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2020: Lessons in seeing things differently

by Anu Prasad
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Artwork by Rajat Patle

 ‘One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.

Then, smiling at the man, he said…“I made a difference for that one.”’

– Loren Eisley

The year 2020 was like no other. It made the entire world pause. It united us in our collective fears, insecurities, and anxieties. It tested our resilience, empathy, generosity, and humaneness, and exposed the best and the worst in humankind.

The pandemic spared no one—not the old or the young, not the rich or the poor, not the private sector or the public sector. Yet, it impacted people differently, depending on which rung of our society they stood. The migrant tragedy in India was a symptom of ours being a poor country with no social protection. There were countless stories of apathy and indifference, of the poor being relieved of employment with no safety net at all, of the ill being left to die alone, of children who could not go to school, of hunger, starvation, and despondency.

However, there were also many silver linings that reaffirmed one’s faith in humanity. We saw organisations, communities, and individuals come together to coordinate relief efforts and deliver food, safety kits, school supplies, and so many other essentials. Some helped transport migrants back to their villages; many provided learning equipment to children who suddenly had to attend school online. There are a million stories of frontline health workers who risked their lives daily to take care of the sick. The development sector came together in unprecedented ways to collaborate and create a significant impact.

As the head of a young social enterprise, I experienced a very real existential crisis both at the personal and the organisational level. Like several other founders of non-profits, I wondered if we could pull through this period, especially with funding drying up as a lot of philanthropic capital went toward COVID relief. Looking back at the last nine months, and how we have survived, has given me some important lessons to navigate the next few years as the world tries to recover and heal.

Practise Ethical Leadership

Nothing tests one’s leadership qualities and values like a crisis. It is also the time to reflect on one’s own leadership style and consciously evolve as a leader for all times. As my favourite leadership teacher, Adam Grant says, ‘Unethical leaders rationalize their actions after the fact. Ethical leaders question their judgment in the moment. Unethical leaders throw others under the bus. Ethical leaders stand in front of the bus.’  Organisations that support their employees during hard times are the ones who will garner the most goodwill and loyalty when the pandemic ends and when it’s time to rebuild.

With work from home becoming the new norm, employees must juggle several roles at the same time. The boundaries between work and home have blurred completely, placing an additional burden particularly on women, who already have a disproportionate share of housework. I have had several memorable official meetings with the children peeping in and out of the camera. This is the new reality and we need to embrace it to create more humane organisations.

Build a Culture of Trust and Strong Communication

As a team spread across the country, members found themselves in various stages of isolation and desolation, with or without family, unable to meet. What kept us together—and productive—was the deep trust that we had built over the last three years. A culture of honest communication and feedback also proved invaluable.

After initial concerns about not being able to work together in the familiar format, we realised that we needed to make the best of a terrible situation and adapt to a new normal that felt uncertain and fragile. As a leadership development organisation for the social sector, we conducted all our programs offline, in lively and experiential classroom settings, before the pandemic hit us. Before lockdown, we were in the last stages of preparation for our nine-day ILSS Leadership Program. While we had to cancel the program, the team quickly rallied around and built out an impressive range of online learning modules and blended programs that made sure the learning never stopped for us or our participants. All along, I also kept my anchor donor apprised of important decisions we were making as an organisation.

We often underestimate the value of communication and openness in building a trusting relationship. But you can turn to your team/client/donor/well-wisher during a crisis only if you have taken the trouble of building a trusting relationship before that.

Adopt Agility and Flexibility

Anticipating the tough times ahead, one of the first things we did in March 2020 was to cut down our budgets and spends. The leadership team voluntarily took salary cuts, and we presented a leaner budget to our donor. This showed a presence of mind that understood that everyone was hurting and, by being mindful of our costs, we were showing a sense of responsibility towards the donor and towards ourselves. We wanted to live for another day and if it meant hunkering down for a period and work on a skeletal budget, then so be it.

Every crisis is an opportunity is a mantra I would repeat to myself daily. I saw many use this opportunity of an enforced lockdown to cultivate a learning mindset. We launched an online fundraising program amid the pandemic and, contrary to conventional wisdom, we were inundated with applications. It was almost like those struggling for funds realised that they need this time to learn how to be better at it. A culture of continuous learning will help us adapt to the changing world more effectively. The pandemic has shown us the fluidity of situations—and a learning mindset will allow us to develop the agility required to respond to situations as they emerge.

Learn to Cooperate and Collaborate

The enormity of the crisis unfolding needed all of us to come together as one to respond effectively to the situation. The development sector organised itself across various multi-stakeholder platforms to provide relief. Give India’s COVID response campaign alone, for example, helped pool Rs. 220 crores from small and large donors to help 250 NGOs provide critical relief efforts to the last mile. We even saw collaborations in the corporate sector where companies leveraged each other’s supply chain to reach end beneficiaries. In the new normal world, we will all need to collaborate, complement each other’s strengths, and support each other as new, unpredictable challenges emerge.

Become a Unit of Change

What the pandemic has also taught us is that every individual’s effort counts in healing a wounded world. It has been an important reminder of the interconnectedness of our lives. India is a country that provides umpteen opportunities to do good and to make a difference every day. The pandemic revealed the deep inequalities that continue to make our democracy an unfinished project. It also gives us the opportunity and the responsibility to look around us, understand why these inequalities exist, and do our bit to change the status quo. We don’t have to do big things, even minor efforts matter—remember the story of the starfish?

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