Reach Out, Reach In: How to Pivot for Success in the Time of Covid-19

By Gabriel Greenberg

Like so many organizations, Penn Hillel’s work has been radically impacted in the past weeks by the aggressive spread of the coronavirus and the measures enacted in response, including the decision by many universities to migrate the semester to virtual learning. 

For an organization whose purpose revolves around supporting student life on campus, students’ returning home posed an existential challenge to our mission and operations. 

Could we still support students at the University of Pennsylvania? Would those students be interested in Jewish life and learning during this moment?

For the staff of Penn Hillel, it quickly became clear that these fundamental challenges simultaneously offered new opportunities. We are not alone, of course, in having had to adapt these past weeks; Hillels around the world are similarly discovering new ways to support and engage with students. 

At Penn Hillel, we’ve taken a moment to step back and reflect on the ways we’ve successfully pivoted since the crisis began. In doing so, we’ve distilled three replicable lessons that your nonprofit, client-centered organization can follow: Get in touch with your clients personally, maintain and expand your programming by going online, and don’t forget to take care of your employees. 

Personal outreach and clear communication are key: All of us are in the business of relationships – they are the currency by which we do our work. In a time of upheaval and change, it is critical to reinvest in your relationships and demonstrate that you are as committed to your constituency now as ever. 

Before thinking about programmatic adjustments or long-term organizational changes, prioritize letting everyone know that they are in your thoughts, through both actions and words.

Run a list of every single person in your constituency. Work with your staff to divide up the list based on the most developed personal relationships or whatever other relevant criteria that is most appropriate. Proceed to call, text, Facetime, email, or Facebook message every single person with both a note of support, and an invitation to further conversation. Technologies such as Mailmerge and Zipwhip are very helpful for this type of mass communication, which needs to be and feel tailored to every individual.

For many Penn students, the staff member who reached out was the only non-family or friend who had done so. As one my students put it, “Of all my past professors and advisors at Penn, you are the only person who has reached out personally to check in. In this scary and uncertain time, your message really means so much.” As another responded: “Thank you so much for reaching out! This is such a confusing and stressful time and I truly appreciate your thoughtfulness and generosity. I would be so grateful to connect for a virtual walk together.”

We doubled down on our personal relationships – letting the students know that they were still our number one priority. Do the same for your constituents. 

Maintain and create: As many organizations have quickly come to learn, there are a variety of apps and platforms that allow us to facilitate connection and distribute content to our constituent groups. 

Educate yourself as to the available technologies, and stay updated, as new forms and modes are constantly being introduced.Being fluent in these technologies allows us to adapt to the changing circumstances where the familiar models can still be maintained. Simultaneously, look for new opportunities to serve; how has the educational landscape changed, and what can we create given the new tools at our disposal?

Zoom, Kahoot, Houseparty, and Facetime are all apps that are experiencing surges in usage and popularity in recent weeks. Familiarize yourself with how they work and how they may fit your organization: can you still host your board meeting, now on Zoom? Can you facilitate a fun reunion for your summer camp youth through Houseparty? Can Kahoot serve as a meeting place for a Federation’s young Jewish leadership meetup?

Penn Hillel has migrated almost all its typical fellowships, clubs, classes and Shabbat services to these very platforms and apps. Most exciting, though, has been the possibility for fresh modes of engagement. Staff have created new offerings: a Kahoot-based Passover quiz and hangout; “Creative Kavannah,” wherein students make art “together” on Zoom; and a watch party for the Netflix series “Unorthodox” on Facebook Live.

Take care of your employees in body and soul: Staff are affected in unique ways by these circumstances. Recommit to the health – in mind, body, and heart – of our staff, supporting their resilience and effectiveness both during these times and in the future.

This moment obviously creates challenges and opportunities for our staff-members as well. Many younger staff don’t live with family and are now largely cut off from their social circles as well. There is also the potential that, without staff interacting in person as before, there may be a sense of drift or ennui that takes hold. Staff meetings become important social and mental-health opportunities to gather for check-ins, reflection and sharing about the work we are doing and what is getting us excited.

To meet these diverse needs at Penn Hillel, we instituted a daily, all-staff meeting, during which we also share important information and updates. This meeting supplements the regular staff and supervision meetings. We also incorporated an element of daily Torah study into these meetings: rotating staff members teach a mishna from Pirkei Avot, guiding a conversation about its meaning and relevance. This has imbued a renewed sense of purpose, reconnection to our work’s deepest values.

We eagerly expect that the pandemic will soon pass. Until then, every organization can continue to support their core constituencies through a sustained focus on personal relationships, continued learning and experimentation with emerging technologies, and a recommitment to the health and resilience of our staff.

Gabriel Greenberg is the Rabbinic Innovation Fellow and director of the Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel.