Fighting Hate in the Era of Coronavirus

By Jonathan A. Greenblatt

As the oldest anti-hate organization in the world, ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) has weathered our fair share of national tragedies and global events.

From World War I to the Holocaust, the Great Depression to the Great Recession, we have held fast and maintained our focus despite moments of historic turmoil. Today, like everyone, our organization is dealing with the fallout of COVID-19, and we are responding to it in a methodical way that follows what I learned working in start-ups during similar times.

Define your principles and let them guide you

In February, I was participating in a press conference with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on hate crime legislation when I noticed he was flanked on his left by his health commissioner, Howard Zucker. Dr. Zucker clearly was out of place relative to the topic at hand, so I asked Cuomo why he was included. The governor explained that he wanted him present in case there were questions about the novel coronavirus that was emerging from China.

That made an impression.

We had already created a senior leadership COVID-19 task force, but that day I came back to my office and instructed my staff to double down on our efforts and to do so fast. This was coming – and we needed to be ready.

We convened the task force and immediately defined the principles that would guide us.

First, we would follow the Stockdale Paradox. As Jim Collins explained in his book, Good to Great, Adm. James Stockdale endured his capture during the Vietnam War through a combination of profound realism and healthy optimism. To put it plainly, at ADL we would hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Second, maximum transparency would dictate our communications. There are times organizations need to hold things close to the vest – trade secrets and proprietary information, major projects and announcements, etc. A global pandemic with potentially irreparable health and financial consequences is not one of those times. With a few exceptions (protecting employee privacy, for example) we would make a conscious effort to over-communicate to our employees, our board, and our supporters. We wanted them to understand the steps in preparedness we were taking even if we didn’t have all the answers.

Third, our most important priority is our people. Period. Full stop. I knew that I couldn’t promise that this virus wouldn’t affect our people. In fact, it already has affected every single one of them, whether it be the illness itself, financial burdens hitting loved ones, or the affects of social distancing. And I couldn’t even promise that we won’t one day have to make tough personnel decisions. But I could promise my team that we will do everything possible to avoid personnel adjustments and that we would invest in the safety of staff rather than avoiding it.

Process follows principles

Leaning into our clearly defined principles we put together a three-pronged process: Operations, Financials, Communications.

Surprisingly, the operations piece was easy to execute. We had recently made “Big Bets” in our five-year plan, which included the rollout and implementation of a number of technological upgrades across the organization that would allow us to move to an entirely work from home (WFH) scenario.

But it was more than tech; we also had been investing in human systems. For example, my SVP of Talent had created a Critical Talent Initiative (CTI) years earlier to ensure we were identifying high potential staff who were critical to retain and who had the capacity to take on larger roles in the organization if need be. The CTI chart quickly evolved into a Management Continuity Plan based on a simple premise: how we would fill gaps at the top two tiers of our executive team in case anyone suddenly was disabled by the virus or went offline for any other reason.  

The biggest pain point in operations was the decision to ground everything early on. Before governors were issuing stay at home orders, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended limiting group gatherings, ADL shut everything down. We stopped all travel, we cancelled all events through June (and then extended that date) and we ended all in-person meetings.

The more daunting process, clearly, are the financials. I had been CEO of a fast-growing media startup in 2008 that ground to a halt when the recession hit: investors literally walked away from signed agreements and financing dried up; advertising crashed through the floor. In the end, I let go 40% of the staff and then left myself in light of the turmoil.  So, I knew from intense personal experience just how bad this could get.

Employing the Stockdale Paradox

By the first week of March, the writing was on the wall: we were going to confront a massive revenue decline resulting from the aforementioned operational cutbacks that would prevent ADL from engaging in our typical manner with the public, with supporters, and with other stakeholders. Furthermore, there would naturally be a change in philanthropic priorities for donors and foundations. It seemed crystal clear to me that while hate would certainly persist, it would be pushed out of the spotlight by more pressing concerns such as public health, human services and education inequities.

I felt strongly that we needed to anticipate an entirely different economic reality. We forecasted a 25% drop in our fundraising, the steepest drop in our history. Some told me that this was excessive, especially before we understood the true extent of the crisis. But I believe all of the Stockdale Paradox: hope for the best but plan for the worst.

To face this imminent threat, one that would test our most important principle of prioritizing our people, we sought to identify controllable costs that we could slash including slowing our hiring, cutting contracts and curbing all discretionary spending. Second, we rolled up our sleeves and looked for existing grants that we could repurpose, contacting donors and thinking out of the box. Finally, our head of development laid out a plan to launch an emergency fund from our core supporters: board, lay leadership, foundations and corporations. It would be chaired by two board members, and it would start immediately

For communications, we were guided by the principle of maximum transparency. Even if we didn’t have all the answers to every question, I wanted to communicate a sense of preparedness to supporters and particularly to our staff. They might be untethered from the office, but we wanted our employees to feel connected to our mission, and to each other. We wanted them to know we are here for them as they worried about elderly parents alone, school-age children with no place to go, family and friends falling ill or losing their jobs.

To achieve this, we instituted a regular rhythm of two to three all-staff emails every week to share COVID-19 updates. We created a dedicated COVID-19 email address where questions submitted by staff would be answered by our task force promptly. And I initiated Zoom calls with each department so I could connect with every employee on a face-to-face basis even while we are in WFM mode. These calls were not only important because it showed the team we are all in this together – including their CEO whose children and dog often interrupted our calls – but it generated ideas we put into action, such as a #WorkFromHome Slack channel that emphasizes health and wellness and became a virtual water cooler.

Adjust your programs, not your mission

Even as we buckled down and adjusted to a very different operating rhythm and financial reality, the work did not stop. In fact, hate seemed to mutate and spread as a corollary condition to the novel coronavirus. At ADL we say we are “fighting hate for good” and we can’t just stop the fight. But we did have to drastically change our programming to keep up the fight:

  1. We have been monitoring a drastic spike of hate with the advent of COVID-19. This includes hate crimes against Asian-Americans, xenophobia against foreigners who are accused of bringing the disease to America, and conspiracies blaming Jews for causing, spreading, or profiting from virus. And so we both stepped up our monitoring and are speaking out to bring light to these problems.
  2. We created #FightingHateFromHome, a new initiative to adapt our work to a world stuck at home. From hosting webinars to launching advocacy campaigns to creating a new “fact finders” program to monitor increasing extremism online, we are developing creative new ways to engage members of the public in our everyday work.
  3. We continue to collaborate with Silicon Valley to stop cyberhate. ADL was among the first to identify the threat of Zoombombing as it became a tool of trolls, then extremists, to harass Jews and other minorities online. We offered tips to the public but also worked directly with Zoom’s management on a series of product improvements before Passover and Easter, when so many of us would be moving to virtual seders and services. It worked, and Zoom’s chief product officer then participated in an ADL webinar that attracted more than 2,000 people.

By every measure, COVID-19 is a disaster, the kind of crisis that strikes once every hundred years. Everyone is impacted, especially vulnerable communities. The human cost is stunning. Lives lost almost without warning. Loved ones left behind to mourn in isolation. And while the human toll is almost incalculable, the economic devastation is very calculable: trillions of dollars and climbing.

How it ultimately will affect us or any organization in the Jewish and Civil Rights worlds is yet to be seen. But there is truth in the statement that people and organizations can be forged in crisis. If you are clear on your principles, and put them into action across what matters most to your organization, I believe that you will have the best shot at not only coming through this time, but coming through stronger.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director, ADL.