On May 21, 2020, CEC’s CEO Sigrid Wright joined other regional CEOs for an Adaptive Leadership Practices webinar, hosted by the Santa Barbara Foundation, to discuss how leaders in our nonprofit community are adapting their leadership practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Listen to the full webinar recording or read snippets of Sigrid’s side of the conversation below (edited for clarity and length).
Sigrid Wright: I’m really glad to be here. I’m going to start by talking about CEC and the impact on the organization – and I look forward to the broader conversation a little later about how this may be affecting the environmental movement and the social sector in general.
CEC was started in 1970. We’re turning 50 years old this year. We are a solutions-oriented organization. For the last 15 years we have been focused on climate solutions. Prior to that we focused on things like recycling, hazardous waste reduction, environmental education, and organic agriculture.
We’ve been in a rapid growth mode for the last four years – we’ve seen about 80 percent growth in our operating budget. In the last few years we’ve been transitioning to network-based work. In our earlier years, we were one of the only organizations working on climate, but now, there are many organizations in that space. Thus, we are moving from individual or organization-based projects that we conceive of and implement, to many more partnerships and network-based programs.
Our team is very energetic and fast paced – comprised of system thinkers who are paid to worry about the future. We spend a lot of time talking and thinking about and advocating for basic human rights like clean air, clean water, healthy food, and a livable climate.
When the pandemic hit, we took a sharp turn at a fast pace on a blind corner. For the first few weeks, it felt as if everything went into a slide and we were hanging in midair. Initially it felt a bit like an identity crisis – it was impacting everything that defines CEC. All of those words I used before – productivity, social connectivity, the ability to work with partners – went into limbo.
Many of our partners – nonprofit, city and county – are dealing with their own crises. Staff were all of a sudden pulled into emergency management.
I really struggled that first month. We went from rapid growth into a slight contraction. Plans we had been working on for years were put on hold. It’s our 50th anniversary – a year we had been planning for many years. This was supposed to be our moment. Climate change was finally on the public agenda. It wasn’t just CEC in a semi-crowded room. It really felt like people were there. Youth were bringing vitality and moral authority to the movement. We were completing our five year strategic plan and about to launch a major fundraising campaign. This is also my 25th anniversary at CEC. It felt like we – and I – were made for this moment. Then we were all sent home.
There are five key areas where our organization has felt this impact:
Gatherings and Events
As an event-driven organization, CEC averages two to four events per month. Even before the official shelter in place, we started to hear about social distancing, which caused immediate concern. We know that social connectivity is the number one strategy for resilience – more than evacuation plans or alert systems. Neighbor to neighbor connections and mutual aid build resilience.
Dozens of our own gatherings were cancelled – from house parties to our leadership breakfasts to our Green Gala, CEC’s primary fundraiser. Fortunately, under Kathi King’s leadership, we were able to pivot our largest event, the 50th Anniversary of Santa Barbara Earth Day, from an in person festival to an online celebration.
Our team has been growing over the past couple of years so we have already implemented some flexible and shared work spaces as well as the work from home model. Although we were already operating in these systems, I was still uneasy with large scale remote work – would our team be able to connect and work in tandem as they had when they had more in person access to each other?
I found that it helped that CEC has built a culture of trust and learning. We are willing to experiment – and share and reflect on what we’re learning along the way.
In response to the stay-at-home order, we moved our staff communications to Microsoft Teams. I identified one staff member to act as tech support and be available any time day or night to assist staff or board members with technical issues. We quickly transitioned from bimonthly to weekly staff meetings. I found it challenging to read body language on tiny Zoom squares; I had not realized how much I relied on emotional intelligence for management – that much of my day-to-day decision making is based on hundreds of micro bits of information such as body language and verbal cues.
To overcome this challenge, we started using Zoom breakout rooms in our weekly meetings. We would spend time at the beginning of each meeting in small groups to check-in with each other, process how we were dealing with the pandemic, and make space for social connectivity. Everyone is processing something – financial impacts, family concerns, mental health.
CEC started in a financially healthy position – we have staff who are budget owners, a strong board finance committee, good financial reports, and a mid year budget forecast that keeps on track. Although we have these protocols in place and did not have to take drastic reactive measures, the pandemic has required us to stop and take more compass point readings, more frequently.
We have instituted a hiring freeze on open positions and we have loaned our Events Coordinator to the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County in order to keep her employed. We will most likely reduce a few benefits for staff and we have taken other expense reductions. We have diverse revenue streams but every single one has taken a hit: grants, contracts, philanthropy, our social enterprise – even the local restaurant we are part-owners of – has experienced reductions in revenue. The Payroll Protection Program has been essential.
Internal and External Communications
I started a weekly CEO report, which I initially only sent to my inner circle, board and staff – but have since expanded it to include my reflections, which I now send to a few hundred of my closest contacts. We check in more regularly with our board and our allies – particularly our elderly members. We offer to help them with their shopping.
The real impact has been on our external communications. We doubled the number of e-newsletters we send out, we’re writing more blog posts, and increased our social media posting. We are exploring new terrain: podcasts and video. All of this has required more engagement and thought from our staff.
The Environmental Movement
The climate crisis is not on hiatus. While greenhouse gas emissions have mercifully dropped, these are temporary reductions that have come at a great cost and are not sustainable without true systems change.
In the meantime, our region continues to experience unprecedented effects of climate change in real time: extreme heat, catastrophic wildfire, drought, and more intense storms. The most recent IPCC report warns that we have just 10 years to make radical changes to avoid the worst case climate scenarios.
COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for us to permanently implement some of the short-term adjustments we have made due to stay-at-home orders: telecommuting a few times per month, reducing nonessential air travel, purchasing food grown closer to home. Resilience is often described as the ability to “bounce back” after a disaster or disruption – instead, we should be thinking about resilience as our ability to “bounce forward” with a vision that lifts up and protects all people and supports the earth’s resources and species.