In a recent department meeting amidst the record-breaking Omicron surge, our team discussed the possibility of event cancellations. Believe me when I say it's not a fun conversation. It’s been two years of cancellations, broken plans, and traversing the unknown. It can be frustrating.
Nate Gyotoku with JCCH staff and volunteers
I arrived at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaiʻi (JCCH) in the middle of the pandemic, without income from its ballroom asset, and with about 50% of the staff from 2019. Not ideal conditions, but not impossible, either. I assessed the situation, developed a work plan, and started executing. One year later, I think we’re in a better spot and headed in the right direction. While not perfect, there are ways to shift the operations to plan and be flexible at the same time.
Find your North Star
Whether you’re a nonprofit or a mega-corporation, understanding your mission is the key to everything. Microsoft wants to empower the world through technology, Amazon wants to sell anything a customer needs online, and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaiʻi wants to create a stronger community by perpetuating the core cultural values brought over to Hawaiʻi by our ancestors from Japan. Simple, right?
Your mission is the North Star. This guiding light stays constant and is what the world needs, and you can plot your course against it. If it isn’t straightforward to understand, you need to clarify your mission first.
In 2012, I arrived at Air Reps Hawaii with a mission so unclear that I couldn’t explain what we did to my family and friends. We sold water fountains, rented portable A/C units, sold ultraviolet lamps for A/C units, and sold other small items to mechanical contractors. After a few months of working with customers, it became clear that they relied on us and our rental A/C units to continue their work when their main A/C broke. In Hawaiʻi, A/C is a critical building service, and the lack of it creates safety issues (heat exhaustion). Our mission became clear: keep Hawaiʻi businesses cool and working. We expanded our rental inventory, phased out products and services that didn’t fit the mission, redeveloped our sales and marketing campaigns, adapted emergency responsive actions into our operations. Profits doubled in a year without adding additional staff, and Air Reps Hawaii became the go-to leader in emergency cooling.
A clear mission is vital to understanding your organization’s fit to your target market’s needs.
Score Early Wins
Depending on your situation, it’s helpful to assess your various departments and identify strengths and areas of opportunity. A simple assessment may reveal relatively low-effort tactics that can yield impactful returns.
I previously worked at the JCCH before my return in 2021 and understood our IT challenges from that period. Assuming (correctly) that none of them were addressed during my hiatus and knowing that up-to-date technology was a requirement in the COVID-era workplace (Zoom meetings, esignatures, online collaboration tools), I made technology upgrades a top priority upon my arrival. The staff did not have web conference capable devices, our internet speeds were slower than most residences, and we had no collaborative system/workflows.
I began to spec out our needs, and fortunately, we already had some budget to work with. Within my first few months, we outfitted the entire staff with new laptops, completed our migration of Microsoft Office online, increased our office internet bandwidth 10x, and upgraded our phone system. These changes created efficiency and set a tone of change. Most importantly, it expressed to the staff that we want to put them in the best situation for success by providing them adequate tools and resources.
There are many other small changes we implemented at the JCCH in my first year, and they add up. If you continue to throw pebbles in the same spot of a lake, the mountain of stones will eventually break the lake’s surface.
Stick to Plan A but have Plans B, C...Z
If I had to sip my beer every time I heard the word “pivot” in the last two years, I’d have a record-breaking hangover. I’ve lost count of the event cancellations, postponements, or shifts at this point, but such is the nature of the pandemic. Rather than get frustrated, it’s time to incorporate elements into your planning to use similar resources and designs for the best and worst-case scenarios. Since there is no excellent synonym…you must be ready to pivot.
We initially planned RISE, a hybrid in-person and at-home fundraiser, for September 2021. We lined up the caterer and delivery service for the lower-level at-home sponsors and began planning an in-person event for our higher-level sponsors. We built-in backup at-home plans with our caterers and delivery service for those higher-level sponsors, allowing us to shift the in-person sponsors to at-home if necessary. We also communicated that potential shift to our guests and collected their delivery information just in case. As the Delta variant surged, we made the call, and everyone was at home. Our videographer and entertainment were also able to shift the entire program to an online video.
We set a go/no-go date and flipped the switch quickly because we overcommunicated with our vendors, guests, and staff. Everyone knew about the backup plan and was ready to adjust accordingly. We had the backup plans in place from the beginning, so we already knew about any costs associated with the shift and just changed scopes of work for everyone involved. No surprises.
We also knew our exit points. Know your contracts, understand your cancellation or change order policies. Most companies in Hawaiʻi have been great about being flexible, but you should still understand your outs.
Also, add wrinkles to the new plans that fulfill your mission. Once we decided to hold our New Year’s ʻOhana Festival online, we needed to develop a creative way of involving youth. To add to some of the young performers, we partnered with McKinley and Roosevelt High Schools’ digital media classes to produce selected program segments. Having them involved increased our impact with high school students, brought in new audiences (their friends and family), and got our funders excited. Most importantly, several of those kids gave us feedback that they learned something about Japanese traditions and culture. Mission accomplished!
Be like bamboo
In the end, it boils down to being strong and flexible. Bamboo is a spectacular material; It is strong enough to be used for building purposes, yet flexible and pliable. Every strategy in the world will fail if you and your team cannot remain calm and patient in the COVID-era. There’s no point in being ultra-prepared since pessimism and stubbornness can lay any plan to waste. Build a culture of over-communication and over-preparedness sprinkled with some grace and patience. Be firm in your mission and purpose but flexible in your execution.