By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Past Episodes: Over the centuries, humanity encountered other such health-related epidemics. Beginning with the Black Death (1246-1353), the world has experienced at least a number of such health-related crisis, including the “Third Cholera Pandemic” (1852-1860), Flu Pandemics (1889-1890) and (1918), Asian Flu (1956-1958) and the HIV-AIDS Crisis (2005-2012). In each of these global situations, millions of individuals would be impacted, resulting in the loss of lives, a significant disruption to the economy and to the social order. Following each scenario, we can identify specific lifestyle changes, the introduction of new health practices and habits, and changing institutional cultural and operational practices.
By now many institutions in this nation and elsewhere have already introduced various operational protocols to manage the new realities. The massive shutdowns now underway in every sphere of our society are creating a “replacement culture” where individuals and institutions are being re-wired to operate in this new and uncertain environment. But there are specific learning opportunities that might benefit our organizations and each of us during the Coronavirus Epidemic:
- Economic Dislocation: The impact of such health challenges on the economy has been significant. As with such an event as 9/11, there are significant disruptions to the economic well-being of the society. As our global economic order has become highly interconnected, the ripple effects with each succeeding crisis have been more pronounced. As a result of the current economic uncertainties, there is a growing level of uncertainty and fear in connection with global markets. Smaller businesses and the nonprofit sector are adversely impacted as these structures have fewer backup resources and fiscal options. How well third sector institutions prepare for such unanticipated episodes may well determine their viability! We are likely to see a significant economic fallout across the globe in connection with this experience.
- Individual Impact: Beyond the corporate or public sector, individuals appear to be more isolated. How are the key institutions maintaining connections is a key measure of their ongoing credibility and success? In dealing with such disruptions, in what ways will leaders seek to reach out to their members, donors and participants to inquire about their welfare and to provide important updates? What researchers have learned from prior crisis scenarios is the high degree of boredom and anxiousness that defines the general public’s behavior. Mobilize a crisis-response team that can be directly in touch with your membership base, donors, etc. This may be a strategic opportunity using online technologies to program for many homebound families and singles!
- Risk Management: In reviewing studies of prior epidemics and national crisis situations, organizations were evaluated on how well their leadership teams handled such challenges. Did institutions have contingency plans in place? How quickly and with what type of consistency did they deal with specific and ongoing threats? Institutions and leaders can build their reputation and credibility on well they perform in such settings. The creation of a business continuity plan allows organizations an opportunity to have established operational procedures in place for specific types of crisis.
- Communications Planning: How messages are constructed and delivered, as well as the appropriate sequencing of information represent but two of various elements that must comprise a communications plan for such crisis-based situations. Organizations will want to “create a messaging platform from an internal standpoint that is shared and understood, and that staff is given the tools from the top down to make sure they can communicate effectively and also so they know when to defer questions.”
- Technology as the New Operational Model: The access today to interactive, web-based, knowledge transfer platforms and other technology instruments has revolutionized how and where work gets done. If we are learning anything about ourselves during these early weeks of this epidemic, the capacity to carry on core business and educational functions need not be impaired! Maximizing these tools will be key to the maintenance of core tasks. How strong our technology resources will define an institution’s success in managing critical tasks and effectively communicating with both key inside and outside stakeholders.
- Collaboration: Writing about such periods in their article, “Epidemics and Economics,” David E. Bloom, Daniel Cadarette and JP Sevilla suggest that an important outcome and measure is the capacity of organizations to use these moments to maximize their talents and resources in collaborating with other community-based agencies.
- Recovery Plan: It is not too early to begin to prepare a recovery strategy identifying steps essential in bringing back an organization to its full operating performance capacity. In the process of restarting the core elements of programming, fundraising and managing, this provides an excellent moment in assessing how well our institutions and management teams performed during this crisis period.
With each crisis, we add to the body of knowledge we have accrued in connection with how our institutions and their leaders performed. What we have learned, for example, from the 2008 economic crisis, it would take a significant amount of time for various constituencies to regain their economic footing. Each of these types of seismic disruptions reshapes not only economic behavior but alters social and cultural practices.
There will be much more to be said in connection with COVID 19, as it represents one of the first such pandemics to impact the global marketplace, reminding us of the degree of interconnectedness that defines not only our economies but our very lifestyles.
Underlying this moment, may each of us remain healthy!
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com