Article by Eric Phelps
Fifty years ago this spring, the Apollo 13 manned mission to the moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center (April 11, 1970). The third such planned journey to the moon, the mission was to enter lunar orbit on Friday, April 13, land on the moon and return with rock samples for laboratory study. The crew was experienced, willing and ready to set out for the stars.
With a small exception, Apollo 13’s launch into space went off without a hitch. They successfully retrieved, extracted and connected the lunar module to the capsule and even did a brief television broadcast. But shortly after the broadcast, Astronaut Jack Swigert executed the order to stir the oxygen tanks. After flipping the switch, there was an explosion that rocked the entire vehicle and prompted the often misquoted line, “Okay, Houston – we’ve had a problem here.” In that moment, their mission changed from safely landing on the moon to safely landing back on earth.
The COVID-19 Crisis has some things in common with the Apollo 13 mission, especially in relation to crisis management, leadership development, problem solving and improvisation. The two situations also share a need to quickly shift priorities and develop a new plan. While the metaphor is imperfect, there are some parallels that may be useful for our consideration with our nonprofits.
- Launch Is Normal – January 2020 began like any other year for most of us. If nothing else, there was a sense of energy as we entered a new decade and confidence in the strong support for nonprofits.
- The Explosion – There were signs of trouble based on global health warnings as early as December and US alerts began in January, but the real “explosion” for most of us was in mid-March. Schools were ordered to close, public facilities and non-essential businesses were shuttered and gatherings of more than ten people were prohibited. Many nonprofit fundraisers were cancelled, staff shifted to working from home, programs were disrupted and strategic plans were indefinitely put on the shelf. This phase was characterized by confusion, short-term thinking and immediate problem-solving (What will we do to serve our clients? How can I run this program online? How will we make payroll??)
- The Assessment – Just as with the Apollo 13 crew, all of us needed to look at our “Control Panel” and quickly understand our current conditions. Do we have enough oxygen on board (cash in the bank)? How can we start up our alternative space, the lunar module, to support ourselves (what alternatives do we have for programming? How can we generate new income in the short-term?). This phase, which continues for many, has been characterized by more problem-solving, short-term thinking and ongoing uncertainty. Many senior leaders have said or heard, “We just don’t know the answer to that question right now and therefore it’s hard to plan.” But also, as with Apollo 13, the team had to throw out the flight plan, improvise new solutions, act quickly and do their best not to make things worse with their educated guesses.
- The Realization – What we all did know in fairly short order was that we generally had reduced revenue (cancellation of events and programs), increased costs (equipment, PPE) and that we were no longer “landing on the moon.” We were now juggling new challenges of social distancing, home schooling, remote work or no work and new restrictions on our lives. When the Apollo 13 crew moved into the lunar module, which ensured they were going to survive for the time being, they were severely restricted in where they could move, what they could do and how they needed to work as a team. There was some blame (What switch did you hit?! Whose fault is this?!) and lots of new stresses. One problem, for example: The lunar module was originally designed to hold two people, not three.
- The Need for Improvisation –During the Apollo 13 mission, everyone at NASA was required to generate new solutions to emerging, and often life-threatening, problems. Similarly, organizations have to generate new answers. Some utilized their spaces differently – what was once a warehouse is now an office. Many have taken programs online – Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc. Some have held virtual fundraisers – cocktail hours with celebrity guests. Many have adjusted to having a majority of their workforce in remote settings. It is this skill, perhaps more than any other, that has enabled organizations to work effectively to this point.
- The New Mission – There is a point in the Apollo 13 when Jim Lovell realizes he has a new mission. When they must shut down the valves to the oxygen tank, he knows that they are no longer going to land on the moon. Later, as Haise and Swigert are looking like tourists at the lunar surface, Lovell asks his fellow astronauts, “Gentlemen – what are your intentions? Because I want to go home.” For many of our organizations, we are now in this phase.
- While not changing our organizational Mission Statement, we are setting a new course for our redefined “home.” We may have secured enough funding to make it through the summer (PPP, emergency grants, new gifts from major donors, loans, etc.) but we have to chart and navigate a new direction for the remainder of 2020.
- To be clear, this is NOT “the new normal.” Instead, this is a Longer-term Short-term Plan (LSP!) that remains largely tactical, but also ensures that we have enough resources to make it through the next year. This may mean cuts to personnel or programs so that we have to find entirely new revenue streams. It will often mean implementing the long dormant elements of your Development Plan.
- In planning, it is said that you should “start with the end in mind.” For the Apollo team, nothing they did would matter if they could not restart the capsule and return safely to earth. It is incumbent on us as leaders to continue looking for the solutions that will enable us to successfully achieve this new mission.
- More Problem Solving – As the crew is pointed back to earth, they encounter many more problems. One significant one is how to restart the capsule computer with only the available battery power. The crew is working diligently day and night, but they can’t find a solution. The astronauts grow impatient for a solution, nearly reaching the breaking point. Some of our leadership is experiencing this as well because some problems have yet to be solved, and solutions are complicated. In this situation, we have to communicate that we are doing our best, but we are not quite there yet. And only the best possible solution that takes into account all known (and some unknown) circumstances is worth sharing. This new problem solving (re-opening, balancing the budget, weighing the impact of program changes, etc.) requires a deeper thinking process… and while we’re on a deadline, it cannot be rushed.
- The Evaluation and Re-design (Note: NOT Quite There Yet!) – For the duration of the Apollo 13 flight, they did not know the cause of the accident. It was later discovered that some wiring installed nearly two years before the launch had short-circuited during the tank stir. In total, NASA made more than 17 mechanical improvements to the capsule and lunar module. The investigation team (including Neil Armstrong) also looked at what worked in the response. They noted that the team had successfully communicated the problem, worked out solutions and provided clear direction.
Similarly, you will be undertaking an evaluation of what worked and considering improvements that will strengthen your organization and enable you to more effectively meet challenges in the future. Here is what we have heard from clients that you may want to consider:
- Our board was far more engaged than usual and helped us with brainstorming, problem-solving, and implementation. This is the way we should continue to engage the board.
- The senior leadership (staff and board) communicated our needs, impact, challenges and proposed solutions more regularly and more clearly.
- During COVID-19, our board reached out to more than 100 major donors by phone with “check-in calls” (a.k.a. stewardship and cultivation). They can do this year-round and from now on.
- We found new and creative ways to make our annual (boring) fundraiser engaging and fun (same color worn by all attendees, remote guest spots, engagement of people outside our region, reunion of alumni and staff, etc.) We can incorporate some of these elements in our work going forward.
- We dropped programs that were not meeting pressing needs. We added programs that address current community concerns and there was tremendous response
- We discovered that some of our staff had skills they were not using in their previously defined roles. Some really stepped up by connecting with donors, social media, writing, and other immediate needs. This demonstrates that we can call on them to effectively do this in the future.
The Apollo 13 mission was later called “a successful failure” in that it did not achieve what it set out to do, but it did succeed in bringing everyone safely back to earth. People around the world followed the story of the endangered crew and they celebrated together when they safely splashed down in the South Pacific.
Our organizations are now facing significant challenges as we continue through the journey that has become 2020. And while our original plans have been unhappily interrupted, we now have a new mission – to bring everyone safely home and then to re-design for the future. Using our skills in improvisation, problem-solving and creativity, I am confident that many will emerge from these challenges and be strengthened by the experience. But this time is critical. It is not the end of the journey but rather the swing around the moon back toward earth. For some, the food is frozen, we can’t sleep and the journey seems just too long to endure. Now we must continue our resolve, maintain our focus, make smart tactical and strategic choices – all while keeping up our organizational morale and resolve. But just as this nearly impossible mission was a success, I believe that we have the capacity to achieve what we have set out to do even venturing beyond where we ever thought we could go.