Missed our last Global Viewpoints Forum? Catch up here! Steering a Global Nonprofit through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Erik Dyson joined us last Wednesday at our Global Viewpoints Forum to share some insight on how companies and organizations are adapting to the pandemic. Dyson is a man of diverse background, working with Boston Properties building skyscrapers, running lotteries in South America, and volunteering with a young Habitat for Humanity, along with his wife. He is now CEO of All Hands and Hearts, a volunteer coordinator that “mobilize[s] the people and resources needed to provide resilient relief to communities impacted by natural disasters.” In last week’s Global Viewpoints Forum, Erik shared the ways in which his organization had to adapt their model to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how other individuals and organizations are experiencing the same challenges. 

All Hands and Hearts has served over 20 countries and had over 61,000 volunteers in its lifetime. In addition to putting 96 cents of every dollar back into the programs that All Hands and Hearts funds, the company operates under a free and open door, residential and flexible volunteer model that attempts to ensure the maximum participation and community impact. Volunteers are encouraged to come as they are and as their schedule allows, flowing freely in and out of a shared volunteer residence. The volunteers can leave for work or other familial obligations, and live, work, and eat with other volunteers at no cost to them. 

Unfortunately, at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in the spring of 2020, All Hands and Hearts faced challenges that could make or break the organization. Borders closed and internal travel was restricted, and genuine risks were posed to volunteers who were constantly together in small, shared spaces. Due to the risk of volunteers spreading infection to each other and the communities they were attempting to help, the open-door policy had to be scrapped and the residential plan reimagined. Dyson reports that there were hard decisions to be made if the organization wanted to survive until the fall of 2020. 

“We had to cut to the bone of the organization,” Dyson says, including cutting costs and letting “some amazing people go.” This is indicative of the reality of many organizations this year. They have had to not only reframe the core of their companies, but rework their staff, their budget, and their day-to-day operations. 

Ultimately, Dyson and his team at All Hands and Hearts developed DM12, or Disaster Management 12 weeks. In this new model, all travel expenses and plans are covered and organized by the organization itself. This way, they can gauge travel and be as prepared as possible. Volunteers dedicate their time to a 12 week term of service, broken up into pods of volunteers that live and work together in different areas of need. They travel as one cohort, coming and leaving together. Although imperfect, Dyson stressed All Hands and Hearts’ need to make swift and confident decisions to be able to salvage their operations. While the team was doing as much as possible to move things around, they realized they could not reconcile their model with the ever changing reality of the pandemic, and decided on the DM12 model. 

Dyson remarked that organizations trying to juggle the pandemic have to “stop and understand where you are in a difficult situation.” Much like All Hands and Hearts, organizations may not be able to continue with their current business model. To this Dyson says, “don’t be afraid to make decisions even when the information is imperfect or incomplete,” and draws from a quote from CEO of Habitat for Humanity, Jonathan Reckford, that stresses “being religious about our principles but not our tactics.” This is precisely what All Hands and Hearts had to do to adapt to the ever changing COVID-19 pandemic. 

We thank Erik Dyson for taking the time to speak last Wednesday. His insight into the predicament of the pandemic is just one of many relevant and critical topics covered in our biweekly Global Viewpoints Forum.

Join us on Wednesday, November 11th for the next Global Viewpoints Forum with Mitra Nafissian Rash