People before programs: How to encourage innovation and creativity in crisis

Published on Charity Village
Date: 29th April 2020

As service providers, we have been issued a call to action in these last two months. Never before have we been asked to rise to the occasion in ways that challenge us to step up in the face of our own personal fears, with little information and no guarantees. Some of us are left longing for the old normal; some for a new normal; and all of us are just trying to do our best in the moment.

The nonprofit world has been deeply affected by the changes. With a shift to working remotely, navigating new or lost funding, and closing some programs while expanding and enhancing others, nonprofit leaders are now more than ever called upon to act on behalf of their teams. Even if you enjoyed healthy and robust relationships with your organization’s team members in the past, a crisis of this magnitude has the capacity to both deepen and destroy your connections. Here are a few ideas to help you maintain ~ even strengthen ~ relationships and communication during this time.

Building relationships

During a crisis it can be easy to switch into survival mode. That’s a natural instinct. This often means that any activities we deem as being not directly related to task completion are sidelined. The time and energy we may have spent in the past connecting with each other is impacted by our need to get things done and by our current reality with physical distancing. If working relationships were already stressed prior to a crisis, all is not lost. However, you must have a pattern disruptor if you wish to change this trajectory. This is where nonprofit leaders can open space for conversation that heals.

Take the temperature of all your relationships in the organization. You likely have several colleagues who you interact with more closely on a regular basis. Depending on your organizational structure, you may have limited contact with other team members ~ likely the ones who are providing direct service in the community.

As you continue to nurture and attend to the health of your relationships with those you interact with most frequently, consider taking the time to reach out to the rest of the team as well. Depending on the size of your employee list, it may not feel feasible to have these 1-1 contacts, but making the effort to do so in a genuine manner says, “I care about you and I recognize the vital role you play in the delivery of our services.” If your employee list is too long, consider arranging small team sessions that allow you to meet with a few people at a time.

It’s about demonstrating value and recognizing worth ~ two qualities we often strive to express to those served through our nonprofits’ work, and sometimes forget when it comes to our co-workers and staff.

Supporting wellness

There’s a lot of talk right now about the importance of employee wellness, especially as it relates to people who are working directly with those most impacted by this crisis.

Relationship building is one way to demonstrate that you are committed to maintaining ~ or establishing ~ a healthy workplace. It’s not just about physical wellbeing ~ we must think in a holistic manner. We know that the emotional and mental health of our healthcare and social service providers is a high priority at this time. When you get to know people on a personal level and in terms of their roles in the organization, it becomes easier to identify the strategies that might be helpful in terms of supporting wellness. Further, a connected workplace is a safe workplace.

Consider expanding your efforts to support wellness beyond guiding people to use the agency EAP if needed. If you have a wellness committee, put it to good use during this time. Offer weekly actions and ideas that your team might integrate into their routines. Encourage people to request what they need to maintain health and wellbeing. Safe workspaces make it easier and much more likely for people to advocate on their own behalf.

Effective leaders know that healthy people offer high quality service. They are committed to providing programs that meet real needs. They know that the health and happiness of their workforce is directly related to the quality of service.

Encouraging connection to passion and purpose

One of the most vital and often overlooked elements of self-care and overall wellbeing includes our sense of connection to what inspires us. Service providers tend to put their passions on the backburner when there is a crisis or they believe that their heart-felt curiosities are something best pursued outside of their role in service.

In over 40 years spent in human services, I have witnessed that most people experience a call to serve, a calling that has emerged from a deep space of curiosity and passion for contribution. Honouring this call is a demonstration of self-care. To make a difference in the world is integral to a sense of wellbeing and purpose.

In crisis, we may start to believe that this doesn’t matter ~ that we have to simply suck it up, keep our heads down and push through. But the truth is that a re-connection to your sense of purpose and passion can be the fuel required to keep going AND to stay well as you continue to serve. Why? Because passion feels good ~ it is energizing and uplifting ~ when it has an outlet for expression. Internalized, passion can become destructive and angry.

That original call to serve may be different now if you have been in your field for some time. Take time to tune into what purpose feels like for you in the present. In what direction does curiosity have you looking? Find a way to connect your curiosity and purpose to what you are doing now. Know what is motivating you to get up each day and make part of that motivation your personal sense of fulfillment.

As a leader, when you can tune into your personal meaning and drive for contribution, you will be better able to create space for others to identify the same in their own lives.

Creating space for innovation and creativity

Naturally, when we feel on purpose, fuelled by passion and focused on contribution, we become more creative. Strong leaders are not threatened by the ingenuity of their colleagues; rather they encourage it. There is nothing about providing services to humanity that involves a static or solo process. We are required to grow, adapt, and respond constantly, and this is best done together. This time of crisis has shown us nothing, if not that.

Resist the urge to postpone initiatives that were on the agenda prior to March. Certain strategic directions may require adjustment to meet new demands, but don’t fall into tunnel vision at this time. If there was ever a time for big thinking and expansive perspectives, it is now. Luckily, leaders are not the only ones holding the capacity to be visionary. You likely have many team members who also hold the ability to see beyond the current reality. Tap into it. Encourage its expression.

If you are going to encourage a connection to passion and purpose, you’ll want to be prepared to capture the innovation this will undoubtedly stimulate. While we might be tempted to settle for stability and “normalcy” we don’t want to lose sight of the great opportunity for growth that a crisis can catalyze. And there’s nothing that says lip service like not listening to or acting on the response you have just sought out.

Community of Practice

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger introduced us to Communities of Practice in 1991 as a space where people can come together to share a common concern, work toward a shared goal, share expertise, and learn together. It provides room for the realization of both individual and collective aspirations.

A Community of Practice is not a team meeting. It is not a staff meeting. It is not Friday social hour. Community of Practice is a space for the expression of innovation and creativity. A Community of Practice can be a container for creating connection and for individual expression of passion and purpose. In fact, a Community of Practice comprised of people with a shared vision and connection to personal passion is a potentially transformative space.

Consider creating opportunities for virtual Communities of Practice in your organization. As you continue relationship building, encouraging wellness and listening deeply for passion and purpose, take note of the common themes that arise. You can offer suggestions for theme-based Communities of Practice and you can also invite suggestions.

Solicit feedback and input and make room for team members to step into leadership roles that call to them. Make time in the workday for virtual Communities of Practice to meet. Provide orientation and training to support the development of the space. And then trust the process.

Leaders do not have to set the agenda for all organizational discussions. Encourage self-leadership and promote self-agency. You are not required to be at every meeting, but you do want to create a channel of communication so you can keep your finger on the pulse of the conversations and nurture them to fruition.

Depending on your leadership style, it might feel unsettling to “let go” of the process, knowing that conversations are happening at tables where you are not present. Rest assured, they are happening anyway. Providing containers of innovation and creativity does not guarantee that’s what will happen but it does send the message that you trust and believe in the capacity of your team members to accept the challenge.

There is an air of mystery in our current collective experience. We are more aware than ever of the great unknown. While we may be longing for the reassurance that comes with clear guidelines and a solid plan, we can learn to embrace the lack of a clear direction and certain outcome, as an opportunity for connection and co-creation.

Feeling safe and strong in our shared humanity unleashes our capacity and deepens our resilience. We’ve got this!

Elizabeth Bishop is the creator of The Conscious Service Approach. She regularly facilitates workshops based on the principles of the approach both online and in person. Elizabeth can be reached at, on twitter at @askelizabethb, and Facebook and Linkedin at Elizabeth Bishop Consulting.

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