Translating Urgency Into Action During the Pandemic

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” – Glenn Close.

I started as Senior Development Manager for Headstrong at the very end of February 2020 As part of the hiring and onboarding process, I’d already been in conversation with the team for several weeks about the role of fundraising and communications in the advancement at Headstrong. I was excited to begin innovating the organization’s approach to advancement, diversifying its donor base, and helping to secure its long-term sustainability. And then the lights went out. We were told on Friday, March 13th (appropriately enough) that our offices would be closed the following week. Thus began a year of Zoom calls and Google docs in place of lunch meetings and office chatter. 

I noticed immediately that the work-from-home world of video conferencing had no space for passivity, ambiguity, or — ironically enough– “phoning it in.” Just ask yourself now which is the bigger faux pas: turning your camera off or simply yawning while on screen? We’ve all felt some discomfort from always feeling we’re on stage in the last year. But with every challenge comes an opportunity. I also noticed that the heightened, “always on” aspect of working remotely had a supercharging effect on all of Headstrong’s stakeholders, which infused the organization with an unparalleled urgency that was not even clear at the start how to satisfy. Where to even begin using this urgency productively and not waste it? 

Like everyone, much of my free time early in the pandemic was spent doomscrolling the latest news, but the Google algorithm made sure that I received a steady stream of useful articles addressing how to approach the effect that the pandemic was having on non-profits in particular. One such article arrived in June 2020 from the Harvard Business Review– “Reimagine Your Nonprofit to Survive the Crisis” by Steve Zimmerman.

I immediately understood that the question with which Zimmerman begins provided exactly the frame of inquiry that would help answer how to leverage the urgency that comes from the shift to online work. He asks non-profits to ask: “If we went away today, who would it matter to and why?” It was a clarifying moment for Headstrong, because the answer to Zimmerman’s question was both a reaffirmation of our mission and a re imagination through a laser-focused perspective: if we went away, it would matter to veterans struggling in physical isolation against their own suicidal ideations. Here we had the answer to the question of urgency: we needed to pivot all aspects of work online, both the client-facing work and operations. We immediately pivoted to telehealth nationwide with the clearly stated and measurable goal to achieve zero gap in care. We were so successful that we even found the capacity to absorb clients who had been turned away by other veterans service organizations.

I knew that if we were going to be successful in pivoting to telehealth that we would also need to accelerate the push online of Headstrong’s overall advancement. It was as difficult and necessary a task as any facing us, especially for an organization that had used in-person galas as a successful cornerstone of fundraising – providing as much as 50% of our annual revenue. The need to diversify fundraising efforts had been my aim from the beginning, but the pandemic made this innovation mandatory and immediate. 

It wasn’t easy, because like everyone, we were finding our way in the dark with no established playbook. For several weeks, we fumbled with replacing what used to be “in-person” with “virtual galas” by following the trail of crumbs left by other non-profits doing various such filler events with celebrity ambassadors. As a smaller, mission-driven non-profit, what we quickly realized is that what was absolutely key would be the clarity and power of the message. With all of us glued to our computers, consuming volumes of information, it would be only the clearest and most poignant message that we will hear. We had the good fortune to have a new Executive Director, Colonel (USA, Ret.) Jim McDonough, who saw the value in creating strong unified advancement work between fundraising / development, programs, communications and marketing to establish a branding and marketing profile that would build awareness and engage audiences in the crowded online environment. 

The advancement team at Headstrong partnered with Matter Unlimited to invest in a three-part process of discovery, creation and implementation to launch a powerful fundraising campaign –No Mind Left Behind (NMLB) – that delivered many times over on the team’s commitment to cutting through the noise and delivering a message with which people from every walk of life could connect.  The virtual event that would replace our annual gala was set for Veterans Day and, as Jim defined it, would be the “high water mark” of the fundraising calendar, marking the halfway point to our campaign goal, playing a role in activating the other aspects of newly formalized processes in place for cultivating individual, foundation and corporate donors. 

By the end of the year, what had been a series of regional galas in a handful of states was now a national campaign that engaged existing and new Headstrong stakeholders. In terms of dollars raised, No Mind Left Behind was a tremendous success. Organizationally, we now have a powerful working relationship between all the members who contribute to Headstrong’s advancement, dedicated to sharing our message by whatever channels are available to us. For me, the campaign helped to reinforce Headstrong’s place in our collective understanding that “We’re All in This Together,” and translated urgency into action to fund the growth of programs and outreach to the population of veterans we serve. 

Jim and the whole team now find ourselves at the forefront of an ever-growing movement surrounding the real-time effects of isolation – pandemic or not. Like many direct-service, grassroots organizations, Headstrong previously existed in an enclosed ecosystem, “keeping its head down,” and doing its important work without little awareness-building in the wider community or world. Now we are a powerful voice in the greater national and international movement to address the stigma surrounding mental health awareness and treatment. 

About the Author

Tatjana Richardson is Senior Development Manager at The Headstrong Project. Her experience includes roles at The Mayor’s Fund, Children’s Health Fund, and God’s Love We Deliver, where she designed and implemented sustainable funding models executed by cross-functional advancement teams. In 2017 she received her MPA  at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service with an emphasis in international development, where her thesis project for Pro Mujer articulated a 5-year growth strategy that brought together programs, development, and movement building. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn and looks forward to when they are able to take up again their two favorite activities: travel and food.