7 Lessons on Pivoting Based on Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton’s Nimble Covid-19 Response

crisis management crisis response organizational culture May 26, 2021
Lessons on Pivoting

In this article, we’re going to focus on Catholic Charities, the Diocese of Trenton’s ability to pivot during COVID-19. What stands out about their experience is that because they invested in fortifying their organizational capacity before the pandemic hit, they have been able to better adapt to the new reality of service provision. The interview will be followed by a set of takeaways that all organizations can benefit from.

Investments in Building Capacity Pay Off During Crisis

The current COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the nonprofit industry. At the same time, since nonprofits are accustomed to facing crisis and managing risk, nonprofits like Catholic Charities, and the Diocese of Trenton that were able to invest in capacity building and organizational infrastructure development before the pandemic has been able to better adapt to this unprecedented health crisis. These organizations have also been able to restructure, reinvent, and focus on developing innovative approaches to problem-solving.

Catholic Charities from the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey provides essential services to more than 100,000 New Jersey residents every year, which include meeting basic needs with food; clothing, and shelter; specialized treatments for addiction and mental illness; and domestic violence programs to help end violence in homes. Their programs are designed to help people and families achieve self-sufficiency and end the cycle of dependence. They strive to improve individuals’ lives and strengthen communities.


Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton

In our conversation over Zoom, Marlene Lao-Collins (MLC), Executive Director of Catholic Charities from the Diocese of Trenton, shared with me that it was their pre-Covid capacity building investments and experience in disaster management that helped them face the challenges posed by the pandemic. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

How Has Your Organization Adapted to Covid-19? 

MLC: The pandemic hit and we had to navigate through the choppy waters. No one had any real answers, but we are not new to sudden disasters. Catholic Charities has a disaster response program that is geared up to mobilize; even when we don’t know what we have to deal with. 

When there is a crisis of this magnitude people come to Catholic Charities. People know they can trust us. They know that we can help people with behavioral health issues, addictions, children who have been abused, and unique populations that come through the courts. We also work with homeless programs and provide financial assistance. 

For our population facing mental health concerns and substance abuse, now is a challenge. We pivoted quickly and complied with CDC regulations. At first, we could not do things like telehealth, but we knew we had to do it. We did a lot of advocacy and have built good relationships with the government, so they know us. We, along with other providers, advocated for this change in policy.  

This administration was sensitive to the needs of vulnerable populations. They immediately removed restrictions, so we could stay connected with populations who need to quarantine but need counseling. There were some people for whom services could not be adapted. Since our staff comes from social services, and they are givers who care, we wanted to be sure they could deliver services safely. We immediately put in place a COVID-19 workgroup comprised of the leadership team and managers/directors to make key operational and policy decisions. We held huddle calls; at first daily, and then we weaned down to weekly and now monthly.  The workgroup ensured we were conforming to the Governor’s executive order, CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) guidelines and that all staff was clear on new policies and procedures. They also took on the responsibility of getting Personal Protective Equipment and supplies to all of our employees. These huddle calls were important in tracking the needs and concerns of each of the programs and keeping communication flowing.  We have a range of services and one size does not always fit all. 

How have the needs of the clients changed during the pandemic? 

MLC: After 6 months of this, we now see a lot of concerning reactions to the quarantine. Some people relapse into substance abuse. Hospitals are reporting higher numbers of domestic violence that are showing up in the hospitals, but we knew this would be the case. We hoped not, but with this kind of isolation you don’t have the usual sets of eyes looking out for warning signs. 

What preparations are taking place now to meet the needs of clients?

MLC: More people who are unemployed are lining up at our food pantries in our locations, but we have not seen the worst yet. Legislators have a moratorium on evictions, but once that is removed and the jobs are not there and kids don’t go to school, we are going to see an unprecedented watershed moment of needs. 

We have been having ongoing conversations with the State. We did some advocacy and got an extension on the funding for rental assistance we did not spend. We have let people know it’s available, so we are ready when people will come in, but I am not sure if we will have all of the resources needed. Some funders like the Princeton Area Foundation and Ocean Bank Foundation were keeping abreast of what is going on and immediately responded to the needs of the community. They have been phenomenal. As one of the larger providers in Central NJ, we have an extended reach and can you get assistance into the hands of people rather quickly.  The funder focused on food and financial assistance.

How has your organization adapted to quarantine and reopening? 

MLC: A social service agency is considered an essential service. Even if we decided we wanted to shut down, we couldn’t. We reviewed each program to determine: 1) who can work remotely, 2) who can continue to provide the level of service that we expect, and 3) who has to come in. 

We used algorithms and decision-making models to assess programs.  Our management team of 50-60 people meets on a regular basis. We set clear and consistent guidelines for those working remotely or coming into the office.  We were also very stringent about [implementing our] protocol, should an employment contract or be exposed to Covid. They were required to stay home and call their supervisor. We also implemented policies and communicated the importance of washing hands and masking up. Many questions were raised regarding policies and procedures, which required the direct engagement of the HR manager, along with legal advice we had to decide on a variety of personnel-related COVID issues. 

One of my first concerns was to ensure we could get payroll out to our staff if our fiscal department has to quarantine at home. The CFO immediately worked with IT to get everyone set up at home so there would be no hiccups with payroll or bill payments.  We did things we have never done before. We even completed our fiscal audit remotely. Our resources were limited and stretched as we move people to remote work so IT revamped old laptops and expanded our Zoom licenses. 

How much did this cost? 

MLC: The cost is still being determined, but it is significant when you think of all we had to do and provide that we never budgeted for. We have separated our costs and put them into a Covid-19 cost center in the hopes that the State or another sector will provide funding to cover those unexpected costs. Because we have always conservatively budgeted our expenses, we have been able to absorb those costs without totally destroying our bottom line. We have underspent in some areas and have received funding that we were not expecting. For the time being, we are financially sound.   

How has your relationship changed with your staff?

MLC: Change is constant. As leaders of nonprofits, we have to be flexible and nimble while also being strategic and focused. We have to be ready to pivot. I can’t make the decisions by myself either. We have to come together to include key departments and managers. The feedback I have received is that they appreciate that I personally check up on them and included supervisors and managers, not in the leadership team, in decision-making. It is a team effort. 

What impact has quarantine and reopening had on your staff? 

MLC: It has had a strain on many of our employees, especially those who had to report to work and had to provide direct care at residential programs or in the community. Yet, some folks are ready to return to work or get back to seeing clients face-to-face. The fear of COVID will be with us for some time and we have to remain vigilant. I think people are tired of remaining vigilant and that concerns me. Juggling personal responsibilities and work has been difficult for many of our employees.  To assist them in navigating [this situation] we offer an Employee Assistance Program where they can get counseling and information on a variety of resources.  

How has the role of your board of directors changed? 

MLC: The board has not changed much. We have a structure and our board operates through various committees. Each committee keeps the board president abreast and the vice chair. They don’t get into the weeds with administrative issues. We met right away to inform them of the challenges, the needed changes, and the opportunities.  

Our board members have a lot of confidence and trust in us. They raise funds for unrestricted dollars, and they just pulled together. We will hold a virtual fundraiser [it has been held since the interview]. They contribute financially and will offer their expertise, but they are not intrusive. They drill me when we meet, which is good. That is their job as people who hold up their fiduciary responsibility. 

What principles have you been using to help guide your decision-making, and how have you triaged your priorities? 

MLC: Our mission statement has guided us, as well as the people that we serve who are the most vulnerable. We have tried to stay within our lane. We try to understand all of the social determinants. We also want people to understand what we do. Our development and marketing people continue to share stories because it is important to create a level of empathy.

As we were triaging our priorities, there were some initiatives that fell to the side. Our primary focus was ensuring we operationalize the needed policies and procedures to face Covid and quarantining, financial sustainability, and the safety of staff and clients.

What have you found personally inspiring from this process? 

MLC: The resilience, commitment, strength, and level of creativity of our staff. One person that came to me said, “We will have to return money to the county” for a program, but she came up with an idea that we went to the county with. We put together surprise boxes with sneakers and some other fun things for the kids to have. We would create a virtual exercise program and buy some healthy food for home and virtually make a salad. This was brilliant. I can’t wait to see the results. This is just one example of the creativity that has surfaced during this time.  

What is your biggest takeaway for your organization from the current Covid-19 pandemic?

MLC: We really can get through the worst of the worst as long as we do it together and leadership is important. This does not mean that you have to have all of the answers. You must trust the people around you to help you and the organization navigate through choppy waters. Professional relationships, trust, and respect are essential. We don’t always agree with one another, but it is easier when you trust the group of people [you are working with]. You must also make quick decisions because people are waiting, and you can’t be afraid to fail. Most mistakes can be fixed. 

What are your biggest concerns and hopes for the future? 

MLC: The ongoing concern is the continued pandemic, quarantine, and funding. We also worry about donor fatigue, and they can collide at one point. We are being extremely conservative and can’t operate as before. There are a lot of talks about budget cuts in government, which would affect us, so we have to scale back and plan as if this will happen this year. We have some serious decisions to make. 

We have also had some opportunities that have come up with HMOS and integrated services that we have achieved. We also have partnerships with hospitals and other providers with whom we have linked up to provide a better product. We don’t have to build it all from scratch. 

There are also great opportunities to expand the technology across the state and provide services through remote work no matter where you are. We have to keep our eye on those opportunities. 

Nonprofit leaders must lean on one another. It is not a matter of competition. It is a matter of survival because about 50% of nonprofits will collapse. What that means is that one organization can’t do it all and can’t cover the whole space. We must lean on each other and collaborate where we can and realign in principles and services. 

We should really call ourselves social impact organizations because we employ hundreds of thousands of people. We are part of the economic engine.

Take-Aways from Catholic Charities: 

There are several takeaways that all organizations can take from the experiences that Catholic Charities has shared with us. 

1. It is important to preemptively develop a change management strategy that prepares the organization to mobilize when facing unexpected circumstances like a crisis. This includes: 1) pre-emptively defining how decisions will be made during a transition period or crisis, 2) outlining how communications will be structured, and 3) defining the roles that staff should play beforehand. During the period of crisis, it is also important to begin thinking about the anticipated fallout for the organization’s clients and to begin building up the capacity to meet their needs before the issue comes to fruition.

2. Decisions should be guided by balancing the mission, the needs of clients, the staff, and the financial and organizational sustainability of the organization. Thus, when triaging priorities, you must consider both short-term and long-term organizational and client needs. 

3. Even during periods of crisis, it is important to implement sound management practices, transparency, and inclusivity in decision-making. This is a period where collaboration can improve the culture of the organization and help to build relationships of trust. Also, the use of management tools like algorithms and decision-making models to assess programs and guide decisions is critical to maintaining program quality and coming up with innovative ways of re-pivoting service delivery and operational functions.  

4. Systems must be designed to repivot to adjust to changing circumstances, keep staff and clients safe, and continue to ensure the quality of care. The manner in which transitions and crisis impact staff, also impacts how services are delivered. Thus, transitional plans and systems must be mindful of the realities employees and clients are facing.

5. Organizations that offer essential services in communities are social safety net pillars that people turn to in times of Crisis. This is also the case for people who might not have needed their services before the crisis.

6. Communication with funders, government, and regulators must increase during a period of crisis with an eye toward prevention and problem-solving. This is a key component to being prepared to respond with quality and rapid-response interventions.  

7. Leaders must be steady, focused, and strategic in order to inspire employee confidence and build a stronger organizational culture. Employees take their cues from their leaders, especially during periods of change. A strong focus on decision-making, problem-solving for staff, improving services, and employee engagement is key to not only surviving but becoming a better organization.

Share Your Story

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton is not the only organization with a success story on pivoting. Share with us the strategies that you have used to adapt to unexpected challenges. Also, if you invested in the capacity building before a crisis like Covid-19 hit and it helped your organization successfully adapt, please share your experience with all of us, so we can all learn from you.

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