By Ajay Dahiya
It was a Monday in early March when I met with Lauren, James, and Carolyn on our executive team. We were starting to see the writing on the wall: COVID-19 was going to fundamentally change the world, to a greater extent than we could have ever imagined. It didn’t make sense to continue “business as usual.” In that meeting, we made a decision: we would pivot all of our focus to supporting frontline grassroots volunteers fighting COVID-19. We never looked back.
“Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.” -Booker T. Washington
That next Monday, we had already received hundreds of applications from changemakers around the globe with inspiring, community-led projects. There were people delivering food to orphanages on lockdown. We heard from doctors making hand sanitizer for needy families in urban slums. Nurses applied for projects focused on delivering food and hygiene supplies to elderly villagers. It’s been just over a month, and we are nearing 2,000 applications with no sign of slowing.
Over the last week, I’ve heard from several other organizations who want to make a pivot of their own. I describe how we revised our application process, created a COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, activated a network of nearly 4,000 volunteers around the world, selected new vetting criteria, onboarded dozens of volunteer advisors, and changed all of our communications. On these calls with others, external groups mostly want to know how we did this so quickly; how we were able to do this complete pivot in under a week.
Our team is dedicated and worked long hours, that much is undeniable. But something else extremely powerful was at work in our favor: trust.
We trust that the changemakers who are part of our global community know better than we do what their neighbors need right now. We don’t put forth elaborate top-down mandates that imply we know more about their community than the people who live there. We trust that they have the ability to meet those needs and will be successful. We trust that individuals, not just organizations, can be a powerful force for good in the world. We prove that trust through not just seed funding of individual, bottom-up projects, but by offering our sincere belief in the ability of one ordinary person to be a powerful force for good.
This approach means we can be agile and act quickly, without bureaucracy and red tape. It means we can support projects built on the deep roots and existing networks that individuals have within their communities, and supercharge direct responses with the power that can only come from the depth of concern people have for the communities they love.
Suddenly, there is no red tape: direct and immediate relief flows to individuals who have a vision of service for their neighbors. And the speed and extent to which change happens in this model is astonishing.
I trust Keith Gundlach, a retired agriculture teacher who still advises the Future Farmers of America at Randolph High School in Wisconsin. Using his deep knowledge of how to grow food, Keith is mobilizing student volunteers and using a 40 acre land laboratory to grow thousands of pounds of food for local food banks, who are facing reduced donations at a time when food insecurity is at a peak. With $1,000 in seed funding, Keith and his volunteer team of students will buy seeds and materials to grow cucumbers, beans, radishes, and lettuce, among other crops, that will feed thousands of his neighbors.
I trust Lucky Zaiken, a doctor in Nigeria working to bring COVID-19 education and hand sanitizer to crowded prisons in the city of Uyo.
I trust Donatella Gelli, whose animal sanctuary in Italy is caring for an influx of animals abandoned by people who fear that domestic animals carry COVID-19.
I trust LaJuana Moser, a 25 year foster parent veteran, who is organizing delivery of diapers, infant formula, and activities like art supplies, books, puzzles and games for low-income families in California.
I know that many organizations like ours are afraid of working in this way. It seems too difficult to manage the application flow, or too risky to think outside of top-down approaches and all the evidence-based frameworks we’ve been taught measure efficacy. Perhaps the impact seems too disparate for some to measure.
In other words, it is too hard to trust.
We are willing to take this leap of faith, thereby pollinating thousands of small projects. The impact ripples out in ways that are immeasurable; but I don’t need to measure it to trust that this is so.