The Leader’s Playbook in time of crisis

As communities and organizations deal with an unprecedented crisis in the form of this Corona pandemic, there are certain approaches which can set these organizations – and their leaders – apart.

What follows are some highlights of a “leader’s playbook” to be considered and implemented in times of crisis. This can be applied to a variety of situations and in many different types of organizations. (My attempt to apply this methodology to camping is also published on LinkedIn.)

1. Where is the opportunity?

The first rule in the “crisis playbook” is…don’t miss an opportunity to take advantage of a crisis. 

The primary questions you should be asking are:

  • What are the most pressing needs in your community right now? In the near future? 
  • Where are there gaps? 
  • What do you have to offer that can make a difference? 
  • What opportunities might there be for you to enhance your value to your constituents and impact?

While all of these questions are important, the ability to take advantage of opportunities that can present during a crisis is often the driver for whether organizations emerge from this period stronger or…diminished. Thinking strategically about how to pivot and be responsive in a crisis is a hallmark of successful leadership in these times. 

2. Keep your eyes on the prize.

In the current situation, it makes sense to take a fresh look at your value proposition. 

  • What is your core mission and purpose? 
  • Why is what you do relevant or urgent right now, especially in comparison to other urgent issues or needs in the community? 
  • Which of your activities or programs are mission critical? Which aren’t?

A crisis is a time to focus – and strong organizations and leaders will be able to clearly articulate answers to these questions. (If you are struggling to answer some of these questions, then a) perhaps you should be wary about fundraising at this time, and b) you need to reexamine how you are relevant.)

You should start by looking with a critical eye at what you need to do to be successful…both in terms of program and operations. The next step is to prioritize what is most essential and to deprioritize those activities that aren’t critical. Successful leaders will push this process of “making choices” forward, and to be sure that other leadership and important constituents are on the same page. There probably shouldn’t be too many things on your priority list, and your organization’s activities and people need to be aligned with these priorities. 

3. Embrace change.

Increasingly, in today’s world, the one constant is change. Effective leadership in these times means recognizing when – and how – business as usual won’t work going forward. 

After any immediate response to the current situation, and prioritizing what is essential and what isn’t, the next important step is to explore how an organization’s mission should be achieved in a new or different context – from new approaches to service delivery or staffing models long-term, to how to rethink and rebuild the organization differently for the future. The key is to think out-of-the-box while keeping your eyes on the prize.

4. Get ahead of the curve. 

As you are taking a fresh look at what is truly mission-critical, it is often important to make some key calls early on – especially if you are concerned about expenses or cash flow, but also in terms of psychology. We see this even now in the current crisis; people are less willing to make tough calls or sacrifices the longer this goes on. That is why it is important to come up with a gameplan early on for how to respond to a crisis and take advantage of opportunities. Some questions to address:

  • What are going to be the long-term repercussions from this crisis? 
  • What impediments and obstacles are there to fulfilling your current mission, and will those resolve soon or can they be overcome?
  • What programs or activities may be less essential, now and/or long-term? What should you be doing less of, divest, or discontinue? 
  • How does this impact organizational structure, staff functions, and staff positions?
  • How can/should leadership and governance for an organization best be structured to be effective and responsive? 
  • At the same time, what may be new or alternative ways to advance your mission? And what additional investments might be needed?

The sooner an organization can reframe its work and positioning, in light of its mission, the more likely it will be able to enhance constituents’ loyalty and appreciation.   

This also highlights a key role for funders, to help encourage these approaches and provide enough incentive or “risk capital” to catalyze some of these uncomfortable questions and potentially difficult changes.

5. Communicate and highlight your brand and value proposition. 

Those organizations that will survive – and thrive – through a crisis will be those that strengthen their relationships during these challenging times…both with current constituents and with prospective constituents or customers. 

How can you highlight your organization’s value proposition, through email communications and especially through targeted efforts on social media? The phone, old-school though it may be, is a great way to speak with key constituents and donors…and check-in calls can be a great way to deploy underutilized staff from home. Once you have fine-tuned your organization’s efforts and relevance during the crisis, communicate what you are doing early and often. 

While fundraising may not be appropriate or effective at this time (depending on what your organization does or needs), demonstrating how you are serving your community in smart ways and for the right reasons should produce long-term benefits that last long after the crisis.

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What the “New Normal” Might Look Like in the Jewish Community

A diverse group of Jewish professionals and thinkers gathered recently for a series of ZOOM roundtables to examine the question: “What would the new normal look like in the Jewish community?”

Communities and organizations are just starting to emerge from this Corona Crisis. They will be facing a world filled with many uncertainties. Business models and approaches that worked before, to a greater … or often lesser degree, may be at risk as a new normal sets in.

Effective leaders will often be those who recognize when what worked before no longer does; organizations that are most successful in the future will be those best able to adapt and take advantage of opportunities. To best navigate this change and make smart strategic decisions, leaders need to ask the right questions in terms of how “new normal” trends can impact operations, service delivery, and the ability to deliver on an organization’s mission.

What follows are highlights of this discussion on key trends, drivers, and takeaways from this crisis:

Uncertainty will continue

There are 3 key phases in crisis recovery, and we are moving from the survival phase to recovery and a return to normalcy. However, there is no clear transition between these stages, and uncertainty will continue well into the future, depending on region and other externalities.

While it is challenging to plan in this environment, it is important to think about – and think differently about – how things can be in the future: the third phase of long-term rebuilding and transformation. Smart scenario planning is critical.

Opportunities exist, but change is difficult and inertia is a strong limiting factor

There are opportunities to be successful and even grow in this crisis. However, there is concern about the power of inertia and whether organizational leaders are up to the task of grappling with change.

Many direct service agencies demonstrated their value and numerous independent grassroots efforts were started to meet needs not addressed. Business models that rely on membership or facilities are at risk and may need to be adjusted. Though many may opt for a return to business as usual or make incremental changes, those organizations with the best ability to survive – and thrive – will be those that embrace change and innovation.

Those that are laser-focused on the execution of their mission will be best positioned to succeed

Not only is this crisis disruptive, it is a huge opportunity for disruption. Leaders should be asking how their organization will compete in a new world? Those that are smart and nimble are more likely to succeed; those that try to do too many things, don’t do them well, or aren’t focused … will be in trouble. Competition, from both inside and outside the Jewish world, can put pressure on many. To be successful and emerge from this crisis stronger, organizations and leaders will need to focus on their value proposition, what is mission critical, and the quality of outcomes rather than the inputs or process.

What do your customers want?

People are clamoring for meaning and connection more than ever and are open to finding that in non-conventional ways; the explosion of Zoom seders is an example, which many will now incorporate into their annual observance. Community is the best protection/vaccine from the social isolation many have experienced during this period – which may mean the establishment of a new set of rituals, mechanisms, and activities developed during this period.

At the same time consumer behavior will be more fragmented and decision-making more individualized; many may decide that they are not ready to come back to in-person community yet … or if ever for some more vulnerable populations. Online in real time and on-demand activities will be more of an expectation – which has implications for service delivery, relationship-building, and “affiliation” models.

Priorities have shifted and will continue to shift

Many individuals and families are worried about their financial situation. This will impact behavior and what they are willing to invest in terms of donations or services. There will also be a shift in financial support by many funders from “luxury” or “elective” causes and programs, such as arts and culture, to essential activities like addressing food insecurity and health care.

This shift will exacerbate the previous trend of redirecting overseas funding to more local needs. Anti-Semitism and community security are still important issues, but there will be even more competition from other new and longstanding pressing needs.

Raises vital questions about organizational sustainability and financial health

More organizations are going to be on financially fragile ground after this crisis. This will further fuel a previous trend towards mergers and consolidation, as well as new explorations of collaboration such as shared services and back-office operations. The aftermath of this crisis provides a unique opportunity to have discussions that might not have been politically acceptable prior … assuming there is leadership to provoke the right questions to drive exploration forward.

Importance of Leadership

Communities need visionary and bold leadership in times of crisis. Consensus-driven leadership models, the dynamics of governance, and organizational bureaucracy may be an impediment for embracing necessary change. A key challenge/opportunity will be coming up with the right frameworks and incentives to raise the right questions and have risky conversations … among lay leaders and professionals who might fear a loss of organizational identity and be reluctant to embrace change.

Evolving and increasingly important role of major funders and foundations

Foundations and major funders, including some big Federations, that can pivot rapidly and deploy resources to meet real-time challenges emerge stronger out of this crisis. This reinforces a trend where funders have increasingly been driving the philanthropic conversation, and even more opportunities exist for them to help drive change by deploying funding in strategic ways – from encouraging collaboration and mergers to exploring new service delivery models. At the same time, there is concern that funders who are only accountable to themselves shouldn’t set the agenda unilaterally.


These are trends that nonprofit organizations will need to come to terms with. The ability to get ahead of the curve and plan for change in a strategic way in the face of continued uncertainty will distinguish organizations that are successful from those that are diminished or fail. This requires leadership that can both look beyond the immediate needs of survival and resist the urge to just get back to normal at the first opportunity. Welcome to the “new normal.”

Thanks to the Roundtable participants for their participation and feedback on this summary:

Esther Abramowitz, Natalie Blitt, Shalom Elcott, Rabbi Hannah Estrin, Rabbi Michelle Fisher, Rob Goldberg, Eliot Goldstein, Richard Joel, Simon Klarfeld, Ezra Korman, Keith Krivitzky, Ken Krivitzky, Michael Lawrence, Michael Miloff, Ruthie Rotenberg, Ben Sales, Becky Sobelman-Stern, Susan Wachsstock, Carine Warsawski, Michael Weil, Gail Zucker