COVID-19 Notes from the Field #3: Impact and Strategic Clarity Community of Practice

September 22, 2020

We’re pleased to share insights observed by Innoweave’s Impact and Strategic Clarity coaches in their work with organizations facing the challenges presented by the pandemic.

There is no roadmap, it all seems so overwhelming, but you are doing it, you ARE managing the crisis!

We’re fortunate to be part of a group of nine inspiring women coaches working with the McConnell Foundation in the Innoweave Impact and Strategic Clarity Coaches’ Community of Practice. Many members of this small group have been working in coaching and consulting with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors for decades and have been connected to one another since 2012. Our learning and growing together has been rich and varied.

We work with nonprofit, public sector and philanthropic leaders in planning for the future. These leaders want to ensure they make the best use of talent and resources to create positive social and environmental impact in the world. COVID-19 has, of course, caused all of us and the people and organizations we work with to think about the future in a new way.

“There are no roadmaps, no best practices to learn from, the plane is truly being built and flown at the same time. However, across the sector, some themes are emerging as top of mind for organizations and their leaders.“

Our goal is to highlight some of these themes and share the questions organizations are asking and some promising approaches that may be helpful to others. We’re all learning together.

Blog Post #3: Workplace Culture and Organizational Change  

Over the next two blog posts, we want to look at changing organizational structures, and how teams are adapting to environments that are in constant flux. Leaders are asking themselves: “What is the right organizational design? What combination of virtual teams and services and in-person engagement is right? How will our virtual team be managed, and how will we make decisions well? What new skills and experience will we need?”, and maybe most importantly: “What is my ‘organization of the future’ going to look like?”

As we touch on this topic, we would like to highlight three themes that we see emerging from the field. In this first post, we will focus on:

  • Strengthening Workplace Culture
  • Pivoting and Adapting Organizations in Order to Respond to a Rapidly Changing Environment

Our next post will focus on Change management: What it is? How to do it? With examples on how to integrate these processes into organizational culture during the pandemic.

Strengthening Workplace Culture

During a recent conversation with Matt Youens, a Calgary-based strategist in workplace culture and human resources and founder of, we asked him how we could best support leaders transitioning their teams through the COVID crisis? His answer was short and to the point: “It comes down to the people, and how to both motivate and set them up for success.”

One of the strategies Matt works on with organisations is asking questions like “What does your desired workplace culture look like?” and then through a series of conversations, team exercises, and individual tasks, the team works backwards from the desired end state to the current state of today, identifying and marking off milestones and goals needed along the way.

Sheri McLeod, Executive Director of the NDG Senior Citizen’s Council in Montreal followed a similar approach with her team: 

“Our organization closed because of the public health advisory on Thursday, March 12th. The following Monday I set up a call with 7 people on a Facebook chat – we were not at the Zoom phase yet. People were stressed and terrified, trying to figure out what this meant to us personally, for our families and for the seniors we served.” 

Following that initial discussion, she decided to do a check-in every morning for several months, so that, “we could look at each other’s faces, and tell each other that we would get through this one day at a time, together and in solidarity.”

Organizers went through a similar experience in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood. The Concertation enfance famille jeunesse de La Table de quartier Hochelaga-Maisonneuve wanted to be responsive, as well as proactive towards the varied and complex needs of the vulnerable populations they serve. Morning meetings were quickly organized in a user-friendly format, so that all partners could share their concerns, let off steam, exchange resources, and together identify priority areas that needed to be addressed and worked on in a concerted way. They ended up formulating a neighbourhood-wide emergency action plan through these efforts.

Over a two month period, The NDG Senior Citizen’s Council extended this human approach to their entire network. Staff were redirected to the task of contacting over 600 vulnerable seniors in their care network; people who were from low income neighbourhoods, and had varying degrees of cognitive loss and physical limitations, with very limited or non-existent social networks, but were still living at home. As Sheri stated: “It was painstaking work, and involved being on the phone for 8-10 hours a day.”

That said, she knew that mobilising her team using a human approach and transferring this approach to the basic human needs of their beneficiaries was essential to creating a workplace culture of care and effectiveness. 

Pivoting and Adapting Organizations in Order to Respond to a Rapidly Changing Environment

We saw many leaders in the sector investing in strengthening HR skills and processes to ensure leadership capacity was strong and sustained through COVID. Learning how to mediate through crises has become a skill that many leaders have had to add to their arsenal, if it was not already present, and as the COVID crisis continues into the fall, organizations are having to mitigate accumulated stress, burnout and illness on an already full plate. 

Along with setting new targets for health and wellbeing with the populations they serve, organizations are increasingly being asked to step into front-line positions that involve supporting people going through major trauma. It has meant addressing underlying issues linked to personal wellbeing and mental health, building skills in psychological support, mediation and conflict resolution, as well as addressing systemic barriers such as racism, poverty, and social and financial exclusion that have significantly hindered many communities ability to navigate the COVID crisis and move towards recovery.

For example, the team at L’Itinéraire, a leading social enterprise in Montreal which prints a community newspaper that is delivered by marginalized and homeless people, immediately considered their programs through a psychological lens. When the newspaper shut down due to COVID, and their clientele lost their jobs, they pivoted all of their services towards providing front line psychological support for their 250 “camelots” or newspaper deliverers. They hired 5 psychologists immediately to ensure they could work directly with people as they navigated job loss, hunger, extreme poverty and health risks.  

The Canadian Association for Midwives, a large pan Canadian network with approximately 2000 members, realised the importance of redistributing workloads and revising job descriptions in light of the new pressures of COVID. “Our members are front line health workers and they depended on us for guidance, support, and to advocate for their needs during the pandemic. We weren’t prepared to switch our workplans so suddenly but we managed”.

The Executive Director was pushed to review annual workplans and resolve some of the pressure points that had already been emerging as problematic, such as overstretched small teams, impossible workloads, and unrealistic project timelines. “At the peak of the pandemic, several staff requested a temporary leave of absence or went on sick leave – in particular, parents with young children and staff that were just burned out.”

The organization is now working slowly on strategies for improving the workplace culture.  This includes taking the time to connect with employees around their work-home arrangements, supporting employees’ mental health challenges, and focusing on immediate needs and putting longer term projects on hold.  

Toujours Ensemble  and Concertation enfance famille jeunesse de la Table de quartier Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, two neighbourhood-based organizations that work with at risk youth and families, sharpened their skills in a management style that was oriented around people and wellbeing, which forced them to prioritise certain activities and services over others. “It’s always surprising how in the community sector we don’t always have time to take care of our own employees often because of a lack of time and resources.” (Camelia Zaki, Coordinator of the Concertation enfance famille jeunesse).

The COVID pandemic encouraged these organizations to collaborate more within the internal team, to break down silos, to see who could help whom more regularly and to approach their partners more proactively. This ensured that together they could respond to the most urgent needs of their shared populations, creating a better continuum of services and more complimentary across neighbourhoods for example.  And finally, these two organizations greatly prioritised the need to stop and plan their actions, even in a time of emergency. Taking time out to listen to their own limits, and those of their co-workers and partners, which ensured a more realistic and human way forward. 

We asked Sheri McLeod how she was preparing for the fall. Her answer was: “There are still a lot of people suffering in the community. We don’t know what the medium term effects of the pandemic will be on people that have faced isolation, lack of food, malnutrition, and mental and cognitive issues.”

Alongside these concerns, is the reality that many community workers, just like healthcare providers, are facing COVID fatigue times ten. “It’s exhausting, having to reimagine, and then convince people to do all of this pivoting and adapting.”

For Sheri, as well as numerous other leaders in the sector, there is no magic plan. When asked what advice she would give her fellow practitioners, she ends with:

“Be very mindful of the needs of the team. This is a long game. People have ten, twenty, thirty years in them. If they cannot get through this, they will become ill, disenfranchised, and decide to leave the sector. We are people who are doing our best in very difficult circumstances. These are not high paying jobs, there are no unions to protect workers, people are making personal sacrifices.  There is an unprecedented level of expectation on us, and it’s astonishing how much we have been able to deliver! This is the way we are. We take risks and face challenges, but at some point we are still human and we can hit the wall just like everyone else. We have to look out for each other.”

What We Learned and the Path Forward

There is no magic way forward (sigh!), but the organizations that seem to be staying healthy as they navigate their way through the pandemic have demonstrated the following characteristics:

Adaptability, Creativity, Reflexion, Solidarity, Strengthened Partnerships, and a Focus on Core Values. Here are some of the lessons organizations have learned in order to facilitate their ongoing action during the pandemic:

  • Focus on ensuring the health and well-being of staff and people in the organization –  At least one person in the organization – usually the Executive Director – should focus on the team’s mental and physical well-being. Look into reorganizing work schedules to help facilitate home-work balance, providing time away from the screen, and ensuring that additional mental-health support and resources are available when called for.
  • Ensure communication with staff members and key partners is ongoing and fluid – Stay in contact. Organize regular online meetings and team updates – daily if necessary. Invest in a reliable online platform. Ensure continued and fluid communication by using shared online tools and software such as Dropbox, Box, and Google platform.
  • Leverage external resources wanting to help – Many organizations are being approached by new partners wanting to help, or needing their support – including municipal and business leaders, health care professionals, organizations offering complimentary services. Reach outside of your traditional network, take advantage of hospitals, higher education institutions, and volunteers wanting to partner with you on initiatives. Take the time to discuss options with new resources, and explore how you can work more closely together. What can they contribute? How can your services work to complement each other?
  • Collect Data – Collect information on an on-going basis, even if you do not have data collection software in place. Understand the emerging needs to your beneficiaries. Document your responses during the crisis. Analyse what has been most effective in contributing to results. This will help strengthen the case for why funders should invest in your strategy.