Entering the Unknown: How to move Forward Through Covid with Annis Karpenko

Annis Karpenko Visual Arts Missisauga
 
 
This week Annis Karpenko talked about community building and planning coming out of the pandemic. Annis is the Executive Director of Visual Arts Mississauga and has over 20 years experience in the industry. Her organization, like many others, is working their way through the pandemic and adapting by offering online programs and partnerships with other organizations. 

We talked about planning when you’re unsure of what's next and the steps you can take with your team to make the best decisions possible. Annis explains that when it comes to donors the most important thing is making sure you are continuing to build and steward that personal relationship, recording actions and tracking in your CRM along the way. 

Even though there is a lot of uncertainty with our personal and professional lives as Annis explains people will always appreciate a simple act of kindness. 

Official Transcript

Sabrina: Hello and welcome to Fundraising Superheroes, a podcast celebrating nonprofit organizations and all the people who work to make the world a better place. Brought to you by Donor Engine, we are more than just a CRM, we work to help you and your team work as efficiently as possible. Contact us today to chat about how you can raise more funds faster and with less effort . 

As stores begin to open up and more people dare to venture outside there is still a lot of uncertainty. Even though we have all been sharing the same experience it's hard to say what will come next and how we will continue to function after this is over. In a lot of ways we are venturing into the unknown. 

In times like this one thing that has remained strong is our relationships with each other and our communities. People are coming together more than ever before to get through this pandemic. Today our guest on the podcast is Annis Karpenko. Having worked as an industry leader for over 20 years Annis’ passions lie in how nonprofits communicate and work with each other. Currently working as the executive director of visual arts in MississaugaOntario Annis has worked with several organizations as a leader and community collaborator. 

Thank you Annis for joining us on the show!

Annis: You’re welcome, thank you Sabrina 

Sabrina: So you have been in the industry for a while now and I’m sure have dealt with a ton of different challenges in your career, in the last few weeks what has been the most surprising to you in terms of how nonprofits have been dealing with this pandemic? 

Annis: I can only speak for us and some others, I actually belong to the Peel Leader Centre and Executive Director Network. So a lot of Executive Directors meet regularly to share our stories and I think many of us agreed that our ability to be flexible and our ability to come up with really innovative solutions quickly has been very surprising. 

I think many things that if we were running normally and operating normally there might have been some reluctance or teams might have said "well we don't do that”, but because everything is so new and in many ways unknown a lot of the fear about trying new things is out the window. So people are saying "ya lets try this or let’s try that” so I think the ability to be flexible, or the catchphrase is pivot right now, on a regular basis has been really great.

Sabrina: Yeah, I guess because it is so unknown people are losing the fear and there is this mentality of we don’t know what’s going on so now is the time to try new things and new ways of moving forward. 

Annis: Oh ya, absolutely. We actually joke if we were trying to make some of these changes particularly going to online programming while running our in house it would be very difficult. People would be much more resistant than they have been so in a way it’s been great. 

Sabrina: Community right now seems to be everything you know you see neighbours and friends coming together to support one another, people buying groceries for those who are high risk. And organizations seem to be doing the same, how do you feel that organizations can continue this support and just work together during this time?

Annis: Well, there have been so many amazing examples, and I’m really just scratching the surface, restaurants offering support to food banks is a huge one. All the sewers coming out to sew masks. Mississauga Arts Council is Working with a group called Smile Everywhere and they are doing performances in senior homes throughout the peel region. 

A lot of the churches are running food banks or pick up delivery for homeless who need a meal, there are so many ways and I think everybody has- again back to that innovation, all of the responses have really been directed and so well focused to needs. Sometimes they’re not always that, but in this case needs are being met in a very focused way and it’s wonderful

Sabrina: Do you think that this collaborative mindset is going to be something that continues beyond Covid-19, do you think people are going to continue to work so closely together even when the pandemic ends? 

Annis: Oh I hope so, I really think for nonprofit organizations that will be key. I was, and I’ve been on a lot of webinars and we were talking about banks and the things they were focusing on and the first one was risk management which of course we have all been having to do. The second was mergers and acquisitions and in the non for profit sector I see that as partnerships, collaborations or perhaps mergers where different organizations suddenly see they have a synergy and they are going to be stronger working together than apart. So that is going to be an interesting phenomena that I’m hoping to see. The last focus is unfortunately bankruptcy which unfortunately, many businesses and many nonprofits we’ve already seen across Canada. Some nonprofits saying "sorry we can’t keep going”. 

So that will be the other sort of keys, how many survive the Covid break and how many can rally together and find ways to get stronger. 

Sabrina: What are some ways that they can come together and rally together, what are the steps nonprofits can take to build each other up? 

Annis: Again, Visual Arts Mississauga, in our outreach programs and this is a small example, we’ve had a long running successful program called Art Reach and it’s been renamed Community Hearts and it was a program we developed with Peel Senior Link and we were delivering art workshops into senior homes and to financially strapped seniors in different senior centres. 

So I do see more of collaborating in an outreach sense, and it’s as simple as yeah I have the paint and pens and you have people who can’t get out and we can send somebody in and see how that works. We’re exploring some new opportunities to work with some of the youth centres. I think the teen demographic right now is really suffering because meeting with friends and being with that cohort is such a critical part of development and growth and really entertainment for them right now. And I think they’re suffering, so we are looking at different ways we can try and help them either online or with programs that will adhere to the Covid health restrictions that will be put on them. 
 
Annis Karpenko Visual Arts Missisauga

I think there are many ways, and back to what I was saying you look for the need. It’s all well and good to come up with great ideas but if it’s not serving an actual need it’s not really a great idea. So the first thing is what’s needed and then that follows with how can we address it and how we can do it collaboratively to make it stronger. And that will help sustain it, so many great ideas are funded with short term grants and they say how will you sustain this after? Well, sometimes you’re not because you need the financial infusion to keep the program going. So working with different organizations, where we did this with the Riverwood Conservancy we ran a Culture at Riverwood series of concerts at the park and we alternated years of applying for grants to fund it. So we did it one year and they did it another year, and it needs to be funded. It isn’t a sustainable thing because we give it away free and people should be able to enjoy music for free, but you find ways to work around it. 

Sabrina: One of the really unique things about being an art based organization is that art applies to everyone, I love how you are doing work with the old folks home and also with teens which is so important. I know that Sketch, an organization we interviewed a few weeks ago did a similar thing by holding art lessons online. There are so many kids who are at home and they don’t have anything to do and they’re bored but picking up a new skill is something you can do anytime. So it’s really cool that you’re finding these creative ways to engage the community. 

Annis: Thank you, and we’re enjoying that. Certainly our spring teen program did really well and there was a great need. We found a bit more of a challenge with children and that was hard because of technology. Not every house has one, two, three tablets or computers and if parents are working from home they need their computer and they need their technology. So finding different ways to address the technology gap which many households face, we developed a summer program because we’re not running our summer camp this year so we developed a summer program called Art Stars which is an activity pack that kids can work with at home with moderate online time so they can share their stuff but we are not going to be impacting mom or dad or somebody else's need to be on the computer all day. 

So we really tried to fit our children’s program in and around busy families and I’ll say the other thing that has been really great for any organization is to just start doing some surveys. We surveyed parents and our summer camp population to say what’s going to work for you this summer if you can’t send your kids to camp. Some places are opening up but for the ones that aren't and for the parents that aren’t comfortable sending their kids out what can we do to help you out. So I think the program we developed is going to help serve the largest group of parents in need. So hopefully. 

Sabrina: So the economy is also changing, some people have lost their jobs or been laid off so the conversation around charitable giving is hard for some. How can organizations continue to communicate with donors beyond that giving relationship in terms of a monetary donation? 

Annis: Well, my personal belief about donors is they become donors when you already establish a relationship outside of giving with them. I really adhere to relationship development and building before you ask for anything, there is no non for profit that couldn't benefit from a legacy gift or some money, but to just go on the ask and that is with sponsors or with anybody without building a relationship first is counter intuitive to me. 
 
Annis Karpenko Visual Arts Missisauga

So I think the relationship should already have existed and if you’re doing well by your donors you’re communicating with them many times throughout the year regardless of your annual ask or emergency funding. You’re communicating with them on what you’re doing, you’re sharing your financial statements, you’re answering questions, you’re creating different opportunities specifically for them. So for us one of the things we did was we refunded anybody who signed up for a spring course in house and we refunded them full no questions asked but we did say if anybody would like to make a donation of the amount or part of the amount that would be lovely. And some people did, so they had already put the money out already so leaving us with a little bit or all of it which was very generous was one way. 

But we also know we have, because we’re an art organization and we build community, we know we have some people that rely on us for community. They come to us because they are socially isolated and don’t have the same action at home or people around them so they come to us. We know that we’ve had a couple of people that we make sure we phone them, we send emails to them just to check in and say how you guys are doing. You know it doesn’t have to be a lot and some will be like we’re good thanks and they don’t want any more but they will also say thank you, you’ve identified that my being there is more than my giving you money to joining your course it’s because I really need to be there and want to be with people. That also goes into having built relationships with your constituents. 

Sabrina: What has been the biggest adjustment with you in the last few weeks. You’ve given a lot of really good examples of how your organization has been navigating during the pandemic but I’d love to know what lessons you and your team will take beyond the pandemic. 

Annis: Well at the beginning in March and early April when we were all kind of in risk management mode as an executive director I will say I felt quite overwhelmed by the level of emotional support I was having to give to my team, to our faculty, to parents, it was a lot. And it was a lot because it was so unknown and we didn't really have any answers. One of the really great things again is all sorts of people particularly online, we ran some online courses with instructors that experienced doing online before but for those who didn’t we ran a six week training course for our instructors on how to teach online.  And we had a couple who were really reluctant and very overwhelmed and really anxious about the whole thing and it was just lovely to see how they really stepped back from their fear and said ok this is the reality and I’m just going to do it and they become the experts now they have all the answers. 

So watching people at the beginning being so emotionally fraught and then really coming through their own darkness, being very victorious tackling how they are going to be artists and still be able to make a living in some way. That has been very, very gratifying. And I think it’s not an adjustment but I think if you step back as an executive director and I call it the pause, you take  a pause whether it’s a half a day or a minute. You practice the pause to really give you the opportunity to see the bigger picture to see how you can move forward effectively and how you can support people effectively. 

Zoom meetings are not really the same as meeting face to face, I mean we have staff meetings every week and I make sure I have one on ones with my team every couple of weeks, we have facility meetings every two weeks so keeping that connection you have to work a little hard when you’re not actually seeing people on a regular basis and that’s a good thing to know cause if you’re always really busy your sometimes forget that and don’t always make the time to do it when you’re in place. But this has really given us an opportunity to practice the pause a little more. 

Sabrina: Definitely, you know people are normally used to things moving so quickly and because we are venturing into this unknown, what are some things organizations and leaders especially should keep in mind moving forward? 

Annis: Well it’s a funny thing because you need to do some planning but on the other hand you can't get too far ahead, I heard this and I wish I could attribute whoever said it because it’s brilliant  it’s not mine but it’s my new mantra but it’s "what is the next knowable thing”. It’s all good to make plans but in this environment where things are changing and information is coming in sometimes every half day if not every day, really waiting until you hear the next knowable thing. And that’s knowable now I think we’re going to open up next week or I think that” It’s the very clear message of we are opening next week or we are moving into phase 2, whatever that is. You plan but you wait to execute until you have the next knowable thing. It’s hard for executives or anybody on a team that's used to just going. We know this is happening and that happening, we know how to do it. And now it’s not happening and we’re not sure when it’s going to happen and we may not be able to do it the same way we did before so what's that about.

There’s a lot of self knowledge coming out of this pandemic, where you’re suddenly going "oh wow I never realized I reacted this quickly” or "I did that this way”. It’s quite humbling. 

Sabrina: Yeah, I hope a lot of people realize after this is all over that they are capable of a lot more than what they give themselves credit for, I mean this is such a weird unpredictable situation and there are so many organizations that are doing such a great job. 

Well thank you so much Annis for being on the show, Annis' organization Visual Arts Mississauga at Riverwood is a leading provider of visual arts programs for adults, teens and children. You can support them at visualartsmississauga.com

Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time!

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