Editorial: Pivoting in Response to Community Need

by Jason Steinberg, Executive Director, International Sports and Music Project

COVID-19 is creating unprecedented challenges all over the world. As nonprofit leaders, we must decide how to continue having a meaningful impact while bolstering our organizations to last through COVID-19 and beyond.

Though the current crisis feels like it’s been going on for years, it actually exploded rather quickly, leaving organizations to make rapid decisions. I experienced this firsthand as the director of the International Sports and Music Project (ISMP). ISMP uses music and sports as tools to improve the lives of children in the U.S. and around the world. We accomplish this by organizing classes, supplying resources, and constructing new facilities in partnership with schools, shelters, and refugee camps.

The communities where we work typically have their basic resources accounted for—there is enough food, water, and clothing to survive. As long as those resources are covered, we know we can create value by providing opportunities for kids to explore their passions. The myriad benefits of music education are well documented in the El Sistema community—music creates opportunities to learn life skills, find fulfillment, express oneself constructively, and make personal connections.

As a result of social distancing measures implemented to combat COVID-19, our music classes were forced to go on hiatus over the last two months. But nothing could prepare me for a call I received at the beginning of May from the director of our partner high school in Uganda, where we’ve built sports fields and organized music classes for years. His tone was drastically different. “My kids and staff are starving. There are 1,400 people counting on me to feed them. Everyone is hungry.”

Another call soon followed, from a social worker at one of the shelters we partner with in Rwanda: “We have tapped into our reserve food supply, and it’s running low.”

Through discussions with our partners on the ground, I developed a deeper understanding about what was happening. Rwanda and Uganda were in lockdown. Businesses were forced to close. Many people lost their jobs, many of whom don’t have safety nets. Just like that, COVID-19 led to an international hunger crisis.

I brought the conversation to the ISMP team to brainstorm. We discussed the ins and outs of temporarily shifting our operations to support emergency food relief. At first, the questions we have trained ourselves to ask as a responsible nonprofit led us to believe this wasn’t our battle to fight.

Is providing food a piece of our mission? No.

Are we uniquely skilled at emergency food distribution? No.

Do we know how our donors will feel about such a drastic shift from music to emergency food relief? No.

Our initial thought was: This is not in our wheelhouse. It’s not responsible to be reactive. We should stick with what we know how to do—anything else seems arrogant.

Then we shifted our paradigm. Rather than asking the “philosophical” nonprofit questions, we started thinking in the most realistic terms. What are we capable of doing to assist our partners right now? And what are we not capable of doing?

Our partners need money for food—could we start a fundraising campaign for emergency food money? Yes, we could.

Is working to improve the lives of the children we work with a part of our mission? Certainly.

Are we uniquely positioned to serve people at this time? This was a challenging question, but we realized the answer is yes. We have trusted relationships with people in the communities that are being hit the hardest; we’ve worked with these children and teachers for years. In a world where everyone is wondering how to help, we have a direct line to people who most need assistance. Most people don’t have that access. We don’t want to be bystanders when we have the power to serve in a meaningful way right now.

Could we reach out to food organizations to seek guidance and collaboration? Yes.

Could we find out how our donors would feel about this? Yes. We could call them, send a newsletter, and explain what’s going on.

What will we do this year if we don’t temporarily pivot to emergency food relief? The world is in lockdown. Sure, we’re trying to move as many classes online as possible, but with unreliable Internet at some sites, that is not always possible. We’re also providing art supplies to shelters in New York City and sending music videos to comfort isolated folks at nursing homes. But most of our regular programming is on pause.

We had a decision to make: Stay the course and plan for music classes to take place sometime in late 2020 or 2021, or shift to address the most urgent needs of our partners when they need us more than ever. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that the paths toward meaningful impact and organizational health had merged. Not only would we be more impactful if we shifted, but we would also have a strong rallying cry for our donors: The kids who you’ve supported all these years, who love music just like you and I do—they need us more than ever.

By no means are organizational shifts easy, nor are they a viable option for every organization. There are many factors in making organizational pivots. ISMP is a small, lean organization, which makes it easier for us to pivot quickly. But different communities are facing different challenges, and different organizations operate in different ways. Some organizations may be able to swiftly shift activities online, while others can’t. Membership organizations will have different fundraising and communications challenges than will an organization that primarily relies on individual contributions or government grants. These factors combine to create a calculus unique to each organization; everyone must try to assess their own programmatic, fundraising, and communications challenges in as honest a way as possible.

While the path forward is anything but clear, nonprofits should be proactive about rising to the current challenge when possible. It’s our responsibility to learn quickly and communicate often with all of our constituents, including partners, teachers, families, board members, and donors. It’s our responsibility to speak up on behalf of our communities. It’s our responsibility to be honest with ourselves and with our constituents about the current situation. It costs X to do Y for the next two months…but we truly don’t know how long this will last.

Music nonprofits exist for many reasons. The common thread, however, is that we exist to improve people’s lives. We want the world to be a happier place. We want to take away some of the pain of the world. We can’t wait to get back to dance classes and guitar lessons. But until that’s possible, we’re trying our best to address the most urgent needs of the kids we support.

Don’t let the “Are we the best people in the world to do this?” question stop you from doing what you can. We are in a crisis. We need all hands on deck. We need to do whatever we can. Our communities are counting on us.

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