It was February 11, 2020. We were finally launching our new website, a full rebuild to reflect our rebranding. We had finally shed our old skin, InterfaithFamily, and stepped boldly into the light as 18Doors. After over a year of hard work, we were ready to celebrate. We held a staff retreat, ate cupcakes decorated with our new logo, and toasted with champagne.
Days later, our office and offices everywhere were closed. We all know versions of this story. But the nightmare of 2020 surprisingly offered us new opportunities for digital success at 18Doors.
18Doors is a nonprofit that supports interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life. While our headquarters are in Massachusetts, we function as a partly virtual organization with employees sprinkled around the U.S. and Canada.
In the first weeks, even months of the pandemic, things got ugly for many of us, myself included. I’m the director of content, and I was responsible not only for overseeing the creation of new content but editing it, building it on our website, and promoting it through various social media channels and email marketing. At this moment, every staff member at 18Doors was learning a whole set of new software that was integrated with our new website. When the lockdown happened, we found ourselves momentarily in the air, waiting for our parachutes to open.
As everything that wasn’t already digital became digital, I found myself in an impossible situation: stuck at home with my husband and our 3 and 1-year-old kids. Like so many parents, we were cut off from the outside world without notice. It was the middle of March, and Passover (a Jewish holiday and one of the busiest times of the year at our organization) was a few short weeks away.
The good news is, the story had a happy ending. And if you’re hoping to set yourself and your organization up for success during challenging times like these, here are some lessons we learned from everything that went right when so much was going wrong. Read on to see how the situation was handled by employees and managers.
Set Yourself Up for Success: Any Level Staff Member
Have One Another’s Backs
Not everyone was so busy at this time. Some of my colleagues who usually organize in-person programming were shifting to virtual programming but still had less on their plates. (Spoiler: They made the transition to entirely virtual programming, and while there was a lot of trial and error, it was a tremendously successful year). Some of my colleagues without kids took on extra hours to help the several of us who do. Leading up to Passover, staffers who had never once written for our website were coming up with ideas and writing content for the holiday. Others helped on the technical side to ensure our content was ready for the holiday.
Not everything was proofread in the way it usually is, and not everything was pretty. But a lot of content was created and shared, and I’m still not sure how it all happened because I was busy changing diapers and trying to make it to Zoom meetings.
After the first few long dark months of lockdown, I hired babysitters and was starting to find actual stretches of time to work. The pandemic had affected my work in so many ways, and while it may have sunk me to my lowest low, it also made crystal clear what my pain points were. I’m grateful that my supervisors were paying attention.
It became clear that while we needed more staff in several areas of our work, I advocated for someone to help with our social media and audience engagement. As my ability to support this need became more minimal than ever, it was clear the time had finally come to hire a full-time audience engagement director. I can’t understate how long overdue this position was. We had the Cadillac of websites but needed someone to strategically think about how to fuel traffic and engagement with our users.
As I evaluated our content and the possibilities for growth, I could feel the wheels starting to move beneath me again. With so many talented professionals newly out of work, we had an overwhelming response to our job posting. We quickly hired a highly qualified person to get our new brand out there and take a chunk of work off my plate.
While life was far from back to normal, it was miles improved from the spring. By late summer, we even got our kids back into daycare/preschool. And for the first time in my career at 18Doors, I stopped thinking about the daily grind of social media altogether and took a step back.
Here, in the middle of the pandemic, we were finally making a crucial hire that was years in the making. Freed from our audience engagement work, I had the headspace to strategize and plan for the coming year. No longer in charge of all the moving pieces of creating and disseminating content, I could think deeply about just the first part. We had many new tools at our disposal that utilized better visuals, more interactivity, and agile design. I could finally start thinking creatively about new ideas and how to bring overdue projects to life.
I also had some hindsight by this point to know that at any moment, childcare could be snagged out from beneath me. I included the immediate hiring of new contractors in my plan to help with content creation. Come fall, I’d have more hands-on-deck that I could depend on if I were ever unable to work.
Set Up for Success: Supervisors
Listen — Really Listen
The challenges that my colleagues and I were facing were derived from the same source but were manifesting in entirely different ways. I know this because, during our staff meetings, which were scheduled to be more frequent than pre-pandemic, our CEO encouraged us to share what was going on in our lives. We had a leg up since we’re used to meeting via Zoom, and now that everyone was working from home, it brought us closer together.
Along with our other leadership staff and our board, our CEO continued to keep tabs on each of us. While so many people were being laid off from all kinds of jobs left and right, my CEO wanted to know how we felt. She sent us a survey to better understand how the situation affected our work and our mental health. She asked us multiple times what we needed and how she could help. We got on Slack so we’d have a place to connect about what was going on in our lives. While so many things were collapsing around us, 18Doors secured a PPP loan, and staff were urged to practice self-care.
Support People, Not Just Positions
Come summer, things weren’t much better at home. My daughter, the older of the two, had daily meltdowns that were so dark, desperate, and helpless, they broke my heart, and we both wound up sobbing. My husband and I would alternate stealing minutes anywhere we could work, and it wasn’t adding up to much.
My boss had been tracking my progress and gave me permission to be totally honest about my situation. If I didn’t know I had her support, I would have sugar-coated it and tried to muddle through, which would have helped no one. While my situation was understandable, we also had a shiny new website to maintain and funders who wanted to see what we would produce with their grant money. There was certainly pressure to deliver. But we had pared my responsibilities down to the absolute necessities, and it still wasn’t sustainable.
We had another deadline staring us in the face — the High Holidays. I knew I needed help, and I trusted that my boss would have my back. Sure enough, I got the go-ahead to quickly hire a contractor for the rest of the summer to take over Facebook. I hired babysitters and started planning content for the next holiday.
I thought hard not just about what content I felt we needed (the old, under-staffed way of thinking), but what I honestly thought success would look like and the resources I needed to achieve it. I spent hours thinking about our organization’s big picture, where the gaps and opportunities were, and analyzing data on what our visitors were looking for and what they were looking at.
This type of planning and strategizing is simply not possible when you’re stretched too thin at a nonprofit. The daily needs outweigh the big picture. It takes your company investing in you and your work to give you a small percentage of time in your day, week, or month.
My plan was not cheap — and I wouldn’t be able to do it alone. I asked to hire new contractors and more freelancers to help write the content and support on the production side. I could no longer be an island. Creating a larger quantity of professional content that was well-thought-out, proofread, and beautifully designed required multiple people contributing along the way.
Where We Are Now
I presented my plan to my supervisors and figured that whatever they approved would be a huge step forward. There were many questions, but they ultimately supported my ideas with a green light to start hiring immediately. In the last quarter of 2020, I had already onboarded two part-time contractors helping to keep the wheels in motion even when the unexpected in our new pandemic lives inevitably happened. In the fall, I drenched our website in visually appealing, useful new content for the High Holidays and Hanukkah. We offered tons of exciting virtual programming. Our audience engagement director learned quickly and shared everything we had to offer.
Going into 2021, it’s the first year I have a clear plan of what I hope to accomplish. I’ve never felt so proud of the work I’m doing, and it’s still a shock to me that this happened during such a challenging year.
As anyone who works at a lean nonprofit knows, there will always be roadblocks. But we do what we do because we care about the work and the people we help. The best advice I can offer from this experience is that if you are in a position where you love what you do but need more support to succeed: Make your voice heard. Keep on asking. The time isn’t always right, unfortunately. But when it does seem right, ask again. And if you are in a leadership position, be open to change even if it’s risky, and empower your staff to try new approaches even if they might fail. Invest in them by supporting them during the hard times. That’s when you’ll find out how strong you really are.
Can your organization benefit from better teamwork and communication? You’ll learn valuable skills when you enroll in upcoming courses like Foundations for Successful Remote and Distributed Teams or Mindful Leadership in Trying Times.