On Coronavirus, Icarus, and Nonprofit Ingenuity

Where Icarus spent his time (Łukasz Łada)

Sometimes a fun exercise is going down the etymological rabbit hole, especially when you learn how words evolve over time. For instance, decimate originally meant “to reduce by 10,” though now we use it to describe catastrophe. In light of the novel coronavirus, I imagine many of us wish our organizations’ budgets were only experiencing the word’s original definition — 72 percent of nonprofits expect to raise less money next year.

Here’s a word we see a lot right now: ingenuity. As we know it, the word describes overly inventive people, programs, or ideas. However, before Shakespeare’s time, it more plainly referenced talent or intellect; not necessarily an abundance of it, but good, old-fashioned prowess.

These days — these very weird, unusual, and sometimes opportunistic days — you don’t have to look far for post-Shakespeare ingenuity. And to be sure, these are very weird, unusual days.

Nonprofits do a great deal of things well. Frustratingly, though, being resilient in the face of disaster is not always one of them. A simple reason why clicked for me recently while listening to the incomparable crisis leadership expert, Tom Kolditz. In a Rice University workshop, Leading as if your life depended on it, he mused on how some of us fail to manage crises well because we, simply, don’t plan for them — they are not part of our daily ethos the way they are for military, fire, or police professionals. When most humans are faced with disaster, the result is a frantic game of hindsight and least-bad decisions.

Icarus, falling

Throughout this global crisis, nonprofits around the world have kicked into high gear transitioning programs, special events, fundraisers, and myriad offerings. Some have gone away, some have been indefinitely delayed, and many have gone online — the format of the year may indeed be virtual, and the word of the year may indeed be pivot. And as we make our way through this pandemic at glacial pace, some organizations treat the complex COVID-19 situation like Icarus. By this I mean, they innovate themselves drastically far from their mission to try and stay present, stay relevant, and, more pointedly, stay solvent. (For the uninitiated, Icarus flew too high with wax wings, and the story came to an unfortunate end as he inched closer to the sun.)

Some 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates gifted us a novel idea…

For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure, as to restriction, are most suitable

…or as more globally paraphrased, “desperate times call for desperate measures.” People sometimes forget, Hippocrates was a physician, and he was talking about medicine. In these desperate times healthcare is definitely one nonprofit industry taking a strong leadership role. Elsewhere, however, some of our nonprofit neighbors are taking Icarian measures —

Online, for the masses.

Arts nonprofits like orchestras are offering online performances. Commendable and uplifting, though this is a band-aid, particularly for artists whose mediums and instruments (like double bass or marimba) don’t translate well over the Internet.

Online, for the young.

Especially as schools inch into reopening, some organizations who work with young children (ages 0–5) are blasting online learning engagement, while schools themselves are traversing virtual challenges. The access is admirable, though this is not always their area of expertise, and these exceptionally young learners are at a critical point in cognitive development; excess screen time for brains that young runs counter to recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics.

Online, for the money.

Starting in March, many NPOs began transitioned their galas and special events to be virtual. Some of these looked carelessly put together and felt like excessively long fundraising commercials, during a new reality when our sector hasn’t quite figured out how to effectively engage with donors.

New thinking should always be encouraged. This type of ingenuity leads to remarkable outputs and, ideally, outcomes. At the same time, it is so important to ensure these ideas are mission-centric, mission-critical, and well-executed —

Right, where you need.

I loved reading about Holy City Arts’ Social Distance-Sing, a program which brings “unamplified voices and instruments in an open air setting which helps adhere to social distancing guidelines” in Charleston, South Carolina. A creative approach, done thoughtfully and safely and within the scope of their abilities.

Right, when you need.

Pre-coronavirus, Houston’s Urban Harvest offered one of Texas’ largest farmer’s markets, and now proudly continues doing so, touting “new safety regulations, health measures, and a drive-thru service for online pre-orders.” They are keeping the program active, and using data to ensure they reach the most-right constituents.

Right, how you need.

The Blanton Museum in Austin refocused custodial staff and others around critical organizational needs like writing donor thank-you notes and research on artists. This approach kept staff active during an uncertain time, utilizing inherent and new skills.

The allure of pivoting and refashioning nonprofit work has never been stronger, and it’s understandable. On the horizon for many will be an indefinite period of organizational and fiscal uncertainty. In March-April 2020, Unemployment Services Trust surveyed nearly 800 nonprofits and found almost 43 percent have extensively modified their operations in response to COVID-19. Just two months later, Center for Effective Philanthropy told us coronavirus resulted in moderate-to-significant impact on 84 percent of nonprofits. Through all this, though, we need a sector to return to when the clouds clear, and one that hasn’t drifted drastically far from its founding ideals.

With over 1.7 million nonprofits in the U.S., there is a boundless amount of ingenuity out there. That said, as a sector, it is important to consider the following: Is what we do vital, and if so, how can we do it meaningfully, safely, and from our core values?

If the answer includes an asterisk or a “but…”, then perhaps we need a drawing board to go back to, and not a set of wax wings.

“Occasional humorist meets work writer who also makes reading recipes stress-free.” — Jayla Sun

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Evan Wildstein

Evan Wildstein

“Occasional humorist meets work writer who also makes reading recipes stress-free.” — Jayla Sun

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