Alison Schwartz: Remote Work for Non-Profits- COVID-19

by The Campaign Workshop

Non profit remote work - Alison Schwartz

Remote Work for Non-profits During COVID-19

Alison Schwartz: Guest Post 

Remote work matters: With what feels like the entire country moving to remote work  - I have been thinking a lot about what a successful culture looks like when it comes to remote work for non-profits. Having been a part of organizational leadership, I know the level of intentionality that must be applied when everything is normal to create a healthy and vibrant work culture – but what happens when everyone goes remote, especially during a crisis like COVID-19? When we can no longer stop by each other’s desk or shoot the breeze in the kitchen? What happens when work hours vary and responsibilities at home impact how and when we do our work? In the best application, all staff feel valued and connected, and the work continues despite the separation. But if careful attention is not given, you risk staff feeling anxious and worried, unclear about expectations, and disconnected from one another; a combination that is a recipe for lack of motivation, or worse, your mission not being executed. I have been lucky enough to be a part of remote and partially remote teams for a long time, and I thought I would share a few tips and tricks for making this time of telework successful for you and your organization. 

Two words: Communication and Trust. Remote work for non-profits is simply not possible without the two. In an ideal world, trust and communication have been built up over time between employees and supervisors and amongst peers. In an ideal world, you have already tried remote work because you trust your employees to occasionally work from home in order to balance ever-busy lives. Perhaps, you already have some staff fully remote?  But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that telework was never allowed and you are starting from scratch. The Coronavirus hit, and now your entire organization is remote. How does this work? What to do now?

1.    Equip yourself with communication modes to meet virtually
Instant Messaging
We all have email, so pat yourself on the back and cross that off your list. But what happens to those important “drive-by” conversations? Some form of instant messaging system should be required for all staff when approaching remote work for non-profits. Slack or Glip are popular options. This allows folks to ask quick questions of one or more people or post a quick announcement to all staff. You can create different channels for teams or projects. Also, consider creating a fun channel for water cooler type chat. Not everyone wants in on the “Love Is Blind” channel? That’s ok, maybe they want to exchange book recommendations on the “book club” channel. Fun channels can substitute for lunchroom or water cooler chats. It’s an outlet that your staff needs during a time of extended isolation. And hey, it’s pretty fun to have a distraction from that grant report or spreadsheet to dish about the latest celebrity gossip while you rest and reset your brain for a moment. Leadership can set the tone for these fun channels – and always, these are optional – but it will help staff understand what acceptable chat with the entire office is. Trust your staff; they need flexibility in this time, and you might learn about an awesome new book or artist, not to mention that you will demonstrate to your staff that you are a leader who can adapt and show your fun side a little bit – you’ll be amazed at what opening up with your staff can do for morale and comradery.

Video Chat
Your organization should have a video chat/meeting service that can accommodate both one-on-one meetings and larger gatherings, like staff meetings or meetings with outside partners. In general, face-to-face meetings are always better, but video is second best. Think about how often you read someone’s face or body language to better understand. And, in a time when people may feel more isolated than usual, video communication can provide a much-needed touch point in remote work for non-profits.

Conference call dial-in
Make sure everyone has their own number they can access at any time. There are a ton of free options on the market.

2.    Check in, check in, check in! 
If your office doesn’t already have a check-in culture, now is the time to change that. With everyone in different places, those quick drive-by questions may not get answered at the same rate. Each supervisor should set up multiple check-ins with their staff per week—even if you used to do this only once a week. Now is the time for over-communication. Communication is critical.

Do you have a leadership team that needs more meetings in light of the new remote reality? Better to set the meeting and cancel than to not have time for it and miss issues that need to be addressed.
Consider what team meetings need to be scheduled and get them on the calendar. It’s better to cancel than be in the dark about what is happening.

3. Trust
While you hope this already exists, there may need to be some explicit expectation-setting around how to operate when it comes to remote work for non-profits. I would urge everyone to start from a place of trust in the people you hired and work with. Given our ever-changing situation and the fact that many people may be dealing with different home circumstances, allowing flexibility will be key to everyone’s productivity and success. 

As long as there are clear expectations of what needs to be accomplished and explicit deadlines, can you be flexible on when people do the work? It’s possible that someone is dealing with kids or older relatives at home and a traditional work schedule won’t work for them. Supervisors should work with each employee to determine what will work best for the employee and the organization. No doubt both will have to compromise, but it’s important to have the conversation. Trust your employees to make this happen. And don’t forget to check in regularly.  As long as there is transparency and everyone is aware of altered work schedules during this remote work time, trust your staff. They’ve got this!

Is any of this rocket science? No. But does this take some practice and intentionality? Yes. Lean into trust and communication, and everyone will rise to the occasion. Remember, we are all human and we are all in this together. Let’s be gentle with each other and treat each other as people, not just co-workers. And who knows, maybe you’ll stumble onto a new and better way of doing business when things get back to normal. As we adjust and discover best practices around remote work for non-profits, it’s important to continue using the best strategies and tactics for your organization as a whole.

Alison Schwartz runs the boutique consulting firm Grow Strategic Solutions, dedicated to the sustainability and growth of organizations and people in the progressive movement. With over 20 years of experience, Alison has a proven track record of excellence and rigor, adherence to values-based planning, and commitment to support rising leadership within our movement. Alison has served in leadership roles on coordinated campaigns, with state parties, on presidential and candidate campaigns, issue advocacy organizations, non-profits, and in the federal government.

Alison Schwartz can be reached at