How Collaborative Networks Lead Through Crisis — Part I

Melissa Gavin on the RE-AMP Network’s response to COVID-19

By Jessica Conrad

It’s the moment of the novel coronavirus. A time defined by an unusual paradox. Stay-at-home orders physically confine us to our most familiar spaces, yet we find ourselves navigating profoundly unfamiliar and uncertain spaces in every realm of life. Melissa Gavin, chief network officer with the RE-AMP Network, reflects that “the playbook has been thrown out the window,” especially for organizations with small budgets and for those that rely on in-person organizing to both advance their work and fundraise. Many are therefore rightly naming the need for philanthropy to efficiently and strategically move funds to support the wide range of organizations facing immediate financial need, especially those that have historically existed at the margins.

At the Garfield Foundation, our strong desire to support changemakers in achieving greater impact has led us to experiment with different philanthropic practices and to support the development of collaborative networks over the past sixteen years. While collaborative networks are regularly adapting and responding to fluid circumstances, they never cease to surprise us. Today we’re learning how their very ethos and design enables them to efficiently meet the emerging needs of organizations in crisis, including Environmental Justice and grassroots groups that may not have longstanding and established relationships with funders. Close to the ground, so to speak, and ready to mobilize funding through existing systems, we’re seeing collaborative networks make a rapid emergency response that individual funders simply could not make on their own.

To share this experience and learning, we’re releasing two interviews with leadership of the RE-AMP Network and the Cancer Free Economy Network. I recently had the chance to speak with Melissa Gavin about how the pandemic is affecting climate groups across the Midwest, and in our conversation we explore how the collaborative network model offers a ready pathway for responding to the emerging needs of member organizations in crisis. Gavin describes for us a collaborative network firmly rooted in its values and practicing collective care and solidarity during this challenging time. In her story I see a re-patterning of the way individuals and organizations can come together to support each other during times of need — a hopeful image for us all.

Jessica Conrad: Can you share what changes you’re experiencing now in your own life as a result of the pandemic? What practices are you using to keep yourself centered and focused?

Melissa Gavin: Things are feeling pretty upside down at the moment. We’ve become homeschoolers, and that’s changed so many things from our daily routine to our internet bandwidth to how we relate to our kids. As parents, we’re trying to support our kids through the anxiety and uncertainty they feel — not to dismiss it, but not to let it take over their lives. We’re trying to make sure they don’t get behind in school and trying to help them navigate their different online school requirements and specific passwords for each class — even gym! Of course all the kids need help at the exact same moment. “Dad, this password isn’t working!” one chirps, while another spams all his classmates with the word “hi,” and another goofs off on a video game because Dad’s distracted. All the while I’m upstairs trying to write a grant proposal that feels so different from what I had intended to write, and I’m not really sure what I can say about the work RE-AMP will do in the next 12 months. So I’m balancing being a parent, supporting RE-AMP, and supporting my husband. It’s challenging. He and I are okay at different times, which is good, but there are definitely times when the anxiety and panic overtake me. And then I go for a run.

Here in Wisconsin, the Ice Age Trail traces the path of the last glacier as it made its way out of the state. I run this trail every day — and I often talk to her. Her name is Grandmother Ridge, and this morning I said to her “I’m overcome with fear and anxiety.” She replied, “Give it to me. I can hold it, and I can make something beautiful out of it.” I kept running, and I asked for my panic to become neutralized with every footstep. I asked to ground myself through her presence. I told her that the playbook has been thrown out the window, and that I didn’t know how to lead through the crisis. She assured me, “You do know” and reminded me that my values are my guardrails. When everything goes out the window, my values remain: stay grounded, stay present, stay kind.

Photo by Jamshed Khedri on Unsplash

So I kept running. It took me awhile, but I finally noticed that there were birds singing, there was a fallen branch on the side of the trail, and there was a woodpecker. I could hear the sound of my footsteps for the first time instead of my own anxious thoughts. I ran on, and when I came home, I hugged my husband Chris. I got back to work, back to reaching out to members, staff, and steering committee members and asking “Are you okay?” because that’s what this time is really about — relationships and connecting.

Jessica Conrad: What have you heard from RE-AMP members in other Midwestern states about how their families and communities are holding up? And what about operational changes they’ve made at the organizational level in response to the public health emergency?

Melissa Gavin: We’re hearing from most RE-AMP members that their work is at a complete standstill. It’s tone deaf to be talking about climate change right now, and many groups are facing financial crises. Some have been forced to cancel major fundraising events, while others are banned from organizing and canvassing, which is often their primary strategy and primary source of revenue. So we have some members who are already in a cash-flow crisis, and we have others who can see the cash-flow crisis coming in two or three months because major fundraisers are getting canceled. We also have members who are trying to figure out how to do their work virtually, and they need funding for the technology, the hardware, and the training to do it well. Other members are stepping up to work on the federal and state levels to ensure that the folks who are most at risk are taken care of and centered in federal and state response efforts.

RE-AMP is convening conversations around utility shutoffs, moratoriums at the state level, and boosting conversations to suspend utility shut-offs at the federal policy level. We’re trying to pivot to support the work that still needs to get done, and we’re trying hard to keep RE-AMP member organizations and climate groups whole because some groups aren’t sure how they’re going to make it through to the other side of the pandemic. We’ve built organizing and mobilizing infrastructure, and we’ve supported the capacity building and development of so many groups. We can’t afford to let it all go away. How can we keep these groups whole? How can we ensure that the infrastructure remains so that when we are past the pandemic we can get back to work and hit the ground running? We’re focusing on these kinds of questions.

So to sum it up, what we’re hearing from members is that they have a cash-flow crisis. Many of their business models are banned. Their work is not allowed right now. Groups have had to cancel fundraisers, and they are trying to figure out how to connect virtually on the fly.

Jessica Conrad: How can RE-AMP best support its member organizations during this time of uncertainty?

Melissa Gavin: The first thing we did was to reinforce our connective tissue because so many folks are really in need of the reassurance social connection can bring. We immediately opened up virtual break rooms for members, and folks joined just to connect. Just to be with other people and to talk through their experiences with the pandemic. You know, light things like what they’re binge watching on Netflix and what they’re stress baking. Things like that. It’s a space to reinforce our connective tissue. That’s one thing.

Another thing we did was to launch an emergency response fund that addresses two basic needs. One offer is quick general support funding to help groups weather the storm. The pandemic will end, and climate change will still be a threat. We can’t afford to let these groups disappear. So rapid general support is one part of the emergency response fund. The other part is funding to help groups get the online subscriptions, hardware, software, and/or training they need to transition their work to a virtual setting.

The third thing we did is to listen closely to members — during conversations at our virtual break room and state table meetings, and conversations spurred by messages on our private intranet — to recognize that some issues are more salient now than they were a month ago. We’ve shifted gears to make sure we can have the conversations that need to happen around topics like utility shut-offs, policy moratoriums, and how to shift from in-person organizing to organizing online. I’ve also been having a lot of one-on-one conversations with RE-AMP members who want to talk through what they can do and what they should be thinking about. I think they just want to know that they’re not alone. RE-AMP is providing a touch of security, a steady hand on their back.

Jessica Conrad: Did you need to design any new structures to deliver the emergency response funding?

Melissa Gavin: RE-AMP has always supported collaborative action to fight Midwest climate change in a variety of ways, including re-granting funds to collaborative projects of multiple member organizations. While this emergency response fund is new, we are confident our current systems built on principles of fairness and transparency will accommodate it. For example, we have a grants committee made up of RE-AMP members with protocols in place for members to recuse themselves if they’re involved in a grant application.

Jessica Conrad: What qualities of a collaborative network, as opposed to other forms of organizing, are enabling RE-AMP’s response?

Melissa Gavin: The fact that we have established, trusting relationships with our members is really what’s enabling RE-AMP’s response. We know these individuals. We know their organizations. We know what they’ve been working on, and we know what kind of challenges they’re facing. We’re not creating a strategy out of whole cloth. As a collaborative network, we’ve been able to cultivate a level of trust that really enables groups to be completely honest about what kind of situation they’re in. I had a RE-AMP member confide in me that she recently had the single worst day of her professional life because she had to make the decision to lay off her entire canvassing staff. Our trusting relationship not only enabled her to have a safe place to process what she was going through, but also enabled me to understand the scope of the problem so we could respond really quickly. These trusting relationships have really allowed us to accelerate our response.

Jessica Conrad: Given REAMP’s commitment to equity, what are your thoughts on a just response to the pandemic?

Melissa Gavin: Much like how I’m leaning on my personal values during this time when the rulebook has been thrown out the window, RE-AMP is using similar guardrails. The planning we’ve done looking two or three years out is almost irrelevant, but what remains deeply relevant is the set of values we co-created as a network a couple of years ago. These values are collaboration, community, democracy, equity, justice, and scientific rigor. They offer us guardrails, a toehold during what feels like a freefall. Being able to lean on our shared values right now is vital. They are enabling our response.

For us, equity as a core value means that we stand in solidarity with groups that should be leading right now, not necessarily leading ourselves. Circulating the sign-on letter 5 Principles for Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus, boosting the signal, talking with our members about a just response, hosting calls in which we’re talking about the letter is one example. There are times when RE-AMP really shouldn’t lead or stand in the spotlight. That’s how we manifest the value of equity — by taking cues from key and core partners and boosting the signal on the work that they’re already doing.

Another way we’re currently embodying our value of equity is through our grantmaking. The emergency response funds will prioritize organizations with budgets of $500,000 or less. They will also prioritize environmental justice, community-based, and grassroots organizations to make them whole and support them in getting through to the other side of the pandemic. We’re also prioritizing our work with partners like the Midwest Environmental Justice Network, standing in solidarity and providing mutual aid as we move forward together.

Jessica Conrad: What challenges do you foresee with RE-AMP’s response?

Melissa Gavin: There are so many. There’s a fear for me that we’re not acting fast enough, and at the same time a worry about urgency coming at the expense of equity. I think an important challenge is about finding balance in a mindful and heartful way. We do want to get dollars out the door, and at the same time we don’t want to overlook groups that don’t have the capacity to respond right away but need support. That’s certainly a challenge I’m holding right now.

Another challenge is related to a repercussion of the pandemic. We’re heading into precarious economic times, and financial crisis has already arrived for many. What we know is that there’s often a lag in the nonprofit sector. As foundations see their endowments take a hit, they shrink their grantmaking. This then hits the nonprofit sector with a lag, and it seems to hit networks with a greater lag and greater intensity. Yet this is the very moment that investing in Networks is more important than ever. Networks offer stronger collaboration among organizations, efficient resource use, and a collective voice that is stronger and bolder than single organizations can build on their own. That said, I think the philanthropic sector is still new to using networks effectively, and foundations are likely to revert back to what they are used to which is funding the most familiar, larger NGOs in their orbit.

Jessica Conrad: Is there anything else you’d like to share around what’s happening right now within RE-AMP in light of COVID-19?

Melissa Gavin: Yes, I have one other general observation. What’s interesting to me are these persistent and overwhelming questions: Is this the right thing to be doing? Is this the most important thing to be doing at this moment? I’m just observing the guilt and anguish that often come with these questions in the movement right now. It’s so important for us all to be kind and present with each other and to give each other grace. Because things are hard right now, and there are no easy answers. So I’m giving you grace, and sending kindness and warmth your way. We need people who are lights in our lives and who are stable and strong and grounded. And that means we need to take care of ourselves and each other.

Jessica Conrad is the Strategic Communications Manager with the Garfield Foundation.

We support changemakers in creating greater impact through systems-based collaborative networks. This is the space where we’re sharing our learning.