Taking the helm during a pandemic: A tale of two (new) nonprofit leadersThe Nonprofit Journal Project

"Sometimes, experience can get in the way. When you’re new, you have fresh eyes.”

There’s almost always a sharp learning curve when you assume the top leadership role at a nonprofit organization.

 

But when you happen to take the reins shortly before a pandemic stops the world, you inevitably face a kind of double transition into entirely new worlds.

 

We spoke with two local nonprofit leaders who took the reins just as the pandemic hit. Here are their stories.

 

CHRISTIAN GREER, MICHIGAN SCIENCE CENTER

 

Christian Greer left St. Louis to become President and CEO of the Michigan Science Center in July 2019, intrigued by both the innovation happening in Detroit and MSC’s unique facility.

 

“It had everything I would have wanted – an IMAX theater, great science exhibits, hands-on programs, and it was right next to other museums, right in the heart of the city,” said Greer, who noted that MSC had been without a CEO for a year when he arrived. “The challenge was the organization was in a little bit of chaos, understaffed and underfunded, so there wasn’t a lot to work with. But that can be both attractive and scary – attractive because you know you could go to a place and make a difference. … And if you’re a mission-driven person, that’s how you know you’re exactly where you should be.”

Christian Greer. Photo by Nick Hagen.

 

Greer added, with a chuckle, “I’d never been a CEO before, but what better place for me to go than a gritty city that went through bankruptcy a few years ago. That song, ‘if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere’ – it’s about New York, but it should be about Detroit.”

 

One of the first things Greer noticed upon his arrival was how few people staffed MSC.

 

“That’s not a complaint,” said Greer. “It’s just an observation. … IT, HR, the website, marketing stuff – everything was contracted out. … So that was a shocker.”

 

Greer worked hard to get MSC’s annual budget approved by December (something that hadn’t been happening in recent years) and to establish a more cohesive, positive work culture when COVID hit – just about 8 months after Greer’s arrival.

 

Fittingly, given his workplace, one of Greer’s go-to sources of inspiration was the movie “Apollo 13.”

 

“When the astronauts have that explosion on board their ship, and it seems like everything’s going wrong, the mission director says, let’s start with what’s working and work our way backward,” said Greer. “ … So my approach was, let’s act like this is a good thing for us and work with what we have.”

 

Greer and his team started streaming, via Facebook Live, daily science programs for kids (initially from the MSC building, then from a staffer’s basement); about two-thirds of the staff had to be laid off; Greer decided that rather than make guesses about the how the COVID crisis will unfold, MSC should instead focus on setting its own targets (close down during April, start preliminary planning in May, prepare for opening in June, and hopefully reopen in July); and Greer also announced that he didn’t want COVID to change MSC’s goals for the year.

 

“That was risky, as a new person,” Greer said. “I don’t think any other CEO was saying that. But to be honest, I thought it was the best way to approach this. … It’s like the guy who sits down at the poker table, and someone asks, ‘Do you know how to play?’ and he says, ‘No, but I can learn,’ and sometimes that guy wins. It’s beginner’s luck. … Sometimes, experience can get in the way. When you’re new, you have fresh eyes.”

 

Greer compared crisis management as a nonprofit leader to taking a high-level physics exam and thinking too hard about its questions.

 

“Sometimes, simple is better,” Greer said. “In a crisis, what you already know from other experiences comes out when it’s needed. It’s like muscle memory. … And there’s definitely a better likelihood of failing in a crisis that’s completely new – we haven’t seen a pandemic like this before – so I needed to make sure I didn’t make that mistake I’ve seen other CEOs make, especially nonprofit CEOs. We typically screw up and make all the wrong decisions by trying to balance the business side of things with the nonprofit mission side of things, when we should probably use neither. My advice is, … think about it as a value thing and work on reframing your value propositions to your target audiences.”

 

Greer knew that creating a safe-as-possible experience for visitors, once MSC could re-open its doors (as it did on July 10), was paramount, since particularly high-risk groups would be represented among them.

 

“We had to make sure we went above and beyond hand sanitizers and masks,” said Greer. “ … We used an airport theme, … and talked about how an airport traffic controller keeps the space safe, and we created runways. Usually, with our visitors there’s a pinball effect, where they just bounce around to different areas, discovering things, but we moved some exhibits around to guide people more, and we created lanes to come in and come out of certain areas.”

 

On the admin side, Greer said, “Because I was new, I thought the board would be all over me, so I acted swiftly on everything. But the board came through on the leading part, and they let us do our thing, and that, in the end, was everything. Because it’s a partnership. It’s the CEO, it’s the staff, it’s the board – everyone has to be in sync. And in the middle of all this chaos in the outside world, we did not have that in the boardroom, which was the blessing of this entire event. … We’re a learning organization, so we’re looking at what we will learn from this, as well as what not to do. … If you approach things that way, you’re more open to taking in new information.”

 

ROBERT JAMERSON, DETROIT PAL (POLICE ATHLETIC LEAGUE)

 

Robert Jamerson, meanwhile, grew up involved with the organization he’d one day lead through the COVID pandemic.

 

Jamerson began as a 9-year-old Detroit PAL athlete who – in addition to playing football at the collegiate level – went on to be a coach and consultant for the organization. And while he spent the bulk of his professional career working in the pharmaceutical industry and sales, Jamerson took the reins as Detroit PAL’s COO in January 2018.

Robert Jamerson. Photo by Nick Hagen.

 

“What’s interesting is, I’ve had the chance to use so many of my experiences from other parts of my career already,” said Jamerson. “ … Because of the pandemic, I have to look at hard necessities, like right-sizing and think about how to plan for the future while getting through the present. … If I didn’t have experience in the corporate world, I would be lost right now.”

 

Having grown up in Detroit, Jamerson also understands how both his staffers and his constituents have been feeling during the crisis.

 

“When this pandemic hit, the health disparity in the black community – the loss of life, the fear –… we’re all seeing this day after day, and that’s really stressful,” said Jamerson. (To help meet this need head-on, Detroit PAL has hosted virtual discussions on various topics for young people.)

 

And while the pandemic has hit all nonprofits hard, Jamerson’s organization has three extra layers of challenge. One is that Detroit PAL, which offers enrichment and sports programming for kids, has been housed at the old Tiger Stadium (now called The Corner Ballpark) since 2018, and one stream of PAL’s revenue involves renting the park to companies, groups, and individuals for events.

 

“Detroit PAL is uniquely positioned,” said Jamerson. “We’re blessed with this facility, but we’re also now jeopardized by this facility. … When you’re in a state-of-the-art building, there’s ten to twelve thousand dollars of overhead that’s coming in each month, so we’re now kind of at the mercy of this disease and government mandates.”

 

And telling potential donors and sponsors that their money is most urgently needed now to pay bills and staffers, rather than funding specific programs, makes fundraising in a pandemic all the more difficult.

 

“It’s the hardest thing to explain,” said Jamerson. “Yes, our programs are for kids, but if there’s no staff to plan and run them, you’ve lost a vital part of what it is we do.”

 

Another challenge concerns the current political climate. Traditionally, PAL organizations across the country have aimed to strengthen police-community relations, with officers volunteering as coaches, tutors, and teachers.

 

“Detroit PAL has been here for fifty years, humanizing officers, but also helping officers understand how to respect the communities they serve,” said Jamerson. “ … But now it’s difficult even having the word police in our name. People ask me all the time, is this part of the police department or a community organization? … But we’re not funded by police. They donate officers as volunteers.”

 

Finally, playing sports is central to many of Detroit PAL’s programs, and in the early months of the shutdown, sports were broadly deemed unsafe.

 

“We kept coming back to the fact that high contact sports were riskier, so, OK, let’s look at sports with limited contact,” said Jamerson. “Plus, one thing we do is mentor training, and coach training, so maybe as part of that, we build in COVID training as well, so we can do some limited contact sports in a safe way.”

 

Detroit PAL decided to offer a limited baseball option for kids during the summer, hosting it at PAL’s facility only, so as to have full control over safety measures.

 

“We completed a 60 or 70 game season without incident, but those safety protocols needed to be in place,” said Jamerson.

 

Even so, losing registrations for other sports has equated to a significant loss of funding for the organization itself.

 

“As a new person in leadership, some of those (funding) relationships aren’t established yet,” said Jamerson. “You still have to prove yourself to people.”

 

One way Jamerson aimed to do that is by thinking outside the box, partnering with Daryl Bingham and the Drone Apprenticeship Program for an on-site experience for kids, and teaming up with Brilliant Detroit to present literacy programs online.

 

“In my short time here, I’ve changed our mission to more broadly help youth find their greatness,” said Jamerson. “ … We’re discovering things we can do not just now but in the future. And as a leader, I want to move away from numbers. A lot of people base success off numbers, but I want to do it with impact.”