Crisis Readiness and Response: Learnings for Community Based Organizations (CBOs)

When COVID-19 hit, community-based organizations (CBOs) across the country had to make significant adjustments to their service models to meet the shifting health and economic needs of their communities. Some organizations were able to do so successfully, and others were not.  

Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS) is one organization that was able to pivot and continue service delivery throughout the pandemic, meeting the evolving and ongoing demands of its community. What made NVFS successful and what could other CBOs learn from NVFS?  

Who is NVFS?  

Based outside of Washington, DC, NVFS is a 100-year-old nonprofit organization that empowers more than 30,000 individuals annually to achieve self-sufficiency by providing the essential building blocks for financial, emotional and physical well-being. During COVID, NVFS was a pivotal partner for the distribution of emergency relief funds and accurate health and public safety information, in addition to continuing to deliver ongoing community services. 

4 adjustments NVFS made during COVID 

1. Addressed employee needs so employees could safely serve clients. According to the World Health Organization, frontline workers put their physical, mental and social wellbeing at risk, and were prone to burnout, increased absenteeism, and increased adoption of unhealthy behaviors. NVFS worked quickly to support its employees, so they could feel comfortable and safe while continuing to serve others. For example: 

  • NVFS encouraged employees to work remotely when possible. For those who were client-facing, NVFS adopted technology that allowed virtual interactions and HIPPA-compliant digital information capture, created rotating shift schedules, and updated necessary policies and procedures to continue to allow for safer interactions.  
  • NVFS recognized the ongoing pressure and strain that in-person service delivery caused staff during the pandemic. Therefore, the agency enacted “Pandemic Pay” to increase compensation for staff who continued in roles that required in-person service delivery. 

2. Redeployed employees with transferable skills. During COVID, while some in-person services moved online or temporarily paused, demand for other services such as the distribution of direct assistance for emergency housing, hunger resources and health access skyrocketed. Frontline staff who were cross-trained and able to deliver culturally competent services could easily be shifted to meet the demand.  

3. Altered service delivery as needed. In addition to adopting new technology, NVFS also invested in training its staff and clients on how to use the new technology. The agency provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and warm clothes to staff and clients to facilitate outside, socially distanced meetings. Bed capacity in the temporary shelter was reduced so beds could be spaced 6 feet apart, and food bags were pre-packaged for clients at the hunger resource center for curbside pick-up. 

4. Applied learnings from existing programs to create new services. Through its workforce development programs, NVFS has been providing career navigation services to clients for many years. During COVID, it quickly became apparent that simply providing new health program information wasn’t sufficient to improve the community’s access to these newly available programs. NVFS applied the knowledge gained from the workforce development team, and focused on creating capacity that allowed its staff to fully support clients attempting to access health care resources.  

4 factors that helped NVFS be successful 

1. Trust. NVFS is intentional about building trusted relationships with a variety of audiences, in part because in times of crisis, the organization is often called upon first by its community partners. Relationships allow NVFS to successfully pivot, for example with: clients (clients trust new information from the agency), community partners (NVFS can execute quickly), and funders (funders relax requirements so NVFS can adapt service delivery). 

2. Experience. NVFS is deliberate about capturing learnings and adjusting procedures and services to meet the evolving needs of the community, its partners and its staff. It is challenging for CBOs to carve out time for reflection and documentation, but these are crucial for CBOs to be able to quickly and effectively respond when the next crisis hits. 

3. Capacity. Building capacity is critical for any organization to be able to effectively respond to a crisis. With limited resources, CBOs like NVFS must be intentional about this. In addition to financial reserves that allowed the agency to purchase 300 new laptops and employees with transferable skills who could be redeployed, NVFS also ensures its processes are scalable to meet surges in demand. For example, when COVID-19 hit, NVFS was one of only a few CBOs serving the community that was able to receive and immediately distribute the influx of donations and millions in federal relief funding. 

4. Culture. NVFS prides itself on being a learning organization that responds to the community’s needs. Its leadership has been intentional about building a culture that is rooted in a natural curiosity and a desire to serve. Asking questions, active listening and willingness to pivot are expected, whether staff are working together or with clients. NVFS is also intentional about building staff’s cultural competence (the knowledge and ability to understand people and treat them equitably despite cultural differences), which is vital for effectively supporting its community.   

What is NVFS doing post COVID to better prepare for the future? Like many organizations, it continues to encourage the use of technology where appropriate for ease and efficiency. This allows a hybrid approach to services in a way that is sustainable for staff and clients. 

Additionally, NVFS is continuing to expand its services to meet its clients’ ongoing needs for support with healthcare access. And finally, NVFS is documenting lessons learned, adapting and sharing this information with others. Below are two resources NVFS created to help prepare for a future crisis.  

Download the charter and agency questions.

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This project is supported by funds made available from CDC’s National Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Public Health Infrastructure and Workforce through cooperative agreement OT18-1802, Strengthening Public Health Systems and Services Through National Partnerships to Improve and Protect the Nation’s Health award #6 NU38OT000303-04-02. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.