By Kevin Peterson, 2020 YNPN.GR Board Co-Chair and 2019 YNPN National Chapter Support Fellow
Like many of you, the COVID-19 pandemic has given me cause to take stock and reflect on past experiences. During this period of reflection, I’ve found my time spent as the Chapter Support Fellow for the National Young Nonprofit Professionals Network is more salient today than I previously realized. It was in this role that I developed experience working within and supporting remote teams.
Over the course of a year, I curated and lead a series of e-learning professional development opportunities, helped support a remote board, served as a main point of contact for chapters, planned a national conference, and collaborated with three other fellows that were scattered across the country. Then, like now, I was thankful for a strong internet connection.
My experience has helped prepare me at least a little for the transition that would come with the stay-at-home order. While I would argue the order is necessary, it is abundantly clear that it poses a distinct challenge to being in and developing a sense of community. As people across the world flock to Zoom and Facebook chat filters to overcome this challenge, we are all grappling with grief and trauma at the same time – in this stressful time we have to ask can we really connect with one another, can we still get things done, can we continue to grow professionally, and can we do it all virtually?
I was first asked to address these questions as the Chapter Support Fellow. As you may be aware, the National Network is comprised of 44 chapters across the country (with a couple in Canada too!) and while the chapters share a common mission and passion, there was a distinct spatial challenge to connecting and it was part of my role to overcome this. To be honest with you, it was difficult. We set up quarterly meetings, monthly professional development opportunities, and a quarterly “onboarding” session yet we struggled to get people to engage in a virtual platform. A statement that became common was on a good day YNPN was someone’s fourth priority – often behind work, a significant other, and the daily operations of their chapter. Well my friends these are not good days and, rightfully so, priorities have shifted dramatically. There were however some practices that we implemented that helped our internal team build trust and stay connected and I believe that these same practices can be just as helpful today and can assist you in maintaining a sense of community with those you work with and those you support.
1. Start a Blog Club
Have you ever joined a book club just to have half the members not show up, a quarter watch the movie, and the rest skimmed the book? Yeah, even when we’re not in a crisis nobody has time for that. What I would suggest instead is find a blog that you enjoy, is relevant to your mission, and published on a regular basis (in particular I would suggest Nonprofit AF). This way you know every month or two weeks new content will come out, your team can read it relatively quickly and you can “meet” in whatever forum works best for the team. You’ll likely learn something from the readings and your peers and this is an easy and time efficient way to stay connected to one another.
Seriously, it is hard to over-communicate. You don’t have to set up a 2-hour Zoom meeting all the time, just make sure people know you’re thinking of them. Send a link to an interesting article, give them (heaven forbid) a regular phone call – if they’re busy no worries, the thought will be appreciated. For the Fellows, we set up a Slack channel and it’s a free and easy way to quick check-in.
3. Introduce People to Your Networks
No one is going to conferences, lunches, coffees, etc. and networking right now yet we know that networks and social capital are crucial for professional development. Take the moment, go through your LinkedIn and start thinking of who would benefit in your circle by being connected to one another. This provides you with a good opportunity to connect with people in your network and do a good deed at the same time!
4. Find a Shared Volunteer Project
When we can meet in person people tend to flock to volunteer events, there’s a sense of comradery when you get together and plant 100 trees in day – unfortunately as you may have guessed, that’s not currently an option. However, you can replicate the sense of comradery virtually by collaborating in a small team on a skills-based volunteer project. There are likely several organizations that you are already connected with that could use your skills and input, but if you’re not sure where to start check out catchafire.org – there you can fill out your skills/interest areas and search through hundreds of volunteer opportunities. Great way to give back while sharpening your own skills.
These are just a few recommendations of practices that I’ve seen work during my time as a Fellow. None on their own are a true replacement for in-person interaction, but each approach allows us to maintain our connections and sense of community while continuing to grow as professionals. We might have an uphill journey ahead, but we’re not turning back and we’ll see you on the other side! Until then, stay well, stay safe and if you’d like to re-start a Nonprofit AF Blog Club, just say the word and I’m in!