How Collaborative Networks Lead Through Crisis — Part II

Debra Erenberg on the Cancer Free Economy Network’s response to COVID-19

By Jessica Conrad

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold with some states moving to reopen their economies, we’ve been following a bright spot in the story of the social sector’s response to the public health emergency. It is the story of how systems-informed collaborative networks are effectively and efficiently responding to the emerging needs of member organizations in crisis by leveraging their organizational systems to mobilize funding — in effect, playing a role that individual funders are typically not able to fill on short notice.

This conversation with Debra Erenberg is the second of two interviews with collaborative network leaders who have acted swiftly, with equal parts compassion and courage, to move funds and design new programming to address urgent needs of frontline organizations and the communities they serve. (You can read the first interview with Melissa Gavin, chief network officer with the RE-AMP Network, here). Erenberg is the strategic director of the Cancer Free Economy Network (CFE), a collaborative network of organizations from across sectors that came together to address the systemic issue of toxic chemicals impacting human health. Through its work, CFE is expanding the movement to protect people from harmful chemicals, uniting advocates and scientists working on cancer, public health, fossil-fuel reduction, economic justice, and more.

“We’ve built a level of trust and mutual support that you don’t often see when people come together across different sectors, locations, and areas of focus,” says Erenberg of CFE — highlighting two qualities enabling resilient collaborative networks to rise to the challenge of the time, along with their nimbleness and adaptability. In our conversation Erenberg illustrates how, in addition to providing emergency funding, CFE has helped its member organizations pivot rapidly in radical ways — even moving into tech development — to meet the needs of vulnerable constituencies such as day laborers and warehouse workers on the front lines of the coronavirus fight. Erenberg describes a network using its clear purpose and strong values as a guide to navigate uncertainty and change. In her story I see what’s possible when diverse individuals and organizations act together for the good of the whole.

Jessica Conrad: Can you share what CFE’s member organizations are facing today as a result of the pandemic?

Debra Erenberg: Since our network takes a cross-sector approach, our member organizations are experiencing a range of impacts. Some member organizations are used to working remotely and have largely been able to continue doing what they do. Other member organizations have had to cancel major fundraising events and are really struggling to figure out how they’re going to meet payroll in a couple of months. This is of course very frightening from a nonprofit management point of view, and we want to make sure that we don’t lose any of these organizations.

Then we have organizations that have pivoted their entire area of work in direct response to the COVID-19 crisis. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, for example, usually provides trainings and advocacy to help nail salon workers protect themselves from toxic chemicals and advocate for safer nail polishes and related products. They’ve pivoted because their members, the manicurists who rely on them, are suddenly without any source of income. So the collaborative is providing food and emergency funds to help support these individuals. Other CFE member organizations, like the New Jersey Work Environment Council, Make the Road New York, and the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health are working directly with people on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis by providing information about how to stay safe or providing emergency protective gear to day laborers, warehouse workers, domestic workers — people who are essential to our response to the crisis and who aren’t receiving any formal means of support or protection.

Jessica Conrad: How is CFE supporting member organizations during this time of uncertainty?

Debra Erenberg: We’re looking at all the ways our network is set up to support our members in response to a crisis like this. Early on, we recognized that we have a lot of public health professionals and worker safety trainers within our network from organizations like the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, the Children’s Environmental Health Network, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), and others. So we pulled together a webinar for members to discuss what was known about the virus at the time and how to protect ourselves and the people our members work with.

Since we have deep relationships with our members, and since we understand their work and the constituencies they serve, we were also able to launch an emergency response fund very quickly to provide grants of up to $20,000. That’s not a huge amount of money, but for organizations that just need a bridge between now and the time when other foundation or government resources become available, it can go a long way. We’ve been able to make emergency funds available to groups responding to COVID-19 that have diverted their already limited budgets to be able to provide desperately needed thermometers and protective gear, like Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center in New Jersey and Make the Road New York. We’ve also been able to support groups like Green the Church, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and the NAACP North Oakland County Branch with funding to develop and provide meaningful and useful virtual trainings in place of the in-person activities they normally offer. People tend to think it’s just a matter of getting these groups a Zoom account, but it’s often not that simple. These groups also need to figure out how to make sure the people they serve, who are often on the other side of the digital divide, can access and participate in these trainings. Members like Green the Church, the Blue Green Alliance and the CA Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative are now developing apps or mass-texting capacity because their members are more likely to have a smartphone than a computer with internet access.

Finally, since a large number of our member organizations are overwhelmed with 24/7 emergency response activities, we’ve arranged for staff time from one member organization, the Labor Institute, to walk groups through the process of applying for SBA Paycheck Protection Program loans and other government support that they might not otherwise have had the capacity to access on their own.

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Images of CFE member organization Wind of the Spirit Immigration Resource Center (WotS). With their office in Morristown, New Jersey remaining open to the public, WotS continues to provide direct peer education through their volunteer Public Health Community Promoters. WotS trains new volunteers and offers small group trainings for OSHA 10 general industry, OSHA 10 construction, and disaster site workers, all the while following prevention measures, such as taking people’s temperatures, following social distance guidelines, and wearing face covers. WotS is on track to make and distribute 5,000 cloth face covers with educational handouts to community members in the Morris County area.

Jessica Conrad: Does CFE already have structures in place for mobilizing the emergency response fund? What does the network’s internal process look like?

Debra Erenberg: In terms of the fund itself, the first thing we did was to reassign some of our program budget for 2020. We have an emergent opportunities fund, as opposed to an emergency fund, which is designed to promote collaboration and innovation within the network and to support new projects getting off the ground. With this system already in place, adapting in an emergency context is not a stretch. We redeployed some of the emergent opportunities funding, as well as some funds we had budgeted for in-person convenings that now need to be postponed. Some of our funders have also offered generous support. In the first month of operation, this has allowed us to get more than $200,000 into the hands of organizations that might not be able to continue their vitally important work without this quick infusion of support.

Yet we’re still seeing significantly greater need than we’re able to meet. So we’re actively reaching out to other funders in the hope that we can continue to build up the emergency response fund. We also participated in #GivingTuesdayNow, featuring video testimonials from some of our emergency response fund recipients, as a way to both elevate their important work and drive some additional support to the fund. The proposals keep coming in, and a lot of applicants are working with people who always fall through the gaps in our social safety net and are once again on the front lines. I don’t think most people in our country are even aware of how much we rely on these organizations to protect the people who are keeping things running while the rest of us shelter in place.

In terms of process, we’ve been able to move really quickly in response to the proposals coming in. We set up a team including myself and a representative from each of our four major working groups, and we’re meeting frequently to review proposals, make decisions, and get back to people within just a few days. What we’re seeing suggests that the speed of our response is almost as important as the amount that we’re able to provide. When organizations know they’re going to have funding in the bank, they can make plans and move things forward.

Jessica Conrad: How does CFE’s ability to respond to member organizations’ needs differ from that of a more traditional funder?

Debra Erenberg: Well, we have these deep, ongoing working relationships with a large number of member organizations. We understand the context of our members’ work when they surface problems and share how they plan to address them. We’ve built a rapid response team that includes representatives from each of our working groups who understand members’ needs and capacities even more deeply. Most foundations don’t have these things, which positions CFE to play an important role in the response to COVID-19.

Also, many of our member organizations that work with vulnerable communities and constituencies who may be undocumented or may not speak English are facing some unique and urgent challenges. These organizations are the least likely to have ongoing relationships with foundations. So we can help raise up their work and provide faster support than a foundation that may not have the connection and understanding that this particular organization has a very effective model for supporting day laborers or warehouse workers whose work is extremely critical right now.

Jessica Conrad: What qualities of a collaborative network, as opposed to other forms of organizing, are enabling CFE’s response to COVID-19?

Debra Erenberg: The fact that we are a collaborative network means we came together in the spirit of a sharing economy. People joined CFE not to see how it could serve their needs, but rather to learn, to bring what they could offer, and to discover what others have to contribute to the collective work. This is the mindset people approach their participation with. Over time, we’ve made a real effort to build deep relationships rather than only build the structures for collaboration. As a result, people have shared themselves, their work, and their struggles. We’ve built a level of trust and mutual support that you don’t often see when people come together across different sectors, locations, and areas of focus. So we’ve come into this crisis understanding the important work our members are doing and the struggles they, and the communities they serve, are dealing with. All this has enabled our response to COVID-19 and the needs that are emerging. When we proposed re-purposing a significant amount of the network’s funds to directly support members in need, and members doing work during this emergency that technically falls outside the scope of the network’s day to day operations, there was no push back from anyone in the network. The only response was “How can we do more?”

Jessica Conrad: In our email exchange you mentioned one grant applicant who, upon learning their application had been deferred, made a comment that really seemed to signal this “for the good of the whole” mentality.

Debra Erenberg: Yes, it was a lovely response. This applicant, just like everybody else, is very worried about funds coming in and eager to hear whether CFE will be able to provide support and in what amount. To hear them say, “It absolutely makes sense to prioritize other groups with the most urgent need on the front lines of the issue,” was a great reinforcement of both the network’s values and the approach we’re taking to the emergency response fund. We’re really leaning into our equity principles in our decision making and keeping an eye on our guiding star, which is to lift the burden of cancers and other diseases by driving a dramatic and equitable transition from toxic substances in our lives, communities, and economy to safe and healthy alternatives for all.

Jessica Conrad: Given CFE’s commitment to driving a dramatic and equitable transition, what are your thoughts on making a just response to the pandemic?

Debra Erenberg: The biggest thing is prioritizing making resources and support available to the people and communities who are being hit first and worst, as we say, by this pandemic. They are also the same constituencies and communities that are hit first and worst by toxic chemicals and related health consequences. With the COVID-19 crisis and the toxic chemical crisis, we’re starting out by lifting up the stories and the needs of those who are hardest hit.

A just response to the pandemic means that nobody has to return to work before adequate measures can be taken to protect their health. A just response requires that everyone has access to needed health care. It means that nobody should lose their home, their water, or their power due to financial hardships. Ultimately, a just response means that we as a society need to do a much better job of looking after each other.

As for CFE’s response, we are proactively reaching out to member organizations that we know are doing crisis-related work on the ground to make sure they know about the funding opportunity and to find out about their plans to apply. We continue to receive proposals that we weren’t expecting as well, so we’re experiencing a push-pull. We don’t want to give away all the money right away because who knows what will come next? At the same time we want to make sure that proposals for really compelling and important work get the support that they need.

Jessica Conrad: What challenges are you experiencing in CFE’s response to COVID?

Debra Erenberg: Right now the biggest challenge is finding enough funds to meet these needs as quickly as possible. Foundations, by and large, aren’t equipped to respond quickly to emergencies. We’re actively getting grants out the door. Waiting a couple of months or more for a foundation’s board to make a decision is not an option for a lot of our member organizations. So we’re scrounging for available funds in our own budget, and we’re assessing whether or not the proposals we receive can be delayed or deferred so we can get to the most immediate needs first. That’s critical. There’s just so much more we could be doing to support our members if CFE had the funding. We’ve even started receiving requests for funding from non-member organizations doing similar work. Right now, we’re not able to offer them support, and it’s heart-breaking. There’s so much more we’d like to do.

As a network, we’re also facing an issue that a lot of movements are facing today. With everyone’s attention on the pandemic (rightfully so), how do we, or how can we, advance the work we had planned when this hit? We’re just starting conversations about how to move the work of the network forward during and in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. While it will be difficult, I think there will be opportunities because COVID-19 has elevated the importance of public health. It has also elevated the disparities in our society and in our ability to access health and healthcare, issues that sit at the heart of our work.

Jessica Conrad: The pandemic has an episodic quality to it. Since CFE is a national network with members spread out across the U.S., groups are likely experiencing COVID-19 “peaks” at different times. How has this been for the network?

Debra Erenberg: In some ways we’re set up well to deal with COVID-19 because our members are used to collaborating virtually and meeting via Zoom. There wasn’t really a break in our stride in that sense. Yet at the same time (this is something I’ve tried hard to communicate to our members) just because we can continue the way we always have, doesn’t mean that we should. Like you said, initially West Coast states shut down and members in that region felt more isolated. Then we saw many of our members in the New York City area completely overwhelmed and starting to get sick. Then it was members in the Midwest who were experiencing losses. Challenges and needs have been spreading geographically as the virus spreads.

All this being said, school shutdowns and stay-at-home orders across the country have radically affected people’s capacity and ability to work. So we’ve made a conscious effort to slow down much of the work and many of our discussions. We’ve also been in the process of building and launching a collaborative online platform, and we’ve rolled it out more quickly than expected to support remote conversations that people will be able to access over time even if they can’t make a phone call today.

Jessica Conrad: I also wanted to check in about what you’ve experienced in your own life as a result of the pandemic. What practices are you using to keep yourself centered and focused?

Especially during the first couple weeks of the pandemic, I found it difficult to focus given the speed at which the news was coming in. I had to push off anything that wasn’t time sensitive. What’s been most overwhelming and stressful is hearing what a toll the pandemic is taking on our members personally and on the people they serve. I want to do everything possible to provide some support.

My partner and I are also navigating a family health crisis that’s not related to the virus, thankfully, but it has made our family member’s healthcare more difficult. Our family has also experienced layoffs. So these other things inside my family — health and livelihood — are also weighing on me. It’s not easy for us, nor is it easy for anyone!

Now that we’re a couple months in, I have adopted some good practices to help me manage the uncertainty of the time. I’ve started limiting my intake of news and social media. I glance at headlines in the morning, and then shut off the news. Also, importantly, knowing that we’re getting support out to groups doing such important work has helped me feel I’m contributing to something really important and valuable at this time.

Jessica Conrad: Thanks so much, Debra. Is there anything else we didn’t speak about that you’d like to add?

Debra Erenberg: Yes, one more thing. When people think about environmental health or the environment, they may not initially think about groups that are providing incredibly necessary services to really vulnerable people. I think our network is fairly unique because it includes groups with legal, public health, supply chain and cancer expertise, community leaders and frontline organizations. Their response to this crisis really demonstrates the value of a multi-sector approach.

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

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