Lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic that service providers can use to help communities bounce back after disaster strikes.
When most business owners plan for the impact of a disaster on their business, they may consider a cyber breach, a building fire or other circumstance that can cause a temporary disruption. They may try to mitigate their chances of experiencing these scenarios by purchasing insurance or implementing strict processes and protocols. And, certainly, in those situations affecting a single business, entrepreneurial resource organizations can provide counseling and assistance.
The economic stakes however, are even higher when whole communities are impacted by natural disasters like tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes—and now, as we’ve seen, by a pandemic such as COVID-19.
In these types of extraordinary circumstances, entrepreneurial resource organizations must leverage their resources and relationships to help entrepreneurs pivot, according to Kendra Thomas, business resource manager at ChiBizHub, a SourceLink® community of entrepreneurial service organizations that serves Chicago-area entrepreneurs.
But, she added, it’s not just the entrepreneurs who must pivot. Resource provider organizations must do so too.
“We saw resource providers [in our network] that immediately pivoted so they could still be a resource and a voice to the communities they’re serving,” Thomas said, speaking about the shutdowns related to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. “And they just really motivated us to say, ‘How can we become more innovative? How can we reach our business owners and entrepreneurs? How can we think of different ways to challenge ourselves to ensure they’re still getting the information?’”
The silver lining, if there is one during a disaster of this magnitude, is that communities where a strong resource partner network exists usually demonstrate the most resiliency as they bounce back.
Their solid relationships with both the partner organizations and the entrepreneurs in the community allow them to mobilize, or pivot, quickly. Just as they can help an individual business deal with an isolated incident, a robust and engaged resource partner network can play a major role in helping a community recover after a disaster.
Here’s advice from several of our network providers that stayed nimble throughout the changing circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, so they could continue to deliver assistance to the entrepreneurs in their communities.
1. Be prepared to change how you engage and deliver services.
Depending on the type of crisis, program location and delivery may need to shift quickly. During the COVID-19 shutdowns, when in-person classes and counseling weren’t an option, yet entrepreneurs sorely needed assistance, most service providers embraced online delivery via webinars and social media (e.g., Zoom, GoToMeeting, Facebook Live, Instagram direct messaging, etc.).
Thomas at ChiBizHub noted that some service providers, recognizing the “digital divide” that exists in certain neighborhoods, have canvassed on foot during the pandemic in order to reach business owners and make it easier for them to get the resources they need.
“People don't know that there's a lot of small businesses that are just not plugged in,” Thomas said. “We are making it as easy as possible for them to get resources … we are having very honest and raw conversations with them, asking: ‘What do you need?’ and ‘How are you getting your information?’ ‘Do you know you're eligible for x, y and z?’”
She said that during the height of the stay-at-home orders, when canvassing was not possible, some service providers relied on calls to reach business owners who did not have internet access.
We learned a similar lesson from our Puerto Rico affiliate, Colmena66. After Hurricane Maria hit the island, they deployed network navigators to go meet door to door with entrepreneurs armed with ipads to collect needs, guage impact, and provide personalized support to owners who were devastated by the hurricane. This later resulted in the Shop & Hire campaign to support local owners with cashflow.
2. Shift your services to meet new needs as they arise.
Service providers need to assess their programming and services—and more than once—as the situation evolves. Your standard offerings will likely not be high priority for the duration of the crisis as entrepreneurs seek information and strategies for surviving the current situation.
The first concern for any business during a disaster is survival. What steps do I need to take immediately to get through today, tomorrow and the next weeks to successfully reopen?
During the COVID-19 shutdowns, for example, service providers scrambled to revamp their programs and websites to offer updates on relief funding, how to deal with stay-at-home restrictions for employees, how to determine whether their business was considered essential, how to help their staff with unemployment benefits and myriad other concerns.
However, resilient networks understand the initial disaster or crisis may not be the only one they will likely need to address.
Most of the owners of businesses that were shut down during the COVID-19 crisis were eager to reopen when they were finally given the green light, but reopening was not just “business as usual.” In many parts of the United States, the maze of reopening phases and regulations was difficult for businesses to navigate—and they often changed within a matter of days.
Further, many companies had to modify their buildings in order to reopen safely and comply with health regulations. This was especially true for businesses in public-facing sectors, but offices too had to ensure desks and workstations were safely distanced and appropriate PPE products, such as hand sanitizer and masks, were available.
But those concerns are really just Phase 1 of the assistance business owners will ultimately need from you. As you pivot to offer the vital information entrepreneurs need just to survive in the immediate aftermath, already be planning ahead for what they may need once the situation has somewhat stabilized.
Many of the needs in Phase 2 will center around the culture shift businesses will be dealing with, Thomas noted. How are small businesses in the community taking care of employees? How are they letting customers know the safety precautions they are taking? She said providers in the ChiBizHub network are preparing to hold webinars later this summer to address those kinds of questions.
Connie Hancock, a Nebraska Extension consultant working with the University of Nebraska, brought up another point that many service provider organizations may have overlooked during the frenetic “survival” days of the pandemic. She said some of the adaptations businesses made during that time will likely become the norm because customers became accustomed to them and like their convenience. They will become a standard way of doing business she said, and resource providers must help businesses adapt to the new standard.
“The whole concept of resiliency recovering with resiliency is understanding that our times have definitely changed and that we have got to be more flexible and more open to changing the ways we do business and how we respond to customers’ needs in a unique way under today's environment,” Hancock said.
Businesses that are unable to adapt to those new ways of doing business may not survive long term, even if they do manage to make it through the pandemic. An upgraded online presence and delivery services to homes and offices are among them.
“I think a lot of our small business owners are still going to need support and help with online presence. This pandemic has challenged those that currently are not online or have not adapted to e-commerce activities they could have utilized. I think this is going to be a much more powerful way for them to connect with people,” Hancock said. “Here in Nebraska, that's where I see a lot of our rural businesses not having the resources, not having the skill level to put themselves in the online platform to reach the audience they need to reach.”
3. Leverage network resources.
Entrepreneurial resource networks that have forged strong relationships among providers, with entrepreneurs and among other community agencies are well-positioned to leverage those resources during a crisis.
“When we do webinars, we reach out to our resource providers as well as actual experts that are business owners in the field that can share their stories and share their journey with our participants,” Thomas said. “We've used that as an opportunity to further uplift and make people aware of the organizations that are in these neighborhoods that can help them.”
Thomas said ChiBizHub also partnered with a consultant to create a master list of businesses that are open. That has helped those businesses attract customers. It also helped businesses that had needs for products and services but didn’t know where to go for them. Thomas noted that one of the reasons the list has been so successful is they’ve encouraged the organizations in the ChiBizHub Network to promote the list to their clients so they can be added to it.
“We knew we needed to promote the businesses that are open in the communities,” she said, “because a lot of people just didn't know where to go. We helped do a large social media marketing campaign around that.”
The Mid-Continent Public Library in Kansas City, Missouri, is taking a similar approach of showcasing individual businesses through a video series called “What’s Up, Kansas City?”
“It's just a point of inspiration. We're not trying to skill build at all with these,” said Morgan Perry, a business specialist with the library’s Square One Small Business program. “We're just talking about regular people in Kansas City that own small businesses and what they're doing to get out of the panic stage and get into the innovation stage. So, during this time, we're looking at what we're buying, who are we buying it from, and how the entrepreneurs have adapted to the situation so that it's still convenient to purchase from them.”
Another way that networks have reached business owners during the pandemic is through surveys. Paul Taylor, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Small, Minority and Women Business, which takes the lead role in the provider network for Baltimore City, Maryland, said the Baltimore Development Corporation developed a survey and then leveraged the 137 service providers in the network to distribute it.
“It [the network] helped us assemble all of those voices, all those communities, all those small businesses that needed assistance,” Taylor said. “Then we were able to coordinate using our platform of resource providers, our technical assistance providers, so there was a central database of entrepreneur’s needs. And we then used a series of outreach methods to get the messaging out about which resources were available to meet those specific needs.”
An unintended benefit of creating the central database of entrepreneurs is that they can “go back to that database of small business owners and notify them when new and different opportunities are available,” Taylor said.
4. Get personal.
Although it makes sense to stay focused on business needs during a crisis, many service providers discovered that business owners required personal support during the COVID-19 crisis too.
Perry, with Mid-Continent Public Library, said she and her associates discovered that being able to see real faces made a big difference in working with and reassuring entrepreneurs.
“People are hungry for information right now. But they're also hungry for faces, which totally makes sense,” Perry said. “They're stuck in a home. They might be home alone during this. They want human interaction. There's a reason they're spending unhealthy amounts of time on social media—it's being able to see those faces. As nonprofits, we need to get the faces of our employees out there, because they are a huge asset right now. So, on our social media, no matter what we're talking about, we're using video. We're putting a face out there for someone to connect with, and it has made our numbers go through the roof.”
Perry said the same is true for businesses: Those who put a face to their message are seeing more engagement with customers. “It is becoming more and more apparent that they're choosing to support the restaurant whose owner comes on and does a Facebook Live. They're choosing to support the retailer who has a familiar face and is talking to them about the products.”
Hancock, in Nebraska, agrees it’s critical to address personal as well as business needs: “Intentionally working on your social support system is a critical part of your resilience.”
She said service providers in Nebraska meet regularly to share what they are doing in their communities and to support each other with resources. But, she said, they’ve also started doing virtual social gatherings for the service providers so they can network and support each other personally as well.
“We do the educational piece and then come back around and say, ‘OK, how are you individually coping with this and how are you as a provider handling it? What do you need as the provider? We're giving you resources to help your small businesses and your community cope, but what do you need as well?’” Hancock said.
She noted that their five-week program that specifically addresses how to build staff resiliency has been popular. Each session has a guide that’s designed to help with the conversations.
“The guides get participants thinking about some new avenues of doing things, new skills to be able to increase their resiliency,” Hancock said. “What we've seen is that the groups, after the five weeks, continue to meet because they have some fun. They also learn from each other. And those are the kinds of things that in terms of network support are the most important during this time of pandemic and social distancing.”
Mid-Continent Public Library’s Perry recalls a conversation she was having with a business owner when he suddenly stopped and said, “Oh, my gosh, I just realized we’re still here.” When Perry asked what he was talking about, he told her that as they were chatting and laughing and having a good time, the sun had come out, it was a beautiful day, and he realized they were “OK.”
“That really illustrates a turn mentally that business owners—and not everybody's gotten there yet—where they get out of the crisis and they get out of the panic and they start to realize that they're still here, they're still OK, and if they want to,” Perry said, “they can start to make those changes in their business model to allow them to serve their customers in a slightly different way.”
Here at SourceLink, we work diligently to collect best practices and to allow space for our affiliated network to learn from one another during this difficult time. Please reach out and connect with us to share how your community is navigating the recovery. We would love to share what we are hearing and compare notes on what we might be able to do to support one another. Visit joinsourcelink.com/recovery for additional recovery resources, or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with our team.