April 28, 2020

Voices from the Field: How City Year Detroit and TSNE MissionWorks Are Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis

In "Voices from the Field," Bridgespan periodically shares conversations we’re having with nonprofit leaders like you on how they are responding to the current crisis and planning for the future. We hope their experiences provide useful perspectives on managing through these current times.

As nonprofit leaders, your goal is to create as much clarity and confidence as you can in uncertain times. Based on what we at Bridgespan have been seeing during the past several weeks, uncertainty will be the only certainty we can count on in the coming months.

At the same time, we’re also seeing that, like many periods of disruption, the COVID-19 crisis has its own life cycle. Knowing where your organization is in the cycle can determine how you should act. Of course, not every organization will move through a crisis in the same way. Your response will depend on the crisis’ impact on your organization and community.

We recently spoke with Elaine Ng, CEO of TSNE MissionWorks, and Andrew Stein, vice president and executive director of City Year Detroit, about their experiences developing a response strategy during the pandemic. The profiles that follow offer a glimpse into how their organizations developed plans that respected organizational values and guiding principles, while planning for an uncertain future that may include different scenarios.

TSNE MissionWorks: Dealing with a Crisis when Already Under Stress

When COVID-19 hit the East Coast of the United States, Ng and her executive team at TSNE MissionWorks were smack in the middle of dealing with a budget deficit. Despite this incredibly unfortunate timing, Ng’s team completely rebuilt its budget from scratch, using its guiding values and principles to anchor decision making.

When forecasting possible budget cuts in the future, for example, the team chose to preserve its staff’s health benefits and living wage, a TSNE core value in the high-rent city of Boston. With equity top of mind, TSNE also decided that its early cost-cutting measures would be directed to non-personnel areas first, such as pausing the employer contribution to retirement benefits for one year. This ensured the preservation of a public transportation subsidy for staff. TSNE also developed a model for implementing one-year scaled pay cuts for the senior team—those in the highest income tiers including Ng as the CEO.

You need to know your values deeply before you enter crisis so you’re not purely reactive.

Elaine Ng, CEO, TSNE MissionWorks

And as for services, knowing that remaining open to serve its projects in 26 states was a guiding principle, Ng and her team created a plan to equitably distribute open-door responsibilities among staff members. “You need to know your values deeply before you enter crisis so you’re not purely reactive,” Ng says. “If we cannot close our doors, we had to assure we would balance the load, and stress, of that work across our team.”

To manage change on a daily and weekly basis, while creating space to project scenarios ahead from six to 18 months, TSNE created a “rapid response” team that included senior leadership and non-leadership representatives. “Doing so helped us get more minds wrapped around our challenges and also helped us with equity,” Ng says. The rapid response team made time-sensitive operational decisions, and served as a critical source of timely information and feedback for the senior team as it sought to stabilize cash flow in anticipation of a short- and medium-term drops in donor dollars—and what those meant for TSNE staff and clients.

City Year Detroit: Supporting Students in the Field

Each year, City Year Detroit places more than 100 AmeriCorps workers in 11 Detroit public schools, where they help students in a wide range of programs and activities. When COVID-19 hit, Andrew Stein and the City Year leadership team immediately set to meet the needs of its community—including staff, Corps workers, and students. This meant creating safe ways for Corps members to complete their service year and have the option to receive their full stipend and Segal education awards, while also supporting the needs of students and their communities, who are some of the systemically under-resourced in Detroit. This was, as one might imagine, a challenge—as City Year Detroit needed to balance protecting staff and students with the responsibility the organization felt towards the public health outcomes of the broader community. City Year quickly moved to providing virtual options for learning, development, and connection for AmeriCorps members to balance these two needs.

Don't let the daily issues bleed into the longer-term planning, and vice versa. The job of the crisis team is to deal with the now and next week. The job of the senior team…looking out as far as six or 12 months.

Andrew Stein, Vice President and Executive Director, City Year Detroit

As Stein and his team look towards the next six months, they are prioritizing their pipeline of AmeriCorps volunteers, the lifeblood of the organization. City Year typically recruits Corps members from college campuses, which are now closed, so they are exploring the idea of recruiting in a different way in the near term. In addition, the team is already starting to ramp up for the huge challenge facing them in the fall of 2020 as students return to school after losing months of face-to-face education.

City Year Detroit set up a crisis response team that monitored and reported on daily issues and challenges and shared them with the leadership team. Stein says that having overlapping crisis management and senior leadership teams can work, but he cautions that each team should stick to its agenda. “Don’t let the daily issues bleed into the longer-term planning, and vice versa,” he says. “The job of the crisis team is to deal with the now and next week. The job of the senior team is to work up to where it’s looking out as far as six or 12 months.”

Stein recommends sharing principles and priorities with stakeholders in writing to bring them closer. But he warns against sharing long-term planning with staff too early in a crisis. “As a leader, my instinct was to think out months and even a year. When I communicated these thoughts with my team, I created stress for folks who had more immediate, daily concerns like feeding their families and getting to work.”

Lessons Learned

When developing plans for various scenarios, don’t try to reinvent the wheel or create the perfect response. Focus on “good enough” scenarios that get you through the day-to-day drama but charge your leadership team with longer-term planning. Says Bridgespan partner Meera Chary, “This crisis is both a marathon and a sprint—being able to manage the short-term crisis while also thinking into the future is hard, but will likely be necessary to ensure that nonprofits cannot just survive, but thrive, coming out of this.”

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