Year 2 of the Pandemic: Reflections of Leaders from Mission-based Organizations

Join us as we review the findings of a study with leaders reflecting on what the last two years have been like, how their leadership has changed, and what they think the future of work looks like.


Cynthia Rojas 0:04
Hi, everyone. How are you? On March 23rd, 2020, Connecticut’s governor, as many governors around the US, signed an order for a shelter-in-place mandate. For most of us, this was the first time we had experienced such a thing. Not knowing what would happen to service delivery or to their staff. Leaders were forced to make quick very quick decisions to ensure everyone would be safe. What we probably did not know that day is that the workplace and every single one of us will be changed forever. Join us, as we reflect.

CTMM jingle 0:50

Cynthia Rojas 1:17
Hi, everyone. How are you? Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. We want to say, hello, to all of our viewers and to our friends in Australia, as well as around the world.
I want to also introduce you to our awesome co-hosts, Pieta Blakely and Rebecca Tuttle. How are you?

Pieta Blakely 1:35
Good. How are you?

Cynthia Rojas 1:40
I’m good. Rebecca, how are you doing?

Rebecca Tuttle 1:43
I’m great. you know, you find yourself in the green room, like this when they’re playing our jingle, you know

Cynthia Rojas 1:56
I do. So, I started a little dramatic, reflecting on two years ago. Last month, we were mandated to stay in our homes.

Pieta Blakely 2:08
On the one hand, I’m like, wow, two years. And then it’s only been two years; it’s like forever.

Cynthia Rojas 2:17
Yeah. That’s a really interesting thing. It feels like yesterday, but it also feels like forever.
For some of us that meant, working from home, but then we have leaders who still have to provide services, run organizations and care for their staff. I have to tell you, this, was uncharted territory for many of us and so we wanted to take some time and reflect on the last two years. By way, of a survey that was done in partnership with FIO Partners and the Non-profit Connecticut Alliance. But before we get in, what’s the last two years been like for the two of you leading your organizations?

Pieta Blakely 3:08
Yeah, it’s been tough, so there are some things about the adjustment that have been really productive. But some of like we were talking about before the show, some of the fun parts of doing our jobs went away. I don’t get to visit programs. I don’t get to talk to you face to face, all of that. It’s tough.

Cynthia Rojas 3:35
Yeah. I get that. Rebecca. What’s it like leading an organization these past two years?

Rebecca Tuttle 3:40
Well, I hear what Pieta is saying, I feel the same. You know, you have a sense of mourning from the enjoyable destinations you used to travel to. However, it’s really grown my ability to serve because my clients have expanded even more so throughout the country. I think, it’s been a win-win in that regard, but there are some clients I’ll probably not meet if not for a few years, yet, depending on how this goes. So, e-meeting someone and then hugging them in person are two different things, you know.

Cynthia Rojas 4:15
Yeah. Rebecca, you are also a teacher. Do you miss teaching in person?

Rebecca Tuttle 4:23
I do. I travelled to 18 cities just before the covid hit and I tried to get as much traveling as I could. It’s a great way to see the country and learn about how my work is being done around the country. I do miss that.

Cynthia Rojas 4:37
Yeah. I definitely miss the energy that you get from being in the room with people. To Pieta’s point, it feels like work, work, work, because there’s less play. So, that’s been challenging, but the innovation that has come out of these last two years has been extraordinary. For example: I have always wanted to go paperless. I have worked in the last two years in multiple states, multiple countries, well, two countries. So, I travel often now. Two years, and I’ve had to be paperless. It’s like, wow, this is what it took. Like the whole world had to have a global pandemic.

Rebecca Tuttle 5:39
Yeah. Think of all those little things, the window

Pieta Blakely 5:58
Yeah, going to the office unnecessarily.

Rebecca Tuttle 6:03
I think about one of the episodes that we had recently. I think maybe it was Cynthia, you were talking about, turning your camera on during the meetings. It makes it more personable. Don’t be afraid or shy about just showing people who you are. Pieta, you’re coming into our living rooms, our home offices. And I think it opened up a whole another layer of exposure, for a lot of people in business. Of what the struggles are, and how people really want to work.

Pieta Blakely 6:36
Yeah, it made us think completely differently about work.

Cynthia Rojas 6:40
Yeah. I remember being so stoic, being everything had to be in place. Yesterday, I was on a coaching call with the client. My dog was just wanting to be on my lap, and I was trying to do this without you. Then I said, he doesn’t know that I’m on a call; he has no idea. He’s interpreting this as, maybe, you know, mommy doesn’t love me, or mommy doesn’t work, and so he has no frame of reference. So, I had to pick him up and introduce him to my client who fell in love with him. And that’s what we’ve become, just like an open book, almost. Yeah, I have to tell you, two years ago, you may remember, six months into the pandemic. Fio Partners, in partnership with the Connecticut Non-profit Alliance, did a survey with leaders across the state of Connecticut.

They then did it for the state of Rhode Island, where they wanted to get a pulse on what it was like to lead. What was happening in the organizations, and what were some of the challenges as well as adaptation. We learned a lot during that survey, and so feel partners has done a follow-up survey also in partnership with the Connecticut Non-profit Alliance. In where, we assess what it’s like two years later. Now, I just want to remind everybody, and if you guys have a chance to look at the news, just let me know, if I’m wrong, but to the best of my knowledge, we are still in a pandemic.

Pieta Blakely 8:25


Cynthia Rojas 8:25

Okay, so we’re still in the pandemic. It has not ended. I understand.

Pieta Blakely 8:29
It’s not going to end. It’s just going to at some point be declared an endemic

Rebecca Tuttle 8:35
Yes, I’ve heard that.

Cynthia Rojas 8:37
And so, I hear that the numbers are up again in the state of Connecticut. They’re probably up in places, as well. I noticed, more and more people are getting regular codes. Remember that. I have not been sick, so that’s a blessing, but now as we take off the mask, then we touch more things, and we don’t sanitize as much. We’re getting sick, which I kind of tell you, I’m welcoming. It feels normal, right. So, we took some time and we wanted to share the results now. This survey was done in two parts.

The first part, was a quantitative survey that went out and was responded to by 267 non-profits in the state of Connecticut. We have a lot of good data and we’re going to ask the individuals from Fio Partners to come in and talk about those findings. But there was a part that I did, and that was a qualitative study with 17 leaders, about digging deeper, about what that was like, what has changed for them. And what do they think the future holds for the workplace. So, how about we jump right in.

Rebecca Tuttle 10:00
Yeah, let’s hear it.

Cynthia Rojas 10:03
Okay, so I’m going to add just I have a little slideshow, because if you’ve been watching you know I’m loving this slideshow. This slideshow features, and so we call this report, Reflections from the Field; Leading Through the Pandemic. Again, just to continue to demonstrate really the partnerships that have come together. But also, the investment from our funders, as well as, other coalitions; this survey was also funded by six foundations across the state of Connecticut. So, thank you to The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving Connecticut Community Foundation, Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation and Valley Community Foundation. So, we started the first question with our leaders. What was it like in the beginning, and the onset? It is March 23rd 2020. What was that day like? So, we heard a couple of things. Many organizations went viral, and adaptations were necessary. I’m going to bring my co-host in, because I want to talk a little bit about what this means.

Rebecca Tuttle 11:32
I’ll help you.

Cynthia Rojas 11:34
Okay, thank you. So, the organizations went viral.

Pieta Blakely 11:38
Viral, or virtual, or both?

Cynthia Rojas 11:41
I mean, sorry virtual. This seems obvious now, two years later. Well, of course they went virtual, but I’m going to tell you. If your infrastructure was not set up for that, it was painful.

Pieta Blakely 12:03
Yeah, many not-for-profits hadn’t particularly invested in technology previous to the pandemic. So, the switch might not have been as easy for them, although all organizations struggled because it wasn’t just a tech issue; it was also a culture issue.

Cynthia Rojas 12:24
Yes, and another thing that was highlighted because of this was the digital divide. That became so obvious during this time. One, without staff, they have the proper internet. What’s that called it’s not wattage, but, the, you know, the strength.

Pieta Blakely 12:47

Cynthia Rojas 12:48
Yes, to handle multiple Zoom. Also remember, our kids were home so they were
needing to be on Google works.

Pieta Blakely 12:58
Right, so you had a lot of high bandwidth activities going on in the same house, at the same time.

Cynthia Rojas 13:06
And we had to shift how we thought about service delivery. I spoke to some leaders who told me that their case managers could not imagine working with someone just over the phone. That they always felt like the work had to be face to face. And that it wasn’t all just going home, but leaders had to help staff make that mind shift. Anything else you guys learned from the leaders you work with.

Pieta Blakely 13:39
You know, every gap in the organization’s communication. It just became this massive cavern that got filled with assumptions and gossip. Because people weren’t passing in the hallway. Things that didn’t go forth through formal communication channels just didn’t get communicated. There was no catch-up, and that I think highlighted weaknesses in some organizations.

Cynthia Rojas 14:14
Yeah. The onset of the pandemic, which I identified within the first four to five months, was also filled with complexity. It wasn’t just a crisis; it wasn’t just one event, but will take you back to that time where there were multiple murders of black individuals.

The murder of George Floyd just turned this country around, and it needed to stop. There was a social unrest and lots of marches and protesting around that time. Which then affected many staff. So, leaders were now dealing with a pandemic and health issues people are dying kids are home. You may not have the proper technology. We are having just this terrible time in our history with losing black individuals who are either jogging or just minding their business, sleeping in their rooms. They’re also having to deal with managing board relations, funding decreases, and no one knew what was going to happen. Talk about all these external factors, you have complexity.

Rebecca Tuttle 15:35
Do I have to remember too, that a lot of the clients that organizations serve are already in crisis. So, a lot of grants that we’ve written for clients are trauma-informed care. A lot of food deserts which increase. There were shortages of food, so access to basics was elevated a lot of the needs of the clientele and the community skyrocketed. And if you can’t serve that in the same capacity, a lot of organizations talk about adaptation, they had to find new ways of serving, because you couldn’t abandon those clients.

Cynthia Rojas 16:16
Yeah, and so I thought the two quotes from the talk really spoke to what was happening. So, the first one is from a leader who said, “I had to bring people back because I could see the look on their faces; it was too stressful and we needed each other.” This was an organization that defined itself like a family, and so she and so she decided to bring everybody back. Another ED talked about how they stopped their planning process, waiting for the pandemic to end, and then realizing it’s down.

Pieta Blakely 16:53
It’s not going to end. It’s not good.

Cynthia Rojas 16:58
Yeah, to add it to the complexity about major things. I interviewed leaders who were merging in the middle of all of this or onset, they were changing to an electronic health record, which is a software platform, like major changes.

Pieta Blakely 17:19
That’s what that’s one of those adjustments that we thought was going to take 10 years and then boom, overnight. But all of a sudden, we had telehealth.

Rebecca Tuttle 17:29
Well, don’t forget, people were dying and sick and dying with covid, you know. There was so much trauma that just to be able to respond to that one fire. There’s an ember everywhere around you. I think, it really tested people’s capacity organization’s capacity and also people’s skill. But I would also imagine for other organizations that employees, had that organization, didn’t know about, which we talked about in a former episode, as well, came bubbling to the surface. And they said, I’m going to respond. I can help, you know we can do this. That was really admirable.

Cynthia Rojas 18:11
Yeah. There are a lot of things that make the pandemic a unique one. The speed of change, right. The fact that it had to happen so quickly is one thing. And the second thing, that it impacted people at all levels around the world. So, Rebecca, you say that a lot of these non-profits serve families who may already be in crisis. Now, leaders had to deal with the fact that their staff were also in crisis; some of them talked about their board and the leaders themselves.

Pieta Blakely 18:50
Right. The leaders, everybody’s looking through it.

Cynthia Rojas 18:53
Yeah, I want to go into the next one. Talk about how it changes leadership roles. Leaders talked about beating differently, and so we’ve also talked about that. Actually, there is talk about how. Pieta got a shout out.

Pieta Blakely 19:17
Hi. It’s so good to see you.

Cynthia Rojas 19:21
How challenging, how we had to change how we lead. So, if you tend to be a micro manager, hopefully. You threw that out the window because micromanaging did not work during this time. If you tended to not be an over-communicator, this was the time to do that. We had CEOs who would have done time every Monday and anyone could drop in. I learned of a leader who did videos; some were fun, some were informative, and some were very sad. Because that was the reality of that time, right. But these two quotes again, really speak to that time I had to move. I love this, from a member of the choir to the person who was conducting.

Pieta Blakely 20:20
You’ve talked about that several times that the given all of this uncertainty and confusion leaders had to have to pick one direction, and move everybody in that direction. That it was it was okay to change directions; later; it was not okay to dither and let people stew in that uncertainty, pick a direction and go.

Rebecca Tuttle 20:52
We’re going to put dither in our glossary of our book. Renee is with us today. “Loving this information session.” Welcome back. It’s great to have you here.

Cynthia Rojas 21:07
So, Renee was one of our guests at the very beginning of the pandemic.

Pieta Blakely 21:14
And she’s the one who did these things; she gathered some information. She said, “oh, my organization needs to be doing something different.” What they had been doing, that this is not the important way to serve our community this second, and she just took her entire organization in a different direction

Cynthia Rojas 21:32
Yes, so the first quote was from a leader who’s a board member, who leads an all-volunteer organization. He talked about always having this collaborative nature about him and shared leadership. That works for many people, but during this pandemic his board and his volunteers looked to him. And he realized that he was now the conductor, and that he did interchange his approach. The second quote was from another leader, who said, one day she wakes up in the middle of the night and realizes, “oh my, this is on me,” and it changes her whole framework on leadership. So really impactful in how leaders lead. Everyone talked about it without me asking them.

Decision-making, how has that changed. Imagine how scary this is so you have to make decisions about people’s lives. You have very little data, you have very little time, and you and you have no frame of reference. Yet, people’s lives are at stake. I’ve read articles where leading to the pentagon for many was a matter of life of death. I can’t imagine making decisions without data. We so love data, and yet that’s what leaders had to do so that staff relationships also improved. Because leaders knew that their staff needed them. So, it changed how we led. I have to tell you that the Leadership Science Sector is looking at all those other paradigms, the right ones, or do we need different paradigms for leading.

Pieta Blakely 23:41
This was different from any other kind of disaster, or, you know, a lot of other kinds of disasters. In that, it was happening inside the organization and outside it at the same time. Leaders are trying to deliver the services and make sure that their communities are safe and meet the increased need in the neighborhood. And also, their own staff or being affected by covid, or getting sick or losing loved ones to covid, or experiencing all that fear and uncertainty. So, they had to manage both internally and externally in a way that’s been unusual until now. I think it’s going to get more common.

Cynthia Rojas 24:23
Yeah. Yesterday, a leader took me through a journey. She said, “you know, they have a food pantry and so they work with the larger food pantries and they get a lot of their food from those sources.” But food was limited, as well as donations. People weren’t leaving their homes, and so she had to buy food for her food pantry. I couldn’t imagine going to the supermarket and having just multiple shopping carts with tons and tons of food to serve her clients and families.

Rebecca Tuttle 25:05
I’ve done that before, when I did case management. Because you form such bonds
with the clients and the families. At the end of the day, I couldn’t go home from work knowing that they didn’t have dinner or breakfast the next day. I think a lot of this brought out the humanitarianism in a lot of us, and there’s just no excuse. I made $16 000 in my first job out of college. I have all this debt, $16 000 salary. I love my job, and every time I go grocery shopping. I just bought an extra bag of food for the pantry that we had, because it was so low stocked. And the food in it was not nutritious by any means. So, I really wanted to make sure that these little ones and the families that I was working with, had the proper nutrition that they wanted.

Pieta Blakely 26:00
This brings up this whole other issue that we’ve touched on before in the context of self-care. But the various ways that people who are doing mission-based work are affected mentally, physically, emotionally and financially, by doing that work.

Cynthia Rojas 26:25
Yes, we’re feeling the fatigue now, and we should have a show about how leaders are beginning to exit. Those who can retire are seriously considering it. I met leaders who changed the course of their careers. It was just a little bit too much.

Pieta Blakely 26:48
We’ve talked to people about the great resignation and that’s affected them in the field and outside of the field. But everybody is doing this big re-examination of how they’re spending their time and energy. With increased awareness of our mortality, is this really what we’re going to do. I think a lot of us are just tired. We’ve been doing this in this very intense way for the last two years. Much more isolated than usual, spending a lot of time at our screens than usual, and we’re exhausted.

Cynthia Rojas 27:25
Yeah, and then I think, I have one more slide. The New Normal. What does this all mean, what is the future of work? And so, the second quote really resonated with me. I could define where we’re headed, where this ED said. “We don’t have to bring people to do paperwork now; we use the office to collaborate and socialize and bring connectivity” Pieta, you’ve talked about this often. We don’t need the office to work; we many of us actually do better at home.

Pieta Blakely 28:12

You know, open plan offices were designed to facilitate inspiration and collaboration. Which is 10 or 20 percent of our jobs, at the expense of getting stuff done, which is the other 80 or 90 percent of our jobs. I think now, we’ve got a much better understanding of those two elements of our jobs, and how to accomplish each one. I think, we’re going to be a lot more thoughtful about when we bring people together. Let’s make sure it’s worth it, right.

Let’s make sure that it is nourishing and building. Particularly, because I think we’re always going to feel like there’s an element of danger to that. That if you put a bunch of people in a conference room, you’ve got to have a really good reason for it, that’s just how we’re going to think for the rest of our lives. In terms of getting our work done and our efficiency and the work capacity of a lot of people who function better on less connection and more concentration. I think we’re all going to end up with combinations of work styles and places that’ll work better for us in the long run.
Cynthia Rojas 29:35
Pieta, I love that you called the conference from the danger zone.

Pieta Blakely 29:40
Okay. I’m kind of an introverted person. It’s always been a good pursuit for me. Does this massive energy suck. So maybe it’s just the introverts of the world who are finally getting our way.

Cynthia Rojas 3:00
No, I think you’re right. I think people are questioning things, I’ve noticed. I’m going to end with this, and then I’m interested in Rebecca’s thoughts. I know we’re running a bit over time, but I’ve seen a lot of growth come out of this. So, Rebecca, are you seeing the same thing with your clients and in your work?

Rebecca Tuttle 30:22
I’m seeing different types of grants we’re writing. There’s been so much relief funding coming out. There is so much so many resources available that just weren’t there, but not only that. The Stringent Applicant Requirements have been lessened, so it’s easier for people to apply for funding. They’re giving multiple year funding; there is a lot that was presented to organizations to be able to survive this pandemic. What I didn’t see though, were an additional set of resources to help those smaller organizations that didn’t have the capacity, or don’t have the capacity to go after these opportunities get in the game, if you will. That’s unfortunate. I think we missed the mark on that. However, we could write more grants to bring in that capacity to help those organizations do that. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing throughout this pandemic.

Pieta Blakely 31:25
Yeah. You know, Rebecca. You talked last week about how much funding is still out there.

Rebecca Tuttle 31:31
Right, there’s so much of it, and more is coming. You know, each and every quarter more is coming. What I would focus on right now is, you know, inflation is really getting up there. One of the things to note, is that grants are based on the previous year’s investments. We had an okay year last year with funding, and this year. If funding is a little rocky, what you’re going to see next year are less funds available. So, just keep that in mind that now’s the time to write the applications for the projects and programs that you’ve been thinking about. I would just go ahead and raise those funds now. Also, increase your donors increase your donations to support some of those gaps that you might potentially see next year.

Cynthia Rojas 32:21
Yes, thank you. You had a show last week, that talked about there’s still opportunity out there. And I think we’re going to have a question, because we always go out of time to talk about it. But I don’t think thank you to my co-host, but also to all of our listeners and to all of the leaders who stayed with their organizations, who stored it through. If you are thinking about leaving, kudos to you. And if you stay, kudos to you, as well.

Pieta Blakely 32:59
Have a great weekend, everybody.

Rebecca Tuttle 33:02

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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