Survive to thrive: advice we gave to our fellows

by Kevin Starr

Mar 26, 2020

Here's the quick and dirty advice we gave to our early stage fellows in the time of COVID-19.

These are the bare essentials from our Twitter thread:

  1. Survive. Your impact is in the future - you need to get there. Slash costs, push your funders & save your cash. And take care of yourself.
  2. "The stories of what you do now will echo through the years." Make sure any COVID responses are timely, high-impact, mission-relevant, and visible.
  3. Don't try to be something you're not, and don't do stuff you're not good at.
  4. If you have a relevant comparative advantage - ed tech, mass media, comms, etc - seize the day. if you don't, hang on to your cash.
  5. Any decisions should be made with an eye toward regaining, even accelerating, your momentum when this mess is over.

Here’s what we sent them in a longer note

When there are a lot of hard decisions to be made, it's essential to have an overarching principle to guide you. In the case of our fellows, I think it is this: Survive. Do what it takes to get you and your organization to the other side of all this, ready and able to regain your momentum. You're a fellow because we believe you have great potential to create lasting impact at scale. The vast majority of your impact is yet to come. Your duty to those you serve - to your mission - is to do what will give you and your organization the best shot at realizing that potential impact.

That may take many different forms. Some of the most agonizing decisions that you face will be about the degree to which you can respond to the human needs around you, including those of your employees. And of course you can't ignore those needs; not only is there a moral imperative, but as Paul -- the CEO of Rising Academies who went through the Ebola crisis in Liberia -- said to me yesterday, "the stories of what your organization does during this crisis will echo down the years." 

What you shouldn't do, though, is contort yourself and your organization into something you're not, and get tangled up in stuff you're not good at. You're mostly start-ups(ish): You're unlikely to make an outsize difference now, but there may be ways to be truly useful and set yourself up for much greater impact in the years ahead. Look for those ways. 

And timing matters. Think of your comparative advantage: For example, if you're in ed tech or mass media, perhaps the time is now. If your major contribution will come when economies are rebuilding, the right approach may be to hunker down, save your cash, and plan. In any case, when you make the hard decisions, think about where they'll leave you two years from now. 

So there is a simple heuristic that can guide you for any given decision: First and foremost, "what choice will most improve the chances that my organization and my idea will survive this," and second, more important as the weeks go by, is "what choice will leave us in better standing with those who will be key to regaining our momentum."

I hope as much as anything that this helps you find peace of mind as you make the best choices that you can. You will make some mistakes. Forgive yourself.

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