There’s so much uncertainty. This is like white-water rafting in the fog.
Will Berkovitz, CEO, Jewish Family Service
On March 6th we talked to Will Berkovitz, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, about how the nonprofit is coping with COVID-19. Will talked about building and using a crisis response team, figuring out how to best keep serving clients, making decisions during a crisis, and operating while conditions are changing rapidly.
Founding year: 1892
Revenue: $10.3 million (2017)
Primary funding source(s): Slightly over half is individual giving and grants
Field: Human services
Description: Jewish Family Service helps people achieve well-being, health and stability through counseling and addiction services; services for older adults, refugees and immigrants, and people with disabilities; and an array of other programs.
We mobilized our crisis response team last Saturday [February 29th] after it became clear coronavirus was in Seattle and wasn’t a minor thing. That team already existed and, in addition to me, consists of our facilities person, a communications person, the COO, two HR people, and the director of strategy. We’d been building toward this for over six years—I just didn’t know what “this” was going to be. We already had a plan around disaster response, which we could use as a scaffolding, but we had to rework it. Pandemic wasn’t on the list of disasters we had in mind. The circumstances keep evolving. Wednesday, public health raised the level of severity pretty significantly. That amped up the level of anxiety quite high for the city. We had to take our plan and completely redo it. There’s so much uncertainty. This is like white-water rafting in the fog.
We’ve needed to figure out what we need to do to keep serving clients—what’s critical, what’s not so critical. We’ve been trying to crystalize what are the most essential tasks we need to address. Today we began an audit to figure out some specific questions for each department: who’s vulnerable on your team, who has an essential function, who’s cross-trained on each essential function? For example, we run a food bank. Most of the clients are over 60 years old, and most of the volunteers are too...how do we get food to people in a way that’s safe for all? And we have to think about the burden of data collection—scaling it back to adapt to the situation, but not messing it up for the long term. We’re thinking about the technology we need to serve clients remotely, including a lot of clients covered by government privacy regulations. I wish I had invested in Zoom!
Leading through this has been a blend of command and control, and a strong team process. You need to have the right people in the room, and you need to figure out the essential information. There have been just a few times when we just couldn’t get to agreement as a full crisis response team, and I had to take a firm position to keep us moving forward. But there’s a caution here about the use of social capital. I can do that a few times, but I can’t keep doing it. I also decided to over-communicate with staff, but to only talk about things we know to be true—not speak in conjecture.
We’ve been asking the client-facing folks to imagine what their clients might need in this situation. What are client vulnerabilities? Maybe what we really need to spend money on is paying people’s rent. This is where data is extremely helpful. And you need to trust and respect the professional teams that are doing the work. If you do that, you need to give them the discretion about the best way to use the money. We have to streamline decision-making so the professional teams can deploy the money where it needs to go.
We just canceled our funder luncheon. It’s a challenge, but now we have a chance to evolve and experiment that we would never have had in a normal situation. We’re in an unknown state. If you can become flexible in thought, you can grow and deepen your relationships with the team and think creatively about how to serve vulnerable folks in the city. We’re only able to do this because our team is so strong. I’m not dealing with personnel and financial crises right now. This is what we’re built to do.