People + Strategy Journal

Winter 2021

Listen. Learn. Evolve.

To adapt and build a resilient organization, Youth INC relied upon the principles of grounding, sensemaking, engaging and catalyzing and found a way forward in today’s complex environment.

By Rehana Farrell and Beth Gullette
Youth INC is a venture philanthropy nonprofit organization in New York City with a network of 76 grassroots nonprofit partners serving over 300,000 young people. We know that thriving organizations create thriving young people, so we help our partners deepen their organizational capacity.

Our ethos is Listen. Learn. Evolve. We listen to our stakeholders, learn from their experience and evolve our programs to meet their needs. This approach has been a key to our success for 26 years and was crucial to our pandemic response.

Prior to the pandemic, we were already operating in a VUCA world, a term used to characterize battle conditions that now describes the business world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. As David Peterson, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Institute for Contemporary Leadership, noted, “Personal and organizational agility—the ability to learn and adapt quickly—are essential to successfully navigating our VUCA reality.” The stark reality of the coronavirus shined a spotlight on this for everyone.

When COVID-19 shut down New York City Schools, our nonprofit partners were thrown into uncertainty with potentially devastating implications. How would they continue to provide access to best-in-class youth development programs—from literacy to sports to the arts—for more than 300,000 young people? The majority of young people served by nonprofits live in the communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

Additionally, formerly stable government contracts that served as the basis for maintaining staff (many of whom come from the communities served) were now in question. Equally challenging: events were being canceled, individual donors were in shock with the markets in freefall, and some foundations pulled essential funding, doubting remote programming was possible. 

As a capacity builder, this was our moment. Success meant we would need to quickly pivot to meet the challenge of the new normal. Rather than fighting “ground wars” separately to help each of our 76 nonprofit organizations, we chose to wage one strategic “air war” by deploying proven practices from the Institute for Contemporary Leadership (ICL).

ICL defines four practices to build and lead adaptive organizations and larger systems in today’s complex environments: grounding, sensemaking, engaging and catalyzing (see Figure 1). 


Grounding is foundational and defines “who we are” more than “what we do.” It means being aware in the present moment, being clear about one’s values and having the strength to act accordingly. Maintaining the strength to push forward amidst the pandemic and heightened unrest and pain around racial injustice and inequity has been a formidable challenge for Youth INC staff. Grounding provides the north star to make decisions and prioritize actions in overwhelming and uncertain settings.

After regrounding in our mission, values and individual self-awareness, the Youth INC staff began reaching out to understand the immediate needs of our partners and quickly adapted our model to meet them. The pandemic confirmed the critical role of capacity building in the nonprofit ecosystem. Our programs not only help organizations bolster organizational efficacy, but also support their ability to respond to new challenges. Our approach responding to the crisis was threefold.

Sensemaking: Identifying Structural Challenges

We began plotting our response to the coronavirus’ impact on our nonprofit partners by analyzing the sector from every available angle. We read government reports, had team members attend webinars from foundations and corporate supporters, and kept abreast of the latest updates from public and private sector leaders. In other words, we were trying to holistically make sense of the challenges facing our nonprofit partners. Sensemaking has been described by MIT Sloan Professor Deborah Ancona as a critical skill that enables action in the face of the unknown. Indeed, the Youth INC staff did not wait to have “the answer” but, rather, disseminated information daily—or sometimes more frequently, when things were changing by the hour.

Case in point: The Payment Protection Program (PPP) through the Treasury Department was designed with for-profit businesses in mind and thus, while it was open to nonprofits, presented obstacles that led many nonprofit organizations to struggle in accessing the program’s benefits. Through our responsive sensemaking efforts, we were able to help more than 50 percent of our partners secure 7a PPP loans, four times greater than the 12 percent of nonprofits that received them in New York state. This effort involved helping our partners navigate complex, evolving eligibility criteria, sharing insights from our own application process and introducing partners to new potential financial sponsors as more banks joined the program. Securing these funds helped many partners extend payroll for months while they adapted their fundraising and programmatic efforts to the demands of the pandemic.

Engaging: Adapting Capacity and Skills

We also had to rethink our own model. Like many other organizations, we had been functioning primarily in-person, both in our capacity-building work with nonprofits and in our event-based fundraising efforts, crucial to supporting our mission. For example, typically we hold an annual Celebration Gala—complete with live music and testimonials by young people and nonprofit leaders—to mark the completion of our year-long fundraising training program, providing grassroots nonprofits with knowledge, skills and tools to engage new supporters, raise more funds, and deliver more opportunities to youth. Now reliance on live, in-person events is no longer viable.

We needed to maintain a stable pipeline of funding, continue to provide real value to our partners and reassure donors that their contributions would always have real impact. We found that this was possible by engaging our stakeholders in the work with us. As ICL describes it, engaging requires empathy and inquiry. Empathy—demonstrating that one understands the needs of the other and can share their perspective—fosters a sense of inclusion and allows one to anticipate reactions to decisions, messages and plans. Inquiry—asking powerful questions—leads to a deeper understanding of others’ points of view; it promotes reflection and stimulates learning and collaboration.

We began offering an array of online trainings and meetings around topics like crisis communications, digital fundraising, digital programming and online youth protection. By engaging directly with our partners, we were able to get their input while providing opportunities to practice peer learning. This created a platform for our partners to share their struggles and concerns in real time. It became a space that allowed for personal reflection and healing in a time of uncertainty—and more importantly, mitigated the isolation of the pandemic that could lead these essential organizations—and individuals—to fail.

Catalyzing: Mobilizing Resources

In the new normal, Youth INC had to quickly become more agile and responsive, using its position as a hub in the ecosystem of donors, corporate supporters and nonprofit partners to catalyze action across a network. It would have been inefficient—too little, too late—if we had tried to plan out, direct and do the work on our own, as opposed to convening, providing a vision and igniting the talents and energies of so many others to sense and respond rapidly.

In April 2020, we launched a Financial Analysis and Contingency Planning Program with more than 100 volunteers from our corporate supporters. With tremendous support from Morgan Stanley and Blackstone, we brought together highly-trained corporate professionals with the skills nonprofits needed in that moment to develop bespoke plans for myriad challenges and opportunities.

In May 2020, we launched our COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund on Giving Tuesday to issue $1 million in cash grants with seed capital from The Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Nuveen. This infusion of capital has helped ensure our partners remain open to continue to serve their young people.

In June 2020, we transitioned our 13th Annual State of the Market Investor Conference to a virtual Speaker Series featuring leaders and pioneering thinkers from the public and private sector. Our legacy sponsors took a leap of faith with us because they know this event fuels our work with our nonprofit partners and the 300,000 young people they serve each year. Similarly, in July 2020, we decided to transition our 26th Annual Celebration Gala to be virtual as well. We were thrilled to honor Roger Ferguson, CEO of TIAA, for his longstanding commitment to the community.

Yet, none of this was anticipated. We had just written a three-year strategic plan, and robust scenario planning was an important part of that work. We were fortunate to have that muscle in our organization, but no one could be ready for a pandemic. Our incredible team responded in the moment to meet the needs of our nonprofit partners, with invaluable assistance from our corporate partners.

This did not happen, however, without impact to our team. One of our first pivots in our programs was an adaptation and scaling of our work as a grantmaker in the pandemic. In particular, we transformed our legacy BridgeFund Program into a COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund with an ambitious target of raising and disbursing $1 million. This pivot was informed by expressed needs from our partners, who were clear in articulating the slow, flat footed response they were seeing from other funders. But as we rolled this program out, we realized that despite executing on goals there was a lag in staff buy-in. This pushed us to slow implementation and have several meetings to level set and more clearly articulate both the reasons for this pivot as well as the data to support its feasibility. 

We also sought to listen to our team to tell us what they need. At the beginning of the pandemic, we started each week with an all-staff check-in. As the months wore on, staff fell into the rhythm of the new normal and didn’t need this type of forum. What they missed were connecting with each other in a less formal setting. We viewed it as a healthy sign that we didn’t need to share breaking news on such a frequent basis but that there was still a desire for casual, non-tactical connection. Informed by this feedback, we gave the staff the option to design whatever they collectively needed from this time together, centering their voices and needs, just as we seek to do with our nonprofit partners. Staff now facilitate each session based on their own interests and approaches to teambuilding. These meetings have not only kept us connected but provided a regular opportunity to dialogue about our mission and how it is showing up in our work and lives.

This shift had put a number of demands on our staff beyond the larger context of the pandemic, and in failing to fully bring them into the strategizing and planning of this transformative project we slowed its development. But after having a chance to address staff questions and feedback and incorporate it into our planning, we created a higher collective investment and brought foundational ideas into better focus, particularly around how an equity lens would be applied to grantmaking from the fund. This experience showed the critical importance of not taking shared understanding or buy-in for granted, even in moments of crisis. It also helped us iterate new processes for collecting and building off staff feedback.

Grounding (Again): Supporting Our Team

The pandemic served as a wake-up call on so many levels. From a human capital standpoint, it forced us to pivot to virtual work, manage remote teams and improve communications and engagement. As we move into recovery, it is an invitation to rethink old systems and catapult ourselves forward. Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, calls it a “moral imperative” for any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion to do so far beyond the current crisis.5

As we look forward, we will be leveraging our Listen. Learn. Evolve. approach to continually improve, and to assist others in doing the same. Youth INC will continue to invest in our NYC nonprofit partners and communities that need our support. We believe that all young people have limitless promise and potential. It is our responsibility as a community to create the conditions for them to realize it. 

Rehana Farrell is the Executive Director of Youth INC. 

Beth Gullette, Ph.D., is the Chief People Officer of Well and Executive Board Member of the Institute for Contemporary Leadership. 

1 Garcia, S., & Gullette, B. (2019). Leading Adaptive Organizations in a Complex World: What You Need to Do Differently. Institute for Contemporary Leadership.
2 Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
3 Ancona, D. (2012). Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown. In S. Snook, N. Nohria, & R. Khurana, The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing Doing, and Being (p. 600). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
4 Vogt, E. E., Brown, J., & Isaacs, D. (2003). The art of powerful questions: Catalyzing insight, innovation and action. Mill Valley, CA: Whole Systems Associate 
5 Matt Mullenweg speaking with Sam Harris in Making Sense podcast #194 on The Future of Work