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Internal Communications for Philanthropy: Maintaining Community in a Time of Isolation

March 19, 2020 - By Donita Volkwijn

As COVID-19 forces those of us in the philanthropic and global community to reassess what normal is, it’s important to be mindful not only of the challenges facing the communities we serve, but our internal communities as well.  The last month has turned a global concern into a very local concern in the United States, which has, in turn, become an individual concern for many of us.

It’s been heartening to watch foundations marshal resources to find ways to ease burdens on grantees and step in as other sectors find their footing, but we cannot ignore the toll it takes on all of us.  We’ve all received communications from the sector, sharing ideas and strategies for centering underserved populations and it is incredibly important that we continue to build on those communications.  While we do so, however, we need also find and share strategies for ensuring that our internal communities are supported.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, for example, has decided to close its physical doors, but to remain responsive to our donors, grantees and partners, by having staff work from home.  It has meant, as in many organizations, that our IT staff have had to scramble to ready laptops for staff who normally never need to think about making their work mobile.  Colleagues who are parents or children of elderly parents have had to juggle care and concern with setting up work-from-home spaces, which in our area of the world is often easier said than done.  Senior leadership has had to take time that would normally be spent steering the ship to finding new ways to navigate the waters as our pathway forward becomes more obscured and less certain.

Through all of it, we need to center community and ensure that we remain healthy so that we can help those around us who are faltering.  Never has this tenet been more important than in a world facing a crisis that most of us have not seen in our lifetimes.

As more of us start to work from home for what could be an extended period, we need to re-define how we work together and adjust to unsettling circumstances.   As a colleague recently mentioned, “Diseases of despair can take a deeper hold when we’re in isolation”.  Even if we have family members or roommates around, navigating this new landscape takes us out of the familiar and forces us to acknowledge that our world is shifting.  Finding a bit of normalcy amidst the chaos can ease anxiety and provide ways for us to cope and possibly even thrive.

We are all weighing the important question of what is necessary.  Do we still hold a team meeting and discuss ways to handle a new project?  Do we focus on organizational strategy for program areas, even as the need in those areas is changing by the minute?  What matters and what feels like Nero fiddling while Rome burns?

Here are a few thoughts and suggestions to consider for your internal organizational well-being:

Communicate Often

Everyone is trying to find his/her/their footing.  Even experienced staff are feeling untethered so consider how difficult it might be for newer staff to voice concerns or ask questions that they may consider too unimportant in the midst of a crisis.  Ways to support robust communication:

  • Institute a daily “what’s up?” video call with your team – take 10-15 minutes to remind each other what you look like.  Setting aside dedicated time to check in with each other on a personal level will become increasingly important for maintaining relationships
  • “Office hours” for the organization – set up a daily drop in call so that anyone who’s free can pop in and talk to people in the rest of the organization.  These would also be around 15 minutes long and offer the opportunity for serendipitous conversations that are much more difficult to come by these days
  • All-staff meetings – leverage tools like Zoom’s breakout rooms to allow for small group discussions
  • Lend a helping hand – different people in the organization have a different relationship with technology.  If you’re particularly adept at using a platform and/or have some tips and tricks, let your comms or IT teams know.  Or, if you’re a bit wary of learning to use yet another platform, let your teams know.

Consider Equity

Keep in mind that not everyone has the same tools for operating remotely:

  • More schools are closing around the country and childcare/instruction will be top of mind for parents. They may not be able to attend scheduled meetings or dedicate as much time to the day-to-day operations of the organization and may fear being penalized for it
  • Not everyone has access to excellent Wifi. It can be expensive to have a good connection, so make sure staff are not struggling
  • Many younger staff have roommates and are sharing small spaces. They will not necessarily have dedicated space for working from home
  • Lend a helping hand. If you have resources that you can offer, an extra laptop, a wifi password, etc., think about posting to your work community

Account for Mental Health

The world has changed very quickly and drastically.  Keep in mind that people handle stressful situations differently.  For more introverted colleagues, social distance and working from home will be easier to navigate while for those who get their energy from external sources the situation can be doubly devastating.  Isolation and loneliness will take their toll on everyone, but some will be hit sooner and harder.

  • Build in time in the workday to connect with personal contacts. No one can concentrate if they’re wondering if their loved ones are safe.  Communicate that staying connected is not only encouraged but necessary
  • Make sure to go outside if it’s safe. Even for those of us who don’t exercise regularly, walking up and down the steps to get on public transportation gives us a way to get the blood moving. Seeing the sky can give us perspective
  • Practice patience and forgiveness. Stressed out people have fewer coping mechanisms. Cut people slack if they snap
  • Some people will want to talk only about work. Because the situation is so fraught, not everyone will want to discuss the newest updates.  Take the temperature of the room
  • Lend a helping hand. Let people know that they’re not alone and if you have extra support to give, do so

If you have any other ideas about how we can continue to support each other as a community, please be in touch.  In the meantime, be safe and take time to practice self-care!

Donita Volkwijn is the Manager of Knowledge Development at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Photo by Dani Marroquin on Unsplash

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