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Field Notes

Navigating back to school during challenging times as a nonprofit consultant and parent

August 19, 2021

As the summer winds down, our vacations are coming to an end and those of us with school-age children are preparing for a return to school. This year, the pandemic brings the additional challenge of uncertainty as we help our nonprofit and social service partners imagine when and how to “return to normal.” We asked staff members Barbara TraversAbby Fung, and Erin Rodriguez how they are navigating these challenges for their clients, for Root Cause, and for their own families. Read their answers to the below questions:

  • How can nonprofits and social service providers plan for/deal with uncertainty for their organizations, staff, and clients as they prepare for back-to-school or work?
  • How are you thinking about this as both a parent and a nonprofit consultant/executive?
Barbara Travers, Director of Operations

Companies can’t write a policy requiring people to be understanding of their colleague’s needs, but they can create a culture where each employee is seen as a whole person- they are people with whole lives outside of work and being able to honor their lives and trust them to do the right thing when it is needed is a way Root Cause has approached its employees and this time and it has resulted in folks feeling less burned out…

How can nonprofits and social service providers plan for/deal with uncertainty for their organizations, staff, and clients as they prepare for back-to-school or work? 

You cannot plan for uncertainty. You can only face it with grace, understanding, and kindness. You can plan to be flexible. You can plan and be prepared for multiple potential outcomes, but as we’ve all learned over the last year and a half, you cannot plan for uncertainty. But if you are a leader and your organization employs humans, you can do a lot to soften the blow of uncertainty. Things that Root Cause has done in the last year that have helped to create security in an uncertain future:

  1. Build a culture of trust through constant communication, development of daily check-in norms, asking for accountability, and appreciating each other for the big and little things. This has allowed for me as a working parent to trust that if I need help I can ask for it and it will be met with respect and careful consideration. 
  2. Allow for time: Carving out collective time in all of our work calendars for space when we could not hold meetings was the first step to this process. In recognizing that without building out work blocks our calendars were filling at light speed, we initiated “no meeting” blocks throughout the week. These were meant to be the time for the individual without the pressure of the collective. The blocks eventually turned into a dedicated day of no meetings, which has been of immense value in getting all the work done, while knowing if you have to schedule a doctor’s appointment you have a day to do it without someone potentially waiting on you. 
  3. Allow for change: Being flexible doesn’t mean letting everyone do what they want when they want. Instead, it means being able to see that things need to change – temporarily or permanently – and there are ways to make those changes easier. Engage your employee in problem solving – what hours would work for them while they’re home with their kid who is quarantined out of school for 10 days? Is there a deadline that can be pushed? Even if these things cannot happen, acknowledging that things are hard and you trust your people to do their best carries a lot of clout. Uncertainty can easily lead to fear – fear of illness, of job loss, of failure — and it can be hard to work in that space. Giving your team the knowledge that change doesn’t have to mean problems, that flexibility can be good, that you support them through circumstances far beyond their control, and you trust them to still do the right thing can really help people to find calm in the storm that is being a working parent in the age of Covid. 

How are you thinking about this as both a parent and a nonprofit consultant/executive?

    Space for life in conjunction with work. Many times over the past school year, I suddenly found myself without childcare and trying to “work from home” with two five-year-old kindergarteners who couldn’t yet read or manage the computer on their own. I had dealt with this a few times already, but this one hurt. I was in desperate need of some real solid work time, some space… some quiet! I remember being really nervous to tell Erin, despite Erin’s constant care for the situation of the world and what we were each experiencing. When I told her I’d be working inconsistently during the day and would get to everything that night, she said “Why don’t you take today to breathe, be with your kids, not worry about work. It will get done. I trust you. Here at Root Cause, we work in conjunction with Humanity.” And she meant it. Life doesn’t exist in a separate bubble from work, and not having to pretend that they did gave me the space to honor my family’s needs, my needs, and work needs. 


    Erin Rodriguez, Executive Director

    How can nonprofits and social service providers plan for/deal with uncertainty for their organizations, staff, and clients as they prepare for back-to-school or work? 

    My best advice for every organization is to pause and engage in team dialogue to really identify short-term purposes and priorities and align around accomplishing those things. This is not the time for arbitrary accountability measures such as working a specific number of hours per week; but instead, for working together to get the important things done.  

    For organizations that work in schools or with school-aged children, or have staff with school-aged children, adaptability, patience, and real care for the safety of the youngest people in our communities will go a long way to preserving health and mental well-being. It is clear that we are in for an extended period of being responsive to the pandemic and that we need to be focused on working with mutual care and doing the best we can, not on getting back to a rigid sense of normal.

    How are you thinking about this as both a parent and a nonprofit consultant/executive?

    Until just a few weeks ago, I thought Root Cause was headed back to a regular cadence of in-person gatherings. One-on-one meetings with staff, team meetings, and in-person client meetings seemed on the horizon. Now as COVID cases begin to surge at a time when some of our most vulnerable community members– children under 12– can’t yet be vaccinated, we are definitely back in a place of uncertainty and I find myself disappointed that our best-laid plans are likely to get upended again. My entire orientation during this past year has been to help my team identify and stay focused on their project priorities, and to trust my team to get those things done, or communicate with the rest of us when hurdles were popping up. We will continue to hone our skills at sharing details about work and being honest about what personal circumstances need to be attended to. This way, each member of the team can both feel supported and also support others when we need it.  


    Abby Fung, Managing Director

    I’ve been impressed with the adaptability and resilience of both providers and students during the pandemic, as many of our partners have continued to serve their communities in new and innovative ways. At this point, organizational leaders would benefit from a check-in with their staff members and clients to determine:

    • Based on community needs and accessibility, should services be in-person, remote, or a combination of the two?
    • Should staff be in-person, remote, or a combination of the two? How will that affect staff culture, morale, and retention? 
    • Do we have the capacity and resources to implement the decisions above? What are the safety rules and regulations needed?
    • What measures should be taken to increase comfort and buy-in with the decisions made above?

    Larger organizations may want to field a survey, while smaller organizations can conduct conversations one-on-one. This exercise should not simply be a choice between remote services or a “return to normal,” but a way for organizations to take what they’ve learned and experienced during the pandemic and re-imagine how their services can be more resilient, equitable, and accessible moving forward. For some interesting case studies and interview prompts/exercises, check out Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools Post-COVID.

    Different organizations may make different decisions based on the services provided, the communities they serve, their location, staff, and available resources, etc. In addition to logistical, financial, and other practical considerations, it is important to remember that there are always emotional consequences to any decisions made. Organizational leaders must make sure staff and clients feel heard and seen and that the decisions made are communicated clearly, publicly, and in a timely manner.

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