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As COVID Moves Beyond Act One, What Can We Do Better?

by Bryan de Lottinville
May 13, 2020

The question on all of our minds of course, is: What’s next?

Like many CEOs, I’m frequently asked what I think is going to happen in the coming days, weeks and months as the COVID crisis moves on from Act One and we enter a “new normal.” I confess there is much that I don’t know about how the future will unfold. But there is one thing I’m sure of: a tremendous opportunity to do better—for the world, and each other—is right in front of us.

The preceding weeks have been a study in contradictions. We have seen inspiring examples of courage and generosity, from healthcare professionals and essential workers stepping up to do their jobs despite the risks, to all the organizations and people pitching in to help in whatever ways that they can.

At the same time, let’s not ignore the obvious. It’s clear that COVID-19 has also laid bare and exacerbated many of the systemic societal challenges we continue to face: 

Poverty. Polarization. Inequality. Injustice.

We’ve watched denial, blame, dishonesty and self-promotion hinder a robust, collective response to this current crisis, in the way that similar leadership failures have also obstructed our response to other imminent existential threats, from climate change to healthcare access, homelessness and more.

Here’s my call to action: Let’s use the very hard lessons we are learning from COVID to change our habits and behaviors to shape a better future—not just in the short term, but for the long haul as well.

Some changes will happen without much effort, simply by virtue of necessity (consider the rapid transition to remote work and learning over the past few months, for example). Others will require more intention, renewed purpose, and the unequivocal support of corporate and other leadership. 

Not so long ago, The Business Roundtable declared that the purpose of a corporation should be about more than just shareholder primacy; companies need to make a difference in the world.

Investors are also increasingly taking into account the ESG profiles of the companies they fund. And companies are witnessing first-hand the power of engaging employees and customers around a sense of purpose and meaning to drive business and social outcomes, while enhancing people’s sense of connectedness, efficacy and self-worth.

It has been refreshing to see so many companies and leaders (including the vast majority of Benevity’s clients) acting so as to build these things into their organizational DNA as part of their COVID and community support initiatives. These are mostly not grand gestures and ‘look at me’ moments, but rather a thoughtful effort at broad-based and grassroots engagement in collective action around common goals. We must not lose this momentum right when we need it most!

So how do we continue to elevate purpose during these trying times, and how can we do better? Of the many lessons that should flow from this experience, a few are key:

1. We should not wait until threats are acute before we deal with them. Regardless of your geography, political orientation or favored source of news, it is difficult to assert with credibility that we were properly prepared for COVID-19, despite the fact that many experts had warned of the possibility of a worldwide pandemic.

A recent column in the New York Times cites a study that shows that every $1 the federal government spends on preparedness reduces damage by $15 long-term. Yet in the US, typically 5 cents are spent on preparedness for every dollar spent in relief. It may be our propensity to ‘fight or flight’ responses, but as we’ve seen from COVID (and plenty of events before COVID)—reacting to threats is the last step in a process that should start with better preparation in advance.

We simply can’t ignore or delay acting on every problem or threat we know of until it becomes a crisis. We’ve seen how that works out. So, while companies and their people are responding now to immediate needs prompted by COVID, let’s take that same sense of urgency into being proactive about other issues that we can’t drop the ball on, like climate change, equity, mental health and so on. 

2. We are we, not just me.  Nothing has reinforced the fact that we are all but a small part of an interdependent (and fragile) ecosystem more than what is happening right now. COVID has underscored the importance of affordable access to healthcare, policies like paid sick leave, worker protections, a strong social safety net, respectful care for the elderly, and more.

Collaboration and collective action are the only things that work when we are dealing with so many complex and interconnected challenges, and it is illusory—if not folly—to think that a “me first” mindset is going to raise all the boats.

At the macro-level, corporations should continue to be thinking about building more sustainable and equitable supply chains, reducing their carbon and waste footprint and  driving relentlessly towards tangible, (not lip-service) ESG goals. Policies like paid sick leave and worker protections are critical, but so is honoring, encouraging and supporting the power of individual actions and the passions of employees, who want to both feel heard, and be part of something bigger.

To this end, culture is more important than ever. Fostering a sense of belonging and supporting purpose expressed through acts of goodness will not only result in a stronger company, but also have a network effect on the customers and communities that a company serves.

3. Our heads and hearts will show us the way.  At the same time, this crisis has shown that when we do acknowledge and embrace a problem, humanity steps up. We should be heartened by the illustration of the power of collective and concerted action that we have seen displayed by people and companies working together over the recent days and weeks.

For example, JustCapital has released a report on the corporate world’s immediate response. Think also of the people that got to work making masks and other PPE for healthcare workers or who have checked on and helped their neighbors or the elderly. The teachers who have quickly pivoted to set up online classrooms and lesson plans. And the vast majority—from all nature of countries and political environments—who have acted upon the advice that flowed from science, and have held tight in their homes to ‘flatten the curve.’

Now think of what we might achieve if the same urgency and cross-sectoral commitment was invested in climate change or social equity, or to help address some of the underlying issues—gaps in healthcare access, stigmatization of mental health concerns, sick leave policies—that COVID is bringing to the fore.   

At Benevity, we continue to see firsthand what companies and their people can do. Since March 1st, hundreds of our clients, their employees and customers have given $640 million in donations and grants, with daily donation volume through our platform increasing by a whopping 134 percent through the month of April.

They’ve run hundreds of volunteering campaigns, issued grants, donated products, matched donations and engaged employees in countless acts of goodness. And many participated in #GivingTuesdayNow, a call to come together in a wave of generosity, citizen engagement and action from business and philanthropy.

This is leadership. This is doing the right thing, even when it’s hard. This is the path to recovery.

Going forward, we’d love to see more companies around the globe stepping up to do their part, in more and more ways, and not just in the immediate term.

Getting through this crisis, and being prepared to respond to future events, requires an ongoing commitment from the corporate world to continue to address issues that impact their people, their customers and communities. It also requires an embracing of a mindset that sees more of them recognizing the tremendous power they hold in convening and catalyzing broad based investment in social impact initiatives.

This will be even more crucial as social services spending may be constrained because of the massive government spending for economic stimulus.

Let me conclude by relaying a conversation I recently had with the CEO of one of the most successful hotel brands in the world. 

He was describing the impact of COVID on his business: 70 percent of the hotels were closed; those open had single digit occupancy; they had cut their workforce meaningfully and were considering additional reductions.

He was confident that the company would weather the storm, but it would be tough. A tragic economic circumstance that is being shared by many companies. I asked him if software like Benevity’s would be on the hit list of cost cutting measures.  Without a second of pause he said: “Absolutely not.  We need that for our employees and communities and our brand - now, more than ever.”  That, too, is leadership.

Purpose, engagement, a commitment to the social good—these “things” aren’t “nice to haves” that we can maybe go back to after we deal with survival; they are fundamental imperatives, especially now. Investing in them must be an integral part of our recovery strategy.

Our ability to build an agile, inclusive, resilient and sustainable society depends on them.