Sheldon Schwitek is among a number of West Michigan nonprofit executives who found themselves in new leadership positions in the middle of a pandemic.
Schwitek, executive director of The Arc Community Advocates in Kalamazoo, officially started on Jan. 6. He spent a month in Australia — a trip that had been planned prior to starting the job — before returning to host the ARC’s inclusion conference. It would be his last in-person gathering before state-mandated shutdown orders.
“I just made it under the wire,” he said. “In some ways it’s been easier for me to step into this role at this time because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what it was going to look like, which would have added another level of complexity.”
Jeff Romig, now president and executive director of the Gilmore Car Museum, said he knew what he was walking into when he was asked to assume a greater leadership role. He had been a board member of the Hickory Corners-based car museum for four years.
Romig — who retired a few years ago as vice president and general manager of the Eaton Corp. Vehicle Group — said leaders in all sectors have been affected.
“I have to say in my career that this has been one of the most significant leadership challenges I’ve ever had. This issue affects every man, woman and child in the world,” he said. “There weren’t really any answers. In a normal business situation you can say, ‘This occurred and now we have to come up with a plan to deal with it.’”
Developing a strategy to operate as normally as possible has been a challenge due to varying messages from the state and federal government, Romig said.
“From that standpoint with all of those things combined, it’s been a significant leadership challenge for anyone to get through. Decisions need to be made,” Romig said. “Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our employees and visitors. We’ve set that as the benchmark.”
Shared experiences, fundraising challenges
The list of nonprofits making leadership transitions during the pandemic also includes Grand Rapids-based Wedgwood Christian Services, which appointed Dan Gowdy as president and CEO on May 19; the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, which launched a search for a new executive director on July 29; and the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, which expects soon to name an interim executive director.
The Michigan Nonprofit Association has taken a lead role to ensure these new leaders have the support and tools they need to navigate the landscape.
MNA Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Kelley Kuhn said nearly a dozen new executive directors and CEOs have reached out to MNA to share their experiences, while the association also made wellness calls to nonprofit leaders.
“The resources we offered were very situational because some leaders were experiencing things differently,” Kuhn said. “Some common themes we shared with them were to ensure that they were communicating with the community and engaging with their board of directors first and foremost. And secondly, that they would be reaching out to their funders and donors.”
Romig said he was holding daily meetings with his leadership team and leading weekly meetings with his roughly 20 employees to update them on latest developments. He said he was uncomfortable seeking donations in the initial stages of the pandemic when the stock market was down and unemployment was high.
“We did have a spring membership drive where we actually did have a very generous partner that agreed to do a dollar for dollar match in April and May,” Romig said. “We doubled what our membership would have been and reconfigured our schedule for summer.”
The Arc’s two major fundraisers were canceled — Ribfest in August and Arctoberfest in the fall.
“Those were two pretty significant hits for us,” Schwitek said. “We’re really fortunate and got the Payroll Protection Program loan pretty quickly. The PPP loan was definitely a lifesaver for us. We haven’t had to lay anybody off. As things start to ramp up, our work will start to get busier.”
This includes writing five grants in the next two months, he said.
In addition to the outreach to stakeholders, Kuhn said there also has been discussion with nonprofits about looking at their business models and seeing how they could realign their work and take programming virtual.
As a consultant who spent the past 20 years traveling and working domestically and internationally, Schwitek says working remotely and virtually was not a new concept for him. “Thinking on my feet” is a phrase often used when he describes taking over a nonprofit during such uncertainty.
The Arc is an advocacy organization that helps people with a developmental disability participate fully in all aspects of the community and to support the effort of individuals to determine their own future.
Schwitek says it is a small organization with four full-time employees and one part-time employee. Typically, he and his staff would have been focusing their efforts on helping their younger clients wrap up their school year.
“Almost immediately, we all started working from home and sorting that out. This has been an ongoing process for everybody,” Schwitek said. “I’m very much relationship-based. Much of the work and expertise relies on relationship-building. Much of the work the Arc should be doing is building relationships around the community. … Much of my time was spent trying to keep staff morale up and the staff together.”
Annually, the ARC serves about 300 adults and children. Schwitek said he and his staff have done very little adult advocacy, answering about four calls in the last month. He said there are indications that this will increase.
Meanwhile, his staff has been checking in with clients to make sure they aren’t experiencing food or housing insecurity.
“Many of our clients are families with school-age kids,” Schwitek said. “What we do as a team is to make sure the other needs of our clients are being met.”
Kuhn said the MNA will be helping nonprofits think about how their response is going to happen in the coming months.
“Just imagine the overwhelming feeling of being a new nonprofit leader,” she said. “We want to help them realize the immediate relief that’s happening.”
The next phase — which Kuhn calls the response phase — will involve conversations about funding to cover operational expenses.
Kuhn said the economy is among a number of factors that will play into how well the nonprofit sector as a whole responds during these different phases.
“One of the things that’s helpful is creating opportunities for nonprofit leaders to connect or convene with one another. I think there’s some relief in knowing that you’re not going about it alone,” she said.
“I think long term there will be space for leaders to lead. This will involve breaking through the noise to identify protocols or processes, encouraging some longer-term thinking, and connecting with like-minded leaders facing similar circumstances.”
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