Steering Your Nonprofit Through the Pandemic

For many years I have been completely obsessed with a global workout chain called Barry’s Bootcamp. It really isn’t so different than any other gym. You go there, and people yell at you to do things that will make you healthier and stronger. There is a nice community feel that makes me happy. And so I spend more money than I should to do things I could really do on my own. When the pandemic hit, my beloved Barry’s had to shut down. I was crushed, because, let’s be honest, a gym is really nice to have. But Barry’s had operated in a small room, where folks breathe hard and touch workout equipment just touched by other folks — not good at all for the spread of a deadly virus. Fortunately, however, Barry’s pivoted fast. Here is what they are offering:

Home Workout Equipment
Photo by Alexandra Tran on Unsplash

Why am I telling you this? My attendance at the virtual classes has gone up. I attend more often than I attended the in-person classes pre-pandemic. And while I started off with Option 1 (the free option!), I am now spending money on Option 2. The Option 2 classes cost less than the old pre-pandemic in-person classes, but Barry’s is still making more money off me since I’m attending more often. The takeaway here is that the virtual classes are probably a better cost model for Barry’s because they can have one instructor and many more folks attending than could fit in one gym. Since clients have reported they’re happy with the flexibility (they can take a virtual class anywhere in the world), Barry’s will probably want to continue offering their hybrid model (a combination of virtual and in-person classes) when the pandemic ends.

When the pandemic changed life as we knew it last March, I realized that my non-profit organization, Eye to Eye, would have to pivot like Barry’s Bootcamp. We had been working with educators and students with learning disabilities, in person, in schools across this country. Our programs and services had been creating supportive educational environments for all students, empowering students and educators to advocate for effective accommodations, and facilitating the development of students’ social and emotional skills. After all, our mission was to create a more equitable world by bringing visibility to the power of learning differently. But the pandemic meant we could no longer enter schools to do this essential work.

Teenage girl homelearning homework on a macbook in the family kitchen
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

My colleagues and I at Eye to Eye knew that we couldn’t stop our mission just because we were unable to meet physically with students. Determined to keep moving forward and empowering those who learn differently, we developed three options for our community:

I’ve learned a lot from having to move away from in-person work. At first, not being able to meet with students physically was disappointing. I didn’t know how exactly Eye to Eye would carry out its mission if we couldn’t work as we had always worked in schools. However, I realized pretty quickly — with Barry’s Bootcamp as inspiration — that we could in fact lean into a new way of doing things and maybe have even better results than we’d had previously. Now I can say confidently that Eye to Eye has been successful in making the transition to a new organizational model because we kept the following guiding ideas in mind:

Be in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution

What do I mean by this? To me, this means holding your values — your “why” — tightly, and your process — your “how” — loosely. Eye to Eye’s mission has always been to create a more equitable world by bringing visibility to the power of learning differently. Our mission — our “why” — hasn’t changed since the pandemic started. What has changed is how we’re partnering with schools. Our Learning Differently 101 programs are designed with equity in mind to reach anyone anywhere. The student version of LD 101 is not only a multi-sensory, entertaining journey that arms students with the skills they need to self-advocate. It also matches them with mentors and peers for a virtual experience that welcomes and connects them to the broader community of people who learn differently. The Learning Differently 101 program for educators is an interactive workshop that also prioritizes equity. Educators explore learning disabilities and how to provide flexible learning environments and opportunities with their peers — wherever they are in the world.

A lot of planning and innovative thinking went into Learning Differently 101 and now it is a centerpiece of Eye to Eye’s programming. It is a great example of what can happen when you stick to your mission — your “why” — even when you must modify or completely change your delivery system.

Don’t Try to Enact Statutes

I always say that Eye to Eye isn’t working to create statutes or to become an organization that will last forever. I’m not interested in celebrating Eye to Eye one day far into the future. I’m focused on solving a problem. We know that 20 percent of students struggle with a learning disability in an education system that was designed for the other 80 percent. Eye to Eye has grown in response to the need for supportive, flexible learning environments and opportunities for students who learn differently, but the growth of our organization has never been our aim. We’re working toward a future in which students with learning disabilities are seen, heard, and valued from the moment they step into a school. A future in which equitable learning environments are a given, not something our students must fight to attain.

Listen to Your People

Twenty-five percent of Eye to Eye’s chapters met in January. That’s because, in many places, educators, families, and their students believed that in-person meetings could resume safely as long as everyone wore a mask and other precautions were taken. My colleagues and I did everything we could to accommodate the schools that want students and support teams to transition back to in-person meetings. If they needed something, we did our best to provide it. Schools that wanted to continue virtual support also had our attention and resources. We listened and said “yes” to as many requests as we could to meet the changing needs of our community across the country.

Get Your Business Right

We know that we don’t have a boatload of money. As we’ve modified how we deliver our programs and services, we’ve had to build a business model that won’t put us out of business before the end of this pandemic. To figure out how to make our business work through a combination of philanthropy and school funding, we’ve had to spend a lot of time talking to people in education. These people have shaped our business model by clarifying the needs of our community; in other words, they’ve helped us determine where we can have the biggest impact with the money available to us. We’ve also been in constant communication with people in other industries and disciplines. We’ve done this to make sure that the choices Eye to Eye makes relate to the real world. We want people with disabilities to continue to find their way and thrive after graduating. And we want them to stay connected. The key to making this happen is communication. We’re figuring out what we know and sharing it without hesitation. We’re also being honest about what we don’t know.

So where does this leave us as we begin to see a world post-pandemic? Well, since we have discovered a cost model that is more efficient, we have reason to be optimistic. Our virtual work at scale will absolutely reach more students for less money than our old model. And the new model’s impact? Time will tell, but it looks like our new model will have a similar impact to our old model, which is supported by two decades of research.

The pandemic has brought trauma and loss to so many people. Eye to Eye has tried to respond compassionately and thoughtfully so that those who learn differently aren’t dealt an additional blow in their fight for an equal education. We’ve pivoted online while holding onto our values. We’ve looked for new opportunities to complement and replace old ones. And we’ve endeavored to do more — and to do it better — for our community. As Sir Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We haven’t. We won’t.

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David Flink

As Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye, David Flink is an author and social movement leader on the front lines of the learning rights movement.