. We urge you to pay attention to it and be deliberate and explicit about how you want to show up together – whatever your working conditions now and going forward.

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We tend to imagine that one day we will be back to “business as usual” – the way we left our workplaces when this pandemic started. However, the more we consider the major changes to the work environment that staying safe will require, the more it’s clear that we will be creating new behaviors, norms, practices, and policies as we transition to what’s next. Does the office of the future need to look like the office of the past? We hope that your organizations will make decisions about your next steps in ways that invite and consider staff input, communicate clearly, further your mission, align with your values, and support a healthy culture where all staff can thrive.

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