‘Holding our future lightly’: How Michigan nonprofits have adapted and arrived at a new normal

"We can’t predict the future. Nobody can. So we’ve just given ourselves some grace."

At the start of Michigan’s COVID-19 shutdown in March, a lot of work came to an abrupt stop.


But organizations that support the state’s nonprofit sector actually got busier – albeit from home.


“For us, our work increased,” says Kelley Kuhn, vice president and chief strategy officer for the Michigan Nonprofit Association. “We had to look at ways to help organizations navigate through this time of uncertainty, and help them stay informed about new opportunities.”


That pivot included regular, check-in phone calls, policy updates, and a four-part, expert-led webinar about Paycheck Protection Program loans.


“We’re trying to make sure nonprofits know what these programs are, since many of them offer capital that nonprofits haven’t traditionally had access to,” Kuhn says.


That’s not to say these shifts came easily, given the collaborative nature of nonprofit support organizations.


“All of our work is about gathering people: for leadership development, supporting nonprofits’ mission, or providing a physical space for that work,” says Hillary Watson, Nonprofit Enterprise at Work’s (NEW) building coordinator. “We believe that physically bringing people into the same room is what will reach our vision of empowered leaders, flourishing nonprofits, and vibrant communities. We didn’t have a virtual room.”


However, NEW’s team has built virtual rooms over the last four months, so they’ve been bringing people together online to discuss racial equity, board training, and more.


“Our building reopened in June, but three-quarters of our tenants have opted to stay home,” Watson says. “It’s so encouraging to see that while we can offer a range of resources, and our nonprofit clients and partners are having the courage to say ‘this feels safe to us,’ ‘this feels beyond our risk tolerance,’ and we can adapt. It’s all about adaptation, so that people can engage with their work, and they’ll be comfortable enough to actually really focus and achieve their goals.”


Kuhn’s MNA team, meanwhile, will be working from home until at least the end of September.


“Some of the nonprofit groups we work with were deemed essential, though, so they modified the way they operated, and their offices stayed open,” says Kuhn, noting examples like housing and food assistance organizations. “ … A wave of nonprofits are waiting for Labor Day, as a kind of target date to re-evaluate where things stand, and a lot of organizations are watching to see what happens with schools.”


“Ironically, the isolation has created more opportunities for partnership,” Watson said. “Some nonprofits are finding this is the ideal time to do board development or strategic planning work, because their client-facing work is more limited. Others are finding that racial equity is more central to their mission than they thought, and are tapping into the Centering Justice conversations to expand their toolbox for that work. During a crisis, we’re more aware of where our buckets are full and where they’re empty, and we’re finding a lot of energy to exchange knowledge and learn from each other.”


Both nonprofit support organizations are focused on staying nimble and engaged in this time of constant change. But Kuhn has also found that strengthening the bonds between her coworkers has also been key.


“We’re very intentional about checking in with our team members, to help people navigate and manage the stress they’re feeling,” Kuhn says. “We’ve sent out care packages – we’re teeing up another one that’s about to go out now – and scheduled virtual happy hours and things like that. … Some team members are struggling, as they deal with losing someone to COVID, or with a spouse’s job loss, or with having to balance being a teacher and an employee. So we’re trying to be sure that we’re addressing these situations and supporting them where they are.”


In a way, though, profound disruptions to our day-to-day operations can also make blind spots visible; so while the last few months have presented NEW and MNA with a whole host of challenges, it also offers a rare opportunity for clarity.


“The No. 1 lesson is that a powerful vision will always take you where you need to go,” Watson says. “The nonprofit sector is about improving people’s lives in tangible ways – in good times and hard times, in sickness and in health. The pandemic might change how we work, but it doesn’t stop the work. We have returned over and over to our vision – empowered leaders, flourishing nonprofits, vibrant communities – and asked, ‘How do we get from here to there?’ The ‘here’ may have changed, but the ‘there’ is still exactly where we want to go.”


MNA, meanwhile, continues to advocate for and inform Michigan’s nonprofit sector (regarding up-to-date policy changes, federal and state loan programs, etc.), in part through a newsletter that’s available on MNA’s website.


“We’re cautiously optimistic about the future,” Kuhn says. “We’re managing as well as we can, and preparing the best we can, but obviously, we can’t predict the future. Nobody can. So we’ve just given ourselves some grace by planning in larger chunks of time. We’re looking ahead in three-month increments, so – by not just waiting for orders, we’ve afforded ourselves some extra flexibility, and this allows us to be more focused on the nonprofits we serve.”


According to Watson, NEW has arrived at a similar conclusion.


“Our end goal is the same [as before],” Watson said. “So while we’re constantly tweaking things, from whether or not we’ll be able to have a retreat for our program participants to what benchmarks would cause us to shut down the building again, we know our preferred future happens within a range of options. So we work toward our goals as best we can, we hold the future lightly, and continue our work.”