Jeanne Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits
In the best of times, organizations will identify and implement best practices for human resources and personnel management. These practices evolve and adapt to meet the needs of the nonprofit as it builds, thrives, and sustains itself over time. Following these practices helps nonprofits offer our employees and volunteers an optimal working environment.
The practices described in the Center’s guide, Principles & Practices: Best Practices for North Carolina Nonprofits, inform us on how to best operate our organization. In it we have set some standards of best practices in managing human resources. At a basic practice level, we believe an organization should “maintain a knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled workforce of employees and volunteers to perform leadership and management duties and responsibilities.” In the guide, practices that support the organization in different conditions are outlined depending upon whether the organization is building or just forming, thriving, or has reached a level of sustainability. The guide offers reliable and relevant information and is useful for many nonprofit operations.
Enter a pandemic. As I think about the best practices and standards of care for my own organization - the Center - in the face of COVID-19, I admit that I feel challenged. I looked over all of the “practices” in Principles & Practices, searching for one that addressed a pandemic to no avail. Candidly, we did not anticipate this one.
I think back to the week of March 9 – just two months ago, about nine weeks. I sat with a colleague over lunch on that Wednesday and discussed a meeting we had planned with others on our team for Friday afternoon. We mentioned the virus as it was capturing more and more of all of our attention, and its implications. We lightly asked each other, “Do you think we will be meeting in person or by phone?” Within 24 hours, news about the coronavirus began to intensify, as did the virus.
As a result, we converted the meeting from in-person to conference call. By Friday afternoon, with the increasing reality of the pandemic facing us, we gathered together as a full staff and I encouraging all staff to set up a remote, at home work station beginning the following week. Therein, we entered a new era. I believe our work lives may never be the same.
Maintaining standards of practice that address the needs of our workforce feels different to me now than it did pre-COVID19, or how I believed it to be in early March. While I aspire and seek to implement the practices included in our own Principles & Practices guide, I am also trying to understand this new work environment.
What does it mean for our employees, for direct care workers in our nonprofit sector, for those who cannot work because their organization is unable to sustain itself financially, for those who may have been laid off or furloughed, for those with children who are doing double duty as homeschool teachers as they try to keep up with their own day job requirements? If this is not enough, add to the list: what does returning to a safe work environment look like and how do we secure and maintain it?
The questions before us are not so easily answered. We have to look between the lines of the standards of practice and consider how to support a workforce that is dispersed often to multiple sites, in places where we cannot see other distractions, and how each employee may be facing the uncertainty of each day. While many global or technology companies have developed protocols for working remotely, it is relatively new for those of us in the nonprofit sector. Given this, we know that the sector is innovative and adaptive, and we will learn new practices that enable us to manage in this new reality.
In the meantime, how do we best care for, supervise, and lead our team when we have had to move from an office or place-based setting to a remote, work at home environment. There seem to be no shortage now of webinars and online resources advising us on how to do so. We will begin looking at our standards of practice in new ways and adapt them to this new reality.
As we learn these new rules of engagement and seek to implement new protocols, let’s remember the human element. This is a time when all of us are entering into unknown territory. We hear the words, “we are in this together.” What does this really mean? Some of us have the privilege of being able to work from home and for those who can, let’s be grateful; many do not. So many in our nonprofit sector are workers who care directly for those in need. Many are considered essential workers and yet may be earning less than a living wage and have limited access to health care.
This is a time for our nonprofit sector and those who support us to consider deeply our own workforce. How are we caring for those who are on the front line, helping care for our children, providing essential health care, offering back up support to parents now working as homeschool teachers while trying to complete their day jobs uninterrupted. The look of an optimal work environment has changed and will be redefined over time as we cope with this pandemic and as we return to our places of business.
We know the nonprofit sector is a force for good in our communities. We are called upon every day in so many ways to provide a safety net in our communities across the state. This is a time for us to advocate for optimal working conditions including living wages and access to health care. When some face into rather than away from this crisis, let us acknowledge and affirm the critical care they offer. Perhaps the very best practices we can follow are to affirm and value our human resources, our workforce, and in this way, we will truly be in this together.