A Priest and a Therapist Walk Into a Bar

by Joan Garry

What does this have to do with leading from a distance? Actually, it’s one of the keys.

Stay in touch.

How painfully ironic that phrase feels these days. After all, during a crisis, you want – no, you need to feel close to others. But how? You can’t get together in person, and while super useful, Zoom isn’t really the same thing, is it?

As a nonprofit leader, you have to keep managing and leading from a distance.

In fact, you are living and breathing a “change management” endeavor right now as you find yourself changing so much of how you work. You probably didn’t expect to be focusing on that during Q2 when you made your plans going into 2020, did you?

Many of you are on overdrive because of an exponential increase in the need for your services. And then consider you are leading and managing folks who are chronically anxious, some of whom have or will experience tragedy during this time.

How do you communicate in that context? Yikes.

What do people want to hear? Need to hear? What do you need to tell them?

How do you make sure important information sticks? And I know everyone waxes eloquent about Zoom, but is that the only venue?

I help thousands of nonprofit leaders every day to navigate the world of managing and leading. And while I believe I offer them some pretty good advice, I don’t think my clients know how much I learn from them.

So today, courtesy of the leaders I admire and mentor, all of whom are doing a great job leading from a distance, I offer you six pieces of advice on how to best stay in touch.


1. Mix up your communication tools.

First things first. It is hard to create a sense of proximity via email. I hope that when we get to the other side of this pandemic that people will stop emailing a person sitting right outside their door when they could use their voice or their feet instead of ten fingers and a keyboard.

That’s not to say that a regular email isn’t a good idea. It is. And in fact I would emphasize the adjective “regular” in these times. Something everyone can count on.

Tina Luongo at The Legal Aid Society has been sitting down late each evening and doing a daily wrap-up memo. Can you imagine how upside-down life is at Legal Aid when the courts are closed? The heroic efforts of her team and everyone at the Society should be documented. And of course things are changing so quickly. It’s easy to see why a daily email is needed and valued.

So email can be just right, but it alone is not enough. Email plus Zoom is not enough either. You have to mix it up.

Weekly videos are good – a weekly wrap-up or “here’s what’s coming up”. I also like videos that tell a story about your organization’s heroics. Those are great to send to donors and board members to keep their mission fires burning.

Oh, and then there is this thing that used to have a dial tone. The phone!

Pick it up and hear someone’s voice. Let them hear yours. I could argue that with a reliance on texting, we’ve been moving toward social distancing for a long time.

Your voice will bring people closer. It will take longer than shooting off an email. And it will be worth it.

2. More is more!

Yes, standard advice is that more is less and less is more. Not this time!

“I send something out every week – I never did that before – I worry about it being too much.”

I hear that quite a lot. In these times, more is actually better (as long as you pay attention to the other pieces of advice in this post!)

Imagine you take over as the brand new CEO of a several hundred million dollar global nonprofit during this crisis. You cannot even walk the halls and introduce yourself.

That’s what is happening at UNICEF USA. I’ve not yet met the new CEO but I have heard that he is doing extemporaneous daily videos that are being very well received.

From what I understand, they are less tactical and more about what he is learning and observing as he gets his bearings in his new job where he has a team of hundreds of people he can’t meet. But the real payoff is that he is using video to introduce himself to his staff regularly, connecting with them every single day.

3. Bring a sense of humor.

This can be especially challenging right now. But it doesn’t have to be over the top. It’s just a way of lowering the tension. Let me tell you about Fenway Health Center in Boston. I have a podcast episode coming out with their CEO very soon. It’s a really good episode.

Twice a week they set up a Zoom room. 30 minutes. No agenda. Totally optional.

People just chat, connect. It ends with a reflection. And then back to work at Fenway Health Center in Boston. The senior team includes one person with a social work background and another person with a background as a minister.

A minister you say? Yes, a minister. And the informal name of this program?

“A priest and a therapist walk into a bar…”

4. Just be “you”.

“Wow, I received so many texts and emails thanking me for sharing my own struggles during our Zoom staff meeting.”

I heard this from several clients who are learning the lesson that Brené Brown has taught forever. That leadership and vulnerability go hand in hand.

When an executive director speaks to how her daughter is struggling or how hard it is to get her teenage son to get his homework done or the panic she has that her aging mom is all alone, she signals an authenticity that is meaningful to the team. It signals empathy – we are all going through this together.

It is stunning how surprised leaders are to see just how powerful that is and I hope it is yet another one of those leadership lessons that ‘sticks’ when we get to the other side of this and you no longer have to be leading from a distance.

5. Do something special.

Do you have someone in your life that you think of as especially thoughtful? My cousin Jeanne is like that. Out of the blue she’ll send me a picture or even better, she writes me letters. Just like the old days.

For my birthday one year (when my kids at least managed a call), she sent me a vintage copy of a Mr. Rogers book I love. It arrived on my birthday which means she had to think about my birthday like TWO WEEKS AHEAD (this does not typically happen at my house).

You need to be that person. One of my clients sent a cheesecake to a staff member who was having a hard time. It was very sweet. The gesture and the cake.

It’s time to be that person. Stop, breathe, think about your team, your board, a donor, and channel your inner “cousin Jeanne.”

Be thoughtful, be extra kind. Think of your team as folks who are out there in some kind of battle in the pouring rain. And it’s cold. And they come home, they jump on Zoom and have to be grownups (and their 3 year old just found an open bag of flour).

If you keep that image in your head, you’ll see that a little TLC will go a long way.

6. Be patient.

In my small shop, we meet via Zoom every three weeks. We’ve been doing the Zoom thing before it was even fashionable 🙂 – my team is mostly virtual. We meet for 90 minutes.

Our first meeting after the pandemic really took hold, I started the meeting by asking all twelve folks to answer the prompt, “Things for me personally are….” I’m not gonna lie. I thought, “Oh, this is taking longer than I planned – I’m not going to get through everything on the agenda.”

And then by the 4th person, I realized this was exactly what needed to happen in this meeting. We managed our way through the other items on the agenda and did so with a greater sense of esprit de corps.

One of my clients learned that her typical 30-minute check-ins with her direct reports have been taking longer. It could be that extra personal check in time is needed or maybe your team member is just slightly off her game and needs a bit more guidance about prioritizing. Think of everyone as suffering from chronic anxiety disorder because… they are.


Ok, so there are six pieces of advice. I hope you see that they kinda go together. And I hope you find them helpful.

Before we go, let’s revisit lesson #3 above from Fenway’s playbook. Have some fun.

A few weeks back, my colleague Trevor was talking about something he and his wife were doing to maintain their sanity. It involved Trevor dancing. I thought it was hilarious and I said, “oh you need to capture that on video – I’ll show it at the next team meeting.” And so he did make a video and we did show it at the team meeting. It was totally ridiculous. And fun.


In the comments below, please share something you did – or someone else you know did – that was out of the ordinary. That improved how you and your teams are communicating. That helps others who are leading from a distance. Let’s share ideas so we can all help each other in this difficult time.

And please stay safe.

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