Investing in the Strength of People and Organizations in Times of Crisis

Maria Tourtchaninova

At the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we believe one of the most powerful pathways to transformational change is investing in the strengths and capacities of leaders and organizations to adapt to a quickly changing world and amplify their impact. Over the past two years, we have seen how these investments have helped grantee partners to navigate crises.

Looking across the organizations we support, we have observed that those who had benefited from investments in organizational and leadership development in the past were overall better able to weather the challenges. As one leader shared, “I think my organization was well-prepared to adapt and be resilient in the 2020 crisis in part because of the solid [organizational development] groundwork set prior.”

To support our partners during the chaos of the past two years, the Packard Foundation launched a series of easy-access COVID response programs across the U.S., Mexico, Indonesia, and India, designed to specifically address the needs of organizations and leaders during a volatile time. Following more than a year of programming, evaluation, and learning led by a team from Learning for Action, we have gained the following insights on how organizational development and leadership support can be especially critical in times of crisis.

Easy-to-access, bite-sized organizational development support can be a valuable tool for organizations during times of crisis.

Our partners experienced multiple crises throughout the pandemic that often occurred in parallel. Understanding our partners’ lack of capacity, time, and increased stress, we worked with locally rooted organizational development experts to design COVID response programs that centered easy-to-access, bite-sized support to address specific and urgent needs our partners were facing. Organizations could choose from webinar trainings, dedicated drop-in office hours, and one-to-one coaching with organizational development and wellness experts focused on issues such as contingency planning, shifting to virtual fundraising, implementing a security infrastructure for remote work, and building skills to prevent staff burn-out. As one participant of the U.S. program, managed by the Resilience Initiative, shared, “[The support helped us by] focusing us in at a very chaotic time [and by] bringing opportunities to us that we otherwise would not have been able to afford.”

Organizational support offered during times of crisis needs to be flexible and adaptable to organizations’ and leaders’ changing needs and feedback.

While all organizations shared common characteristics of experiencing a crisis, the scale, nature, and urgency of challenges differed widely. The COVID response programs created room for choice, flexibility, and multiple entry points to accommodate diverse needs. Evaluation of the programs found that younger, less institutionalized organizations were already experiencing organizational challenges prior to the pandemic and found the webinars and office hours an easy entry point into organizational change management. Meanwhile, larger, more stable organizations had more targeted issues and found more personalized outreach and guidance helpful in navigating needs.

As the pandemic evolved, so did organizational needs; our COVID response programs’ ability to pivot was vital to their success. Short surveys following program offerings, biannual participant reflection sessions, and brief conversations with participants created feedback loops for ongoing program modifications. For example, the COVID response program in Mexico, managed by Alternativas y Capacidades and FONNOR, shifted its wellness offerings from open group discussions to organization-specific sessions to accommodate participant requests for privacy and intra-organizational dialogue.

Furthermore, while one-on-one coaching is popular among organizational leaders in the U.S., it was met with skepticism when offered in Mexico, Indonesia, and India. Participants lacked clarity of what coaching support entailed and assumed participating would require significant preparation and possibly even out-of-pocket costs. To address this need for more context, local programs in these countries hosted information sessions and individual calls with organizations to demystify the resource, which resulted in more organizations seeking coaching, specifically for resiliency and wellness, scenario planning, and finance.

In times of crisis, wellness support and connection are critical for organizational resilience.

Participants took advantage of resilience and mindfulness offerings across the different geographies where we offered COVID response programming. Though this focus area did not initially arise as a priority in some geographies, people participated in large numbers across programs with overwhelmingly positive feedback. Participants shared that these offerings helped them build stress coping mechanisms, mindfulness skills, and awareness of mind-body connections. A U.S. program participant reflected that the most helpful aspect was the direct support they received for their entire staff on mitigating the stress of COVID and managing life and work.

The wellness focus of the programs also created space for peer support and dialogue. In Mexico, lightly moderated “coffee chats” allowed organization staff to connect, reflect, and offer avenues for deeper support if needed. “The fact that organizations knew somebody was there was helpful,” explained one of the Mexico program participants. “Even in your mind, knowing you could write to someone or to the coaches made a difference,” shared our Mexico COVID response program partner.

When the pandemic surged in Indonesia, we worked with our local partners at the Penabulu Foundation to cover costs to implement health protocols, vaccination support, bereavement costs, and related mental health supports for organizations and staff who experienced loss. Though these were not part of our original funding scope, the new needs expressed by our partners were clear and we recognized the importance of allocating separate funding to support our partners in the ways they needed most.

Find and fund local partners to carry out the work and invest in their capacity and in the region.

As funders, there is a risk of relying heavily on partners who we know, trust, and who we can easily make grants to, especially in the international context. Yet, a robust civil society requires local infrastructure to support the social sector. Funders can help by prioritizing local experts and facilitators to lead organizational development work for organizations in their communities. Our local partners’ ability to design, manage, and pivot programming effectively to the needs of local participants was key to the success of all of our COVID response programs. Their regional expertise, network of local organizational development experts, and their deep understanding of current trends and context are invaluable resources. Our COVID program partners were experiencing the same challenges as the organizations and leaders they were serving. Their ability to empathize fostered trust among program participants and created stronger programs.

Investing in local partners also makes more financial sense. Instead of funds going to pay for international facilitators’ infrastructure and overhead costs, more dollars go directly to leaders already carrying out important work in the geographies we work. The search for new, local partners may take more time, effort, and possibly more risk upfront, but it is well worth it.

The events of the last two years and continuing uncertainty have created deep and long-lasting shifts in the social sector. As our partner organizations and leaders continue to adapt to the changing realities, dedicated organizational development and leadership support are more crucial than ever.

Investing in organizational development and leadership now will help organizations steel themselves against future crises — especially when combined with flexible, multi-year general operating support. Furthermore, funders must think beyond traditional organizational needs and meet organizations and leaders where they are at the moment. It is our responsibility as funders to proactively ask, how are you doing? What do you need? And to communicate that we are open to and committed to funding whatever will help a leader or organization get through a crisis and thrive on the other side of it.

Maria Tourtchaninova is a cohort program advisor, Organizational Effectiveness at the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. 

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