Adapting a Nonprofit to Challenging New Conditions | An Interview with Megha Desai was originally published on Idealist Careers.
An estimated nine in 10 nonprofits worldwide were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has therefore become increasingly important that social-impact organizations be able to adapt their priorities or service models in response to crises like this one.
I spoke about this with Megha Desai, the president of the Desai Foundation, which supports women and children through community health and livelihood initiatives in India and the US. We discussed how the foundation has met specific challenges that have arisen in India as a result of the pandemic.
Q: How was your mission affected by the pandemic?
A: Over the course of any given month, the Desai Foundation has somewhere between 50 and 100 programs that are set up on the ground. In the first couple months of the pandemic, it took a lot of effort to just dismantle those programs—from letting people know that we can’t host it anymore, to figuring out what to do with the resources and staff, to setting the right expectations on the ground. So from a programmatic perspective, it really stopped us from being able to offer the programs that we are so used to being able to deliver.
The second issue was staffing—we were seeing a lot of organizations, similar in size to us, just totally pausing. And what that meant was that they were laying off staff. We have 30 full-time staff members around the world, and we just didn’t feel like that was the right decision. Right off the bat we made a pledge to everyone on our staff that nobody would be let go for COVID-related reasons. We had to make that decision knowing how deeply that was going to impact our bottom line and cut into our reserves.
But the third and most important way it affected us was realizing that we had people who were ready, willing, and able to work—and we had constituents that needed our services. Other problems had arisen from the pandemic, like food insecurity at a higher level than before, or simply people not knowing how to reach out and get resources. It was the team on the ground, with our guidance, that came up with the Masks of HOPE campaign.
Q: Tell us about Masks of HOPE.
A: Masks of HOPE provides flexible jobs and distributes reusable, two-layer masks to the most vulnerable communities in the three states that we serve: Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. We did spend a lot of time figuring out how we could make surgical masks and automate that because our initial gut reaction was that we needed as many masks as possible. The more and more we dove into it, we realized that technically it was more difficult. We were trying to convert our sanitary napkin machines into making masks, and we were able to make the masks themselves, but it turns out putting the elastic earloops on is really a difficult process from a mechanical perspective. So we had to cut our losses on that. But we thought to ourselves, why not create job opportunities for all these women we have trained to sew, and have them produce masks?
Q: So Masks of HOPE really grew out of an existing program?
A: Yes, these women have been trained through our sewing program. We teach not only the craft of sewing, but we also incorporate entrepreneurship so that they know how to put their own bill together. What we’ve found is that most of the women who take the sewing class don’t end up getting the factory job—that’s just not the way the rural communities operate. What they end up doing is starting really small businesses (or two of them collectively will get together and start their own business), so we wanted to make sure they have the tools to do that.
Q: Are there any other programs that you’ve adapted in India at this time?
A: Yes, our Asani sanitary napkin program. We’re still producing pads in one of three centers. Another is operational a couple days a week. What’s cool about the sanitary napkin program is that most of the women that distribute the pads do it within their local community to begin with, so a lot of them haven’t really stopped, because of course periods don’t stop for pandemics.
We also started distributing pads very freely, which is not what we usually do. We sell our pads because we believe that when money is exchanged, information is exchanged and that’s a really important part of our model—especially when it comes to the supply chain of jobs and the commission that the women get. However, different times call for different approaches. So what we’ve been doing is if anyone calls us and asks for pads, we send the pads to them.
Q: What advice can you offer to other organizations that need to change how they provide services, keep their staff, or deliver programs internationally?
A: First and foremost, we can’t do any of our work without our staff. I think that in a nonprofit situation, unless you are literally about to zero out from a financial perspective, now is the time to cut into your endowment. Now is the time to lean heavily on your long-term donors and say, “Listen, I need to keep my staff on.” Honor your staff the way you expect them to honor the people they serve.
My second piece of advice is to listen to the people you serve. They will provide you with the ideas even when you are roadblocked.
My third piece of advice is that it’s okay to experiment and it’s okay to fail. I can guarantee that your donors are going to look upon you favorably for trying, especially when you’re adapting for such an unprecedented event. We’re very lucky that our program has been super successful, but it could have easily gone a different way, and that doesn’t make us a bad organization.
My last piece of advice is that this is an opportunity to look inward at your organization and ask: What are the frameworks that we’ve created that are too rigid? Where is there room for pliability and experimentation? Where is our little fund that we expect to lose every year through experimentation? Agility starts at the top of the organization.
The people on the ground are going to change and the people you serve are going to change. And let’s hope they change! No nonprofit should want to be in business in perpetuity. We try to put ourselves out of business region by region. We built this machine, we know how to deliver services, but now we don’t have to deliver that service anymore—so what do we deliver now? At the end of the day, you should aspire to be agile. That’s the foundation of any good business.