As 2021 ended, from my desk in the Executive Director office of a family resource center in Longmont, Colorado, I found myself feeling optimistic that the beginning of a new year would bring about a respite from all the stress and hardship that was created by the pandemic. After all, we did have reason for hope. The tidal wave of Omicron was subsiding, indications were that the spread of COVID-19 would continue to significantly decline, mask mandates were being dropped, and many aspects of life that many of us took for granted were returning to “normal.”
Although I knew that the light at the end of the tunnel did not mean that the harmful consequences of the pandemic would quickly recede, there was still some hope both that my team would have an opportunity to catch our collective breath after two years of operating in a crisis response mode – and that our clients might also catch a break.
Wearing my Executive Director hat, the OUR Center and Aspen Center (our preschool) teams had experienced so much during the past two years: they had endured their own versions of the stress of being “first responders” – in our case, responding to families hit hardest by the closing down of their work places, often restaurants and retail, those whose jobs didn’t (and would never) include the option of working from home, those whose safety margins are always unimaginably thin. The team had adapted, had continued to serve, to work harder than they ever had, responding to ever-increasing participant numbers and needs.
They certainly deserved a break from all things COVID. We all did.
Little did we know the next crisis was already looming just over the horizon. Unfortunately, the world had a different plan for us all. The next gut punches were coming: not in the form of COVID (at least not at this moment) but in the form of inflation.
As I drive to work each morning, I pass several gas stations and as I go by each one, my heart sinks. Since January 1st, gas prices along the Front Range have nearly doubled. As gas prices rise, so does the cost of all our other basic needs. This together with the skyrocketing housing and rental market, means those we serve are again getting hammered. The OUR Center is once again experiencing a significant uptick in the number of families facing economic uncertainty and reaching out to us for help with food, rent, clothing, and other basic needs.
For example, since the beginning of March, our Community Market has experienced a 30 percent increase in the number of families experiencing food insecurity and accessing our food pantry. Each of these families has a unique and difficult story. Many of these families are new to our services and were already struggling as they lived paycheck to paycheck. It didn’t take long for these families to exhaust savings and extra resources during the pandemic. Now, these families are unable to keep up with the inflationary increases affecting the costs of gas, food, rent, etc. This is only one example of how the OUR Center is currently witnessing firsthand a significant and rapid increase in community needs.
My worries do not end with struggling households in our communities. Often, my thoughts extend to my team at both the OUR Center and Aspen Center. Since I joined this team, one of my top priorities has been to increase the wages of our team with a specific focus on our front-line staff (community facing and teaching staff). After a couple years of hard work and generous support, it felt like we were starting to make some real inroads on this goal; however, in just a few short months inflation has negated these efforts. Now, the challenge is not only how to ensure a livable wage in a very expensive county, but how to keep up with inflation? If our organization is unable to ensure the basic needs of our team, how can we expect our team members to be there and be resilient for the community?
Yes, things are hard here. And what’s also true: there is a solid sense of purpose and impact in the work we do, which continues to fuel us.
Through these relentless times, I have been challenged as a leader, and here are a few ways I am learning to become a more effective and efficient leader:
1. Even though I believe and strive to be humble in all aspects of my life, I’ve had to learn it is okay to “brag” about the Center and the great work my team is doing. I have been asked countless times to speak about the impact we are having as a nonprofit, about the relief we are offering to some of our hardest-hit community members. It has stretched me to go out and do that, but it turns out that putting my comfort aside and being able to talk about our impact has really made a difference in fundraising.
2. It’s been a constant search for balance: my team, the mission, our community and its needs. Before, I primarily focused on the community and our participant’s needs. As a leader during Covid, I’ve shifted and rebalanced: understanding that without an amazing team, there is no support of the community. So I understand that my leadership must maintain a healthy balance between focusing on community needs and keeping my team functioning, resourced, and appreciated.
3. I have opened and broadened my definition of “rest” in service of resilience. When dealing with a team that has had few breaks over the past 2+ years, we have had to get very creative – and personalized – with what each person on my team can and will do to recharge. Some need to be acknowledged; others have needed longer stretches of time off or the flexibility to continue to work from home. I am trying to listen and learn and insist that some of my dedicated employees find a way to rest.
4. We are looking to build in longer-term strategies based on this concept. Here’s an example: we had a conference room that was never used. Based on what was needed, we are converting this space into a recovery room for my team members. It’s a quiet space for our staff to catch their breath after a hard interaction, to regroup, even to shed some tears. In the very near future, we will be offering sabbaticals to staff to help them regroup. My intention is for these areas of relief to be permanent.
5. I have a renewed commitment to collaboration. Understanding that my team members are often walking on a tightrope of stress, I have been reluctant to ask my staff to do more. My first instinct has been to do it myself, but I discovered during the pandemic that I actually can’t, as my plate has also been overly full. I have discovered that this is the absolute wrong time for me to pull back and that my teams have more capacity than I realized. Consequently, I have recommitted myself to a collaborative leadership approach where I communicate the challenge or need and ask the team how they would tackle the issue. It has inspired amazing resourcefulness and creative solutions.
I know many of my peers in direct service are experiencing similar stories. Despite the continued uncertainty that surrounds us all, I know one constant to be true: if we call on our Leadership Teams to continue to explore all possible creative solutions, we will do better. With everyone’s creativity and well-being being considered, we can best not only support struggling families in our service area but also our fellow staff members and other nonprofits.
With the amazing and continued support of our community partners, funders, like-minded leaders, volunteers, and dedicated individual donors, I am fully confident we will conquer this latest crisis and continue to keep our “OUR Center” – more than just a name – and our community, strong.
Marc Cowell, Executive Director of the Outreach United Resources Center, a Family Resource Center serving the St Vrain Valley, has proudly dedicated his entire career to serving others in the community. Throughout his career, Marc has served on numerous councils, local advisory boards and commissions and nonprofit board of directors. When he is not attempting to make his community a better place one day at a time, you will usually find him spending time with his wife, Dawn and their two Keeshonds, Shadow and Dutchess, enjoying time wrenching on his old Jeep Commando or sitting on a bucket as a long tenured and very successful high school head baseball coach.