True Leadership in the Time of Corona

by Joan Garry

You may find this story hard to read. It’s about an action taken by a nonprofit leader in time of crisis. Take a minute to consider three key lessons.

You may find this story hard to read. I did.

It was told to me by a member of the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, my online training and support platform for leaders of small nonprofits.

Cathy runs a residence for people with dementia. The vast majority of her patients are elderly, many with all sorts of underlying conditions. Cathy and her team are being vigilant and as of the time she told me this story, no one in her organization had been touched by COVID-19.

But Cathy is not living under a rock. She reached out to me with a draft letter and I offered to help to edit it. It’s the letter she needs to have at the ready. That tells her community that one of the residents has succumbed to the virus.

In a future blog post, I may offer the before and after version as a different kind of lesson, but that’s not my point for today.

(Update: Here is a link to the future blog post with the before and after versions of the letter.)

Today it is about the action her organization took. Take a minute to consider all the components of that story. There are three key lessons.


Oh yes, I know that was a grim story. And I usually try to bring humor to my blog. But today I’m really focused on the practical. On what leadership looks like in the darkest of days.

Lesson 1: Anticipation

A good leader solves problems. A great one anticipates. That is why great leaders have crisis management plans. There’s a reason in my own book about nonprofit leadership, I dedicate a full chapter to crisis management. Leaders must ask the hard question and demand that space be created to talk it through – staff and board.

What is the worst thing that could happen?

You ask it and then you brainstorm all the different actions you can take right now to be ready IF that happens.

I know this is not the only action that Cathy has taken. And it’s not because she told me. Why do I know? Because Cathy’s action illustrates that she is thinking ahead. She is planning. The story tells us that Cathy is leading well because she is anticipating.

Lesson 2: Communicate Well

So consider the timing. Do you think Cathy is in a great state of mind to write this particular letter well right now? Well how much more difficult if she waited until it’s truly needed?

Here’s what we all know. If this organization loses a client to the virus, all hell will break loose. That would be a very hard time for even the best leader to communicate well. She’ll forget to include something, or miss an opportunity to create a sense of confidence amidst crisis.

Cathy’s letter is very good. It allows members of the organization’s “tribe” – staff, volunteers, board members, donors, families of the clients – to feel cared for – the letter brings everyone together (yes, another blog post coming on this topic).

Lesson 3: Reinforce Your Commitment to Your Mission

Cathy’s letter is an opportunity to remind her constituents about the organization’s commitment to its clients, the quality care it has always provided and that the community can and should expect.

And to remind the ‘tribe’ that caring for our elderly is what good people do. Especially now.


Here’s what I hope you will consider doing this coming week. You are going to find that my practical advice is going to be more “bite-sized” than it might typically be. Not baby steps because we need leaders to take big steps.

  • What Could Happen?

    Take 90 minutes and have a video call with a few key people – your board chair, a key staffer, a rock star board member, maybe someone in the organization’s ‘universe’ who is just smart. Keep it simple and do not allow for people to spin out. What are 3-5 things we can do right now to anticipate what could happen in the next few weeks? Next month? Feel free to share this blog post with the group ahead or even scan the crisis management chapter of my book and send it around ahead (my publisher will not like this suggestion but I’ll ask for forgiveness not permission here).

  • Who Needs To Hear What?

    Make a list of your audiences. For example, Cathy has this list – clients, client families, donors, volunteers, board members, community, media. Create a Word document and insert a table. One column is the audience and the other column should ask this question… no more than three bullet points… What does that audience need to know, feel, do? That’s it. Not paragraphs. Make them headlines. Check your gut with a staffer or use it as an agenda item for your next co-pilot meeting (Chair/Executive Director). In fact, maybe each of you should do the exercise independently and share – you’d learn a lot about each other and how you think during tough times.

  • Your Work Matters

    One of my biggest frustrations this past month is not my inability to buy Purell. It’s listening to nonprofit leaders use the word “only.” I hear it a lot from folks who run small to mid-sized arts organizations.“Well, we only bring chamber music to XYZ audiences.”I am telling you right now. Remove the word “only” from your vocabulary in this context. Tell everyone in the organization that you have zero tolerance for any judgment about whether your mission is less worthy than some other nonprofit. That is NOT how this nonprofit world works.The land of nonprofits is like an orchestra. Each organization, each sector is like an instrument. The work of the orchestra is to build a more civil society, and help to create a more perfect union. In that analogy, every instrument matters. Full stop.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be focusing on how I can best support nonprofit leaders during this surreal time in our history. From how to engage your board to maintaining your sanity to nurturing your donors to the power of the ‘fireside chat,’ I’ll be offering advice I hope you will find uniquely helpful at this time.

My team and I will monitor comments below especially closely so I encourage you to comment with a topic you’d like me to add to the list. I may not get to all of them but it will allow me to feel the pulse (I know it’s racing) of readers and it should result in content that is more resonant, applicable and supportive.

I hope you’ll jump onto my email list so I can let you know each time a new post goes live. Please know how much I support you and let’s hope we’re on the other side of this as soon as possible.

Please stay safe and healthy.

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