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Navigating Resilience & Opportunity in a Changed World

By Chris Thomas November 23, 2021

Last week, I had the immense pleasure of hosting a virtual discussion and Q&A with a group of nonprofit CEOs and CIOs to talk about how they’re navigating opportunity and building resilience in this changed world we all find ourselves in. Our guest speaker, Erica Dhawan — a leading authority, author, and advisor on 21st century teamwork, collaboration, and innovation — offered some excellent insights and examples of how leaders can harness this moment to listen, learn, embrace the changes we have seen, and use it to build a better new normal. Our second guest, Cheryl Porro, Chief Technology Officer at Curve Health, addressed the challenge of explaining to donors that investing in technology is essential to achieving nonprofit missions, and why it should be a strategic consideration for all organizations.

In this post, we’ll recap some of the most salient insights and themes that emerged from this lively discussion between myself, Erica, Cheryl, and the participating CEOs and CIOs.

Graphic showing a cartoon depiction of the event

Connectional intelligence and digital body language can create trust, build relationships, support work-life balance, and prevent burnout. Traditionally, Erica said, we measure our working relationships by quantity, such as how many meetings we have or how many people we connect with. Connectional intelligence shifts us from seeking more connections to making better, smarter, and more thoughtful ones. She outlined four laws of digital body language that can help us build a better hybrid or digital workplace, combat burnout, and encourage work-life balance:

  1. Value others visibly: That means valuing others’ time, inboxes, and schedules; making time and space for uninterrupted deep work (meeting-free mornings, audio-call-only days, “get things done” days); setting norms around how we align schedules, how we communicate; and starting every meeting by defining what success looks like and how we will engage. It’s also about radical recognition: making time and space to appreciate those employees who are staying and let them know every day that they are valued.
  2. Communicate carefully: Reading messages carefully is the new listening. Writing clearly is the new empathy. Our job is to create a culture where there are unambiguous expectations and norms. As executives, creating maniacal clarity on our team will make or break whether we see true engagement and collective input.
  3. Collaborate competently: We need to expand from that culture of recognition and clear communication to cross-silo collaboration, prioritize thoughtfulness over hastiness, create moments for team spirit, and make sure they are embedded into our virtual ways of working.
  4. Trust totally: In our digital environment, we have to assume good intent, we have to check our bias, and we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

We must maximize the collective expertise in our organization, encourage radical collaboration, and harness the power of distributed networks so anyone, anywhere can contribute. Nonprofit leaders often wonder how to navigate the endless priorities that continually challenge us. According to Erica, the biggest non-scalable asset in our organizations is management time and energy. Exhausted executives sending “quick emails” to staff can inadvertently erode trust. As leaders, the answer is not having a hierarchical order of priorities, but asking ourselves how to truly optimize our time and energy by sharing accountability, ownership, and responsibility.

The current digital shift is enabling us to maximize the collective expertise in our organization and across stakeholder networks, enabling anyone to contribute to our priorities anytime, anywhere. She offered some real-life examples, such as a services firm that created an internal “Taskrabbit” system to more effectively utilize all available skills, time, and capacity within the organization, and a law firm that created peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing networks for all employee groups.

Graphic showing a cartoon depiction of the event

Break down old silos — but also be careful not to create new ones. Silos exist in all nonprofits, and breaking them down can be very powerful. But how do we do that in a distributed or hybrid work environment? As executives, we must make sure there is clarity across our organization about what different silos do and how they can support and learn from one another. Some organizations have digital lunch-and-learns, where people from different silos can share with each other, or digital “lunch roulette” where individual employees from different departments can share expertise and ask questions.

It’s essential to ensure that all employees can participate fully in the workplace, whether they are on-site or remote. Some best practices for hybrid workspaces include having both live and remote hosts for hybrid meetings to discourage proximity bias; using technology to bring remote attendees into the space and allow them to see others’ body language; and ensuring virtual and in-person attendees can interact with one another.

Treat technology as a strategic pillar and driver of change in your organization. Cheryl Porro suggested that if nonprofits are finding it hard to raise funds in support of technology initiatives, it can be helpful to remind donors that technology is not just a cost center or “IT support,” but an essential tool to help you achieve your goals and deliver on your mission. It’s a product that your members and constituents use to connect with you.

I was thrilled to lead this discussion and hear from so many of our participants about what’s working for them, what they’re still trying to figure out, and how they are finding new ways to support employees and achieve their organizational missions in this rapidly changing time. Coming together to share these insights and learn from peers and colleagues is always helpful and reminds us that we are not alone in this challenge. That’s something we can all hold onto.

Get more insights from our executive roundtables, like our last session on 5 Tips for Defining Brand Identity Through Intentional Storytelling.

About the Author

Chris Thomas, Vice President of Nonprofit Engagement at
Chris Thomas
Vice President of Nonprofit Engagement at
Chris Thomas is interested in how digital enables change in the world. Before joining, he was Chief Innovation Officer at the Sierra Club, ran the Digital Products Program at Greenpeace International in Amsterdam, and has held leadership roles in both tech startups and Fortune 500 companies. Connect with him on LinkedIn or on Twitter: @cxthom