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Nonprofit guide to COVID-19 planning

Photo: CDC / Alissa Eckert, MS

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled COVID-19 (the coronavirus) a public health emergency. With anxiety surging following pervasive coverage, and with Georgia’s first cases recently confirmed, our state’s nonprofit employers must prepare to address the concerns of their workers and stakeholders, and plan for business disruption.

Of course, the first thing to do is find clear and reliable sources for keeping up with the current situation. Official, up-to-date, and practical information on the COVID-19 outbreak can be found on dedicated pages maintained by the CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health; you can also find a practical five-minute overview in this to-the-point video that’s ideal for sharing.

For a guide to making contingency plans for this and future emergencies, keep reading. Also: Watch our website for a webinar on emergency preparation.

Nonprofit leaders should take a moment and focus on three primary dimensions related to navigating this issue, as well as any future issue, that threatens to disrupt our vital work: employees, stakeholders, and the organization. GCN is providing this guide to help you consider each of these dimensions, and start taking action now to engage your team in mitigating personal and business risks.

Regardless of the outcome of this particular public health issue, a plan for reacting to unplanned, continuity-disrupting situations is something that every nonprofit leader should have.

The top-line considerations for each dimension are:

  • Ensuring that employees know how to care for themselves, understand your employer policies, and feel comfortable and safe taking steps for their well-being;
  • Ensuring that stakeholders (audiences, beneficiaries, participants, volunteers, etc.) have the resources they need to navigate risk while engaging in your programs and services; and
  • Navigating severe business disruptions that may impact finances and mission delivery.

It’s helpful to think through your responses in terms of progressive levels of risk. For example, a set of Level One responses could be those relevant to a lower-risk situation, ramping up to Level Three responses suitable for a crisis-level situation.

Employee care

That most universal of air-safety instructions, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others,” is also true in the workplace.

Emergencies will always evoke anxiety, but preparation gives you the assurance to head off that anxiety so you can effectively communicate with and care for your employees. In turn, they will be able to carry on with their jobs and help your organization weather any compounding challenges.

And though safety is number one – always – I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that exhibiting care and concern for your people’s well-being is a great retention tactic for the highly competitive talent market nonprofits find themselves in (something GCN has talked about at length).

First, you’ll want to educate and assure your people with clear and frequent communication:

  • Hold an all-hands meeting to address the issue proactively. Articulate how your organization will respond to the current situation (or a potential crisis) operationally. Use the opportunity to show employees that you have considered them and the issues inherent to the situation, and have (at least) an initial plan.
  • Provide an easy-to-understand resource to ensure your people have the latest, correct information about how they can protect themselves (like those at the top of this article).
  • For COVID-19, this would include a basic overview of personal safety precautions like hand washing, not touching your face, modifying habits, and being aware.
  • Ensure clarity around sick leave and telecommuting policies by stating directly, and unequivocally, your policies and expectations about time off and coming to work when ill. Consider adapting your policies if they might inhibit someone from taking sick leave or caring for family members who are sick.

Next, provide resources and establish processes to accommodate change and lower anxiety levels. Make it a discussion, and be responsive:

  • Ask staff what would lower their anxiety, then act on reasonable requests. For example, in the current outbreak you might set up hand cleaning stations around the office and provide employees with personal hand sanitizer lanyards. If you provide people with direct services or convene large groups (like a theater audience), it is important to involve staff in deciding how best to protect them as well. 
  • Consider virtual conferencing instead of meeting in-person using an online platform like Zoom (offering free video conferencing calls of up to 45 minutes).
  • Think about telecommuting: Is this an option for some or all employees? Create a plan for making it work. For help, see this guide to emergency telecommuting from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  • Consider setting up a central spot for information that addresses this event, including potential impacts, available resources, and relevant policies. This could take the form of an online document or a bulletin board located in a common area (or both). 
  • Establish proactive steps your team can take to help, like assigning employees to “sweep teams” that clean surfaces after group meetings.

Stakeholder care

An emergency situation requires, more than ever, that you be transparent with, and show concern for, your stakeholders. Communicate head-on with donors, volunteers, clients, and everyone else involved about what you are doing to keep them safe and ensure your work continues.

In addition, consider these steps:

  • Put up signage around your facility (and any other work sites) about the proactive steps you’re taking to keep people safe.
  • Examine your refund policies, and adapt them if needed.
  • Provide an alternative way of accessing your services, if it’s practical for the type of work you do. 
  • Conduct meetings virtually, rather than in-person.
  • Make your efforts as visible as possible; for example, set up hand sanitizing stations centrally, and make clearly-articulated policies about refunds or alternative delivery options a prominent part of your website’s home page.

Organization care

To ensure your organization can navigate a disruption, you’ll need to gather a response planning team made up of key staff (from across departments) and board members. Together, you can discuss business disruption scenarios, their impacts, and what’s appropriate for each.

Disruption planning can be confusing because the nature of disruption isn’t always apparent until it is happening. For that reason, you’ll need to plan different levels of response based on the severity of the situation.

Employer responses should be reasonable and rational; thinking in terms of levels is a great way to head off that “boil the ocean” feeling that can take over when facing the unforeseen. For example, when the risk level in your location is low, the best response is probably focusing on employee communication and education, rather than shutting down programs or productions. Thinking in terms of response “levels” will save time, resources, and anxiety.

Here are some questions to inform your response planning efforts. When answering them, don’t forget to think in terms of levels: Set up multiple courses of action, and establish what kind of scenario would trigger a given response level.

  • What kind of staff or mission delivery back-up do you need? What if key players – staff people, presenters, actors – are incapacitated?
  • In the case of extended work delays or stoppages (like cancelled conferences or productions), what is your plan for handling staffing and cost issues? For example, will you furlough staff?
  • What internal process, if any, would need changing? Who is responsible for making those changes?
  • In terms of policy, what kinds of changes or temporary adaptations do you need to consider? Consider telecommuting, family medical leave, sick leave, refund policies, etc.
  • How would you communicate with all staff, and all stakeholders, in case of an emergency? Who is responsible for outreach? Is there a central and remotely accessible way of providing information to staff or the public?
  • Do you have a way to access key files and information remotely?
  • What kinds of resources and platforms should you make available to accommodate adapted working styles? How do you ensure your team knows how to access and utilize them?
  • Should you consider re-budgeting to build in risk scenarios?

Your team will also need to think about liquidity needs. Here are some questions to consider from a financial-planning perspective:

  • What are the worst financial impacts possible, and how might you mitigate them?
  • What are your policies related to compensation if employees’ work is suspended, or they cannot come in?
  • How much cash do you need on hand to should payments slow or events get cancelled over one month, three months, or longer?
  • Are government contract payments at risk if delivery targets aren’t achieved within a certain period?
  • What are the potential risks involved in contracts you’ve already signed for conferences, events, and other programming? If we’re about to sign a contract (for space or anything else) can we cite the current event (e.g., coronavirus) as an out clause?

For nonprofits, there is much to consider: as employers, mission-driven service providers, and businesses. As leaders, we owe it to everyone who counts on us to take a moment and consider how a potentially disruptive force could impact the organization in all three dimensions.

To help in carrying out your planning efforts, go to gcn.org/covid19 for all the latest updates & resources. 

Karen Beavor is president and CEO of GCN.

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