by Dan Rogers
What we’ve learned from the pandemic changes everything
No one could have been prepared for the scale and speed of this global pandemic. When a virus strikes globally and closes access locally, it’s only a crisis once. Next time, we won’t be afforded the luxury of calling it a crisis. In the next wave or next health threat, we’ll only be able say that we learned and prepared, or we ignored it and did nothing.
The key is understanding the critical relationship between strategies and tactics. Imagine for a moment the WWII invasion of Normandy. The largest armada ever formed included nearly 7,000 vessels—naval combat ships, landing ships, ancillary craft, and merchant vessels.
Each of the 7,000 vessels was a tactic; the invasion was the strategy. Each ship had an assignment, or tactic, within the overall plan. Now imagine if each of the vessels had come up with its own strat.egy: Mass chaos would have ensued. Ships would have competed for supplies. Commanders and cap.tains would have fought for space on the beach, all potentially running into one another. Some would have mistaken other teammates for the enemy. That’s tactics without strategy; a disaster waiting for the inevitable defeat.
Sun Tzu, in the book The Art of War, puts it this way: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
When COVID-19 became a global pandemic in February, no one could have predicted that one short month later the entire global and national economy and way of human movement would nearly cease overnight.
From the beginning, like most of you, I said to myself, This feels more like a fire drill. I am not at all suggesting the virus is not real; nor will I armchair quarterback local, state, and federal responses. But for all intents and purposes, we have now conducted a fire drill; metaphorically speaking, how do we get everyone out of the building as quickly as possible and reduce as much harm as possible?
What if we actually treated the last several months as a fire drill? We could begin by asking these questions:
When the crisis was realized, all rescue missions had to scramble for critical resources. Most of us found it necessary to compete for those resources, both locally and nationally. Our supply chains were weakened; food resources ran lean. Our guest population became a target for this virus, and your normal and ready human resource—volunteers— dwindled to zero with the national stay-home order.
So scramble we did. We had to—we didn’t see it coming.
Please don’t let the joy of being successful in rallying support in the near term and getting the needed job done resound at the sacrifice of learning, participating, and mobilizing a clear strategy for long.range success.
Now that we’re beginning to see some daylight with respect to human and economic movement, make no mistake; what we’ve experienced is tactics without a strategy. Strategic preparation is in predetermined, agreed to, and thoughtful strategic development with real-time and measurable tactics for success.
During a crisis, where strategies were not established beforehand, tactics were all we had left. In short, as Sun Tzu stated, if we don’t turn now and learn, defeat is next. The greatest defeat of all will be failing to learn or adapt to changing realities.
We see this so clearly in our relationship to God, through Jesus Christ. The fall of mankind interrupted God’s overall strategy to have a relationship with His creation. But God, in His infinite love for His creation, sent His only Son to repair the breach and restore the relationship.
We live out His strategy and the bountiful tactic of His Son every day by enjoying a close, personal, intimate relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Goodwill shone through this pandemic. We honored first responders, health care workers, and essential labor forces with great appreciation. The local and regional work of missions in the service of homeless and impoverished people was amazing.
However, please don’t let the joy of being successful in rallying support in the near term and getting the needed job done resound at the sacrifice of learning, participating, and mobilizing a clear strategy for long-range success.
We humans tend to be so relieved at the end of a crisis that we forget to catalog and learn from it. When we’re done high-fiving each other for the incredible rally—and your work was incredible, make no mistake—learning must happen. Now is the time for strategic thought.
It’s now time to organize logistic responses before another wave hits. It’s time for our redemptive work to increase and scale in unprecedented ways. To accomplish this, we must begin to shift our culture away from a human.service model to a human.development model.
The benefits of having well-thought-out and agreed-upon strategies come through reduced costs and reduced organizational stress fractures, as well as a reduction in short- and long-term strain, which can be spread out over many partners. A thoughtful strategy, when applied properly, can be paid for in advance and stored for the future.
God gave Joseph the interpretation of the King’s dream, foreshadowing famine. The kingly and Godly response was to prepare, store grain, and develop a distribution system to thrive in times of crisis. Strategy and tactics—perfect.
Tactics without an overarching strategy only offer short-term gain, not long-term sustainability. It’s also a costly solution in terms of real dollars spent unexpectedly and added strain to staff.
It’s now time to organize logistic responses before another wave hits. It’s time for our redemptive work to increase and scale in unprecedented ways. To accomplish this, we must begin to shift our culture away from a human-service model to a human-development model. Sadly, because we’ve generationally placed too much focus on human service and meeting material needs, we were unprepared to rapidly scale during the pandemic— straining and, in some cases, crippling our most basic infrastructure to maintain service.
The funding and service model of our ministries has not fundamentally changed for generations. No matter what development program you offer, it’s secondary to your organization’s primary service of food, clothing, and shelter. If you don’t believe that statement, follow the money. What’s the primary message to your funders? If it’s food, clothing, and shelter, then your human-development efforts live beneath your human-service efforts.
Please don’t take this as a slight to your work; it’s just a reality handed down generationally. The model we work with wasn’t born during a global economic and human-movement shut.down. The Dust Bowl and subsequent Great Depression didn’t require people to stay home.
Economic development is always a result of human development. So it stands to reason that if the virus was unprecedented, if the global shutdown of human and economic movement was also unprecedented, then our long-held models and subsequent response to these realities must also be unprecedented.
This must be our “new normal.” We can no longer get things done by ourselves. We can no longer honor and secure autonomy at every level. We can no longer see partnerships as optional. We can no longer reduce or solve poverty and homelessness with our existing models—primarily based on food, clothing, and shelter.
We in the rescue mission, shelter, and faith-based mission communities must force ourselves to reconcile what our infrastructure gaps may be, and moreover, acknowledge what God is reveal.ing of Himself to a world completely at attention.
God reveals Himself best during the most difficult times. I don’t think it’s that He enjoys our misery, but we employ Him differently in our faith; the way we seek Him and how we need His response during critical times. The question cannot be, How do we regain some semblance of a familiar normal; but rather, Why would we want to continue as we did before?
If the way we’ve approached poverty, homelessness, funding, and service remain normal, then we have not yet learned the lessons of a super crisis. The opposite can be true when we take a stripped-down look at our funding, service, and practice models and ask critical questions. It’s time to invest in innovation. We need Genesis-level, gospel-driven, Christ-revealed, Spirit-breathed inspirational innovation.
Poverty and homelessness are crisis resilient— meaning they don’t go away when a crisis happens. When we in the mission and shelter communities adjust, adapt, and innovate, we will also become crisis resilient. We will thrive because we’re allowing the genius of God to breathe fresh life into our ideas. We will yield our whiteboard planning to the flow of the Holy Spirit’s pen.
Innovation and the move of God requires change, but change requires risk. Risk is costly and unsure. Risk requires experimentation, metrics mapping, organizational support, and a board governance framework in order to be bench.marked, tested, and given a chance to succeed.
The lack of preparedness and the real costs associated with risk are some of the reasons most organizations don’t fund innovation. Risk in normal times requires someone or some fund to cover the risk of the innovation.
If there’s good news during the realities of a local, regional, national, and global pandemic— and there’s always good news—it’s that risk is already paid for. No person or organization escapes the high-risk environment of an economic crisis. For-profit institutions know that it’s possible to start a business or invest in innovation during an economic downturn because startup costs are much lower in a recession than in boom periods. Throughout history, savvy entrepreneurs have positioned themselves for when the economic climate improves.
Nonprofits can learn from this particular page. During the economic and social downturn of this unprecedented crisis comes opportunity to develop and lean into new strategies that will birth new tactics. A crisis at scale presents the greatest opportunity to scale ideas: costs are down, partnership potential is up, and normal risk-adverse restrictions and governances are lowered.
With greater risk already “paid” for, the cost of bringing ideas to market remains the same, but the environment is more tolerant, more readily receptive, and in some cases, actively seeking solutions.
The savvy nonprofit leader and community will position themselves through a crisis as thought leaders and solution innovators. These organizations will be stronger and more sustainable when the economic climate improves.
The organizational leader and community deciding to approach an environmental and economic crisis with a risk-averse framework may hold their own during the crisis, but risk-savvy leaders and funding communities desiring real change through innovation—like the major donor commu.nity—will outpace them.
This must be our “new normal.” We can no longer get things done by ourselves. We can no longer honor and secure autonomy at every level. We can no longer see partnerships as optional. We can no longer reduce or solve poverty and homelessness with our existing models.
Famed 18th-century physicist and physician Luigi Galvani was the first to demon.strate that electrical current could stimulate a dead frog’s muscles and make them move. Galvanism would inspire Mary Shelley, years later, to author the story of Frankenstein.
Galvanize means “to stimulate into action.” If we’re to galvanize and organize as an association, it won’t be to build a more rigid process, as is the common definition of galvanize; rather, it will be to innovate. We’ll figure it out by experimenting and testing new ways to stimulate our teams, our boards, our funding communities, and our clientele to action.
Learning is the only experimental tool in our arsenal of responses. The seeds of strategy come out of the crucible and process of learning.
The concept that local missions are or can be gatekeepers to our cities is more vital now than ever in our history. The exceptional moment before us can be found in our collective ability to rise above an autonomous system and work together—which I propose as the rehabilitated definition for the word partnership.
Our ability to harness the power of partner.ships is key to sustaining long-range strategies. The partners you’re looking for already have resources, but they also need resources. Such partnerships are proven intersections for the nonprofit leader to locate and navigate to success.
If we remain autonomous in our planning, we won’t have enough energy, funding resources, or human resources for the next wave of crises. However, as God’s people and as His ready resource, we don’t need to scramble any longer in an effort to answer our own tactical needs. Done well, through careful and thoughtful planning, we can connect to a much larger strategic process.
I believe that we as Citygate Network must identify, catalog, and report on local and regional infrastructure gaps and opportunities. We should convene a national strategic team to get ahead of the next wave of this pandemic. We should prepare intel and material resources, and provide a checklist and proposed guidelines for missions and organizations to follow. We should prepare regional stockpiles of needed resources, using existing and needed partnerships at all levels.
If, like on the beach of Normandy, we could see ourselves and our ministries as each being a tactic, we could harness solutions by agreeing to, participating with, and preparing ourselves within the overall framework of a regional and national strategy.
Why were we not doing this before? may be the wrong question. Instead, let’s ask, How can we adapt and learn from the last crisis and be more like Joseph?
Dan is the former CEO of Cherry Street Mission Ministries in Toledo, Ohio, and is an author, TEDx presenter, and a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service. He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Entrepreneurial and Business Excellence Hall of Fame, the recipient of the Nehemiah Award from Citygate Network, and was presented with the Courage Award for Ohio. Dan is a founding member of Straightline Solutions.
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This article originally appeared in the July-August 2020 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional permissions.