COVID-19 is an unprecedented event that has brought swift changes and uncertainties to all of our lives. Let’s face it, no one was fully prepared for a crisis quite like this. Sure, we have business continuity plans and crisis communications, but those only guide us in the early moments. What about in the weeks following, when the dust has started to settle and we, perhaps, are forced to start making the even bigger decisions?
In the last few weeks, all of us have had to make quick decisions and take action. Many of these can be framed as reacting vs. responding to a situation. Going remote is a reaction; holding a virtual board meeting is a reaction. They are the quick, in the moment actions that help us endure in the present.
But when you step back and consider everything going on around you, and make a thoughtful, intentional plan — that’s a response. However, responding in a crisis is not easy, it takes a strong board/staff partnership and good governance to make a plan of action that is adaptive and considerate of what is needed in the moment and in the future.
Like many others, BoardSource has been monitoring what its community has been doing and is welcoming nonprofits to share their stories of success and resourcefulness with us. We recently received a submission from the CEO of the Georgetown Health Foundation, Scott Alarcon. Scott — in partnership with his board chair, Alma Guzman Molleur — told us some of their story and are allowing us to share it with you. It is a story that highlights what is possible when the board and CEO work in partnership to commit to their community, and never waver in their focus on mission.
The Georgetown Health Foundation’s Story
Scott: On March 23, the Georgetown Health Foundation Board and Staff made the decision to accelerate the timeline of our annual community grant making for 75 percent of our funding (or approximately $750,000) to unrestricted operating grants. We also began funding those partners who agreed to this modification within the next few days, when they typically would have received these funds in the May/June timeframe. We waived our traditional programmatic metrics and simply asked our partners to complete a one-page summary on how they are using the funds. For the remaining organizations that did not fall into this initial funding, we extended the deadline for the grant application in response to the remaining organizations' requests for an extension.
BoardSource: In response to this decision, Scott shared that he is not surprised that their board made the decision to move as swiftly as it did to provide critical resources to their trusted partners. As an outsider looking in, we agree. GHF has been able to make this thoughtful and powerful decision because, as a board and organization, they have made a series of commitments to themselves and the people they serve.
A Commitment to Good Governance
Scott: To understand why our board would make such a courageous decision, you have to look back over the last 10 years and piece together a number of decisions previous and current GHF boards have made to strengthen our governance practices and our decision-making. Early in GHF’s history, our organization decided that we would adopt nonprofit governance best practices, and we have relied on BoardSource to help guide and shape how we govern ourselves.
A Commitment to Building Relationships
Scott: If I were to point to our “secret sauce,” it would have to be relationships. We pride ourselves on being a highly relational organization. The earliest relational “ah ha” moment for me was when I realized the power of conducting intentional socials with our board and our staff. We decided to have our first Christmas party back in 2009, and I was amazed at the friendships and the connections that were made. We were no longer titles or representatives to one another. We were colleagues and friends. These deeper interpersonal relationships manifested themselves in the board room as trust, and mutual respect would become the bedrock of how we began to approach hard conversations and uncomfortable topics. Our board discussions and generative topics, even when challenging, were open and respectful. As we began to understand the power of relationships internally, this also translated to our funding partners. We became trusted partners as we began to choose flexibility and consultative support over “gotcha” accountability. We did, and still do have, outcome and accountability measures, but they are created together with our partners, and on occasion, we will change the measures mid-cycle as circumstances dictate.
BoardSource: Decisions like the one made by GHF are not made just by the CEO. While the board needs to be confident that the CEO is handling the situation in the best way possible, it should be asking probing questions like, “how are you thinking about this,” or in the context of your situation, “what does this mean for our community?” In Scott’s story, we can see that building relationships and open communication, helped develop an atmosphere of trust. The board chair of GHF, Alma Molluer explained in her own words…
Alma: Georgetown Health Foundation’s mission “to generate and accelerate positive change in our community’s health” is central to our beliefs as a board and our decision-making practices. When recently presented with GHF staff’s recommendation to waive the annual grant application process and shift to a more expedited process for our most trusted and effective partners serving our most vulnerable populations, the board responded with unanimous support. GHF has been responsive and courageous in addressing the needs in our community, and through its strategic partnerships, continues to evolve as an organization by adapting to the changing needs in our community. As a board of directors, we feel compelled to help our neighbors in need and to ensure that those service providers they depend on continue to operate effectively despite the many challenges they are facing. We are committed to this work. We love our community, believe in the foundation we serve, trust our leadership, and desire to make a difference when it matters most.
A Commitment to the Community
Scott: Over the years, as our internal and external relationships continued to grow and mature, our connection to Georgetown grew deeper and stronger. We actively sought out community voices that had been marginalized and underrepresented historically, and our funding followed the “needs” identified by our most vulnerable community members. And while we are not technically a “community foundation” from an IRS standpoint, we do believe we are the community’s foundation. It is this awesome sense of responsibility that guides us and what I believe ultimately led the GHF board stepping up boldly during this community crisis, given an uncertain future.
BoardSource: Statistics have already begun to emerge showing how marginalized populations are at a greater risk during this crisis. By seeking out every voice, GHF was already in the practice of continually assessing the needs of the community and was prepared to make quick and effective changes. When boards and nonprofits are attuned to their community’s needs, they are better able to pivot and adapt their programming and practices.
A Commitment to Strategic Partnerships
Scott: Additionally, GHF has worked with our local school district and our local Boys and Girls Club to offer childcare to our safety-net Federally Qualified Healthcare Center (FQHC) providers' children ages 5-12 while school has been moved online. GHF has also worked with our local high school to fund the supply cost for 3D printed face shields for frontline medical workers at our local FQHC due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) availability. We can continue to monitor our basic needs and safety net organizations for areas where we can support their critical work at this time, and we'll continue to make investments to support the health of our community during this crisis.
BoardSource: In moments of uncertainty, it is important to pause, and reflect on the work you are doing. Despite not knowing what will come next, there is value in sharing the positive feedback from your partners or community with the board. Mission moments help us feel connected and reinforce our knowledge that what we do matters and we are supporting our communities in the best way we can. Here are a few of GHF’s partners' responses to this process:
"…what an incredibly inspiring and selflessly humanitarian decision from the amazing leaders and staff of the Georgetown Health Foundation. Our leadership and staff are honored and grateful to be part of this visionary effort to serve our community together during this unprecedented time. Please let us know whatever action is needed as we navigate the path forward together." — Richard
"… I am so amazed at this wonderful response by GHF to assist with expedited general operating support in these uncertain times. I say YES and thank you!! Receiving the funds a bit early will provide support for possible cash flow issues resulting from a combination of increased need and a possible slow-down from individual donors fearful of the downturn in the economy and their investments. Thank you so very much!" — Leslie
"Thank you; thank you for what you all have offered. We appreciate the offer and will accept it. The time we will use in helping others that we would have spent on the grant application is a huge gift in of itself!" — Debbie
"Y’all are awesome! YES! We’ll absolutely proceed using the alternate process! And just so you know, we officially consider ourselves an “essential business,” concerned with the health and well-being of our clients. As such, we continue to operate in common-sense ways in terms of keeping staff and clients healthy and safe. We worked hard on a COVID-19 Operational Response Plan...It was rolled out this past Friday and so far, it seems to be working. … Thank You for your service to the community!" — Rick
"… I wanted to reach out personally and share with you how utterly overwhelmed I am by the news. … I am beyond words and in tears, so completely humbled by the generosity. It means so much! Thank you!" — Cindy
BoardSource is dedicated to supporting nonprofits and their boards through this challenging time. We wanted to take a moment to share this story and say thank you to the funders out there that are making it easier for grantees to serve our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the hardships, let’s take a moment to celebrate the bright spots in our community. And you can view more inspiring stories about organizations doing great work during this pandemic here.