Inaugurating a Year of Grace

Word game tiles spelling out "Grace"
By Heather Iliff, President & CEO, Maryland Nonprofits

Thank you for being a part of our beloved community.

After nearly two years, we are all experiencing our own personal pandemics. How do we go about moving forward to meet the needs of our communities while keeping ourselves, our families, our communities, and our teams healthy, in body, mind, and spirit?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits had their hands full. Since COVID-19, the nonprofit sector has served as first responders, addressing new and exacerbated needs. Over the past two years, with everything seemingly upended, crisis-response has become our new normal. 

As a nonprofit chief executive, I remember experiencing tremendous pressure but also new forms of grace in addressing the pandemic in 2020. Several of our funders renewed their support of Maryland Nonprofits without solicitation, waving arduous application and reporting requirements. Our Board understood the need to put routine functions on hold to address more immediate needs. With operational plans and routines postponed in 2020, we strained and strived to continue crisis management in 2021 and much of the grace had disappeared as everyone went into double-time to catch up on routine items and get on to the “recovery” phase.  We now need to rethink all that, as the crisis again accelerates.  

Maryland’s hospitals and other healthcare nonprofits are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Workforce shortages are becoming acute as more employees fall ill, have children at home, are caring for loved ones, and sadly, are attending funerals. Our nonprofit workforce, representing 13% of non-governmental workers in Maryland, sprint 24/7 to respond to communities in crisis. Now, with Omicron and other, potentially more contagious variants of COVID-19 emerging, the crisis is accelerating again. 

ProInspire has named an equity practice that helps organizations work for everyone, and it is my aim as a nonprofit CEO to center this every day in 2022:  prioritizing people over productivity

Some key practices:

1.  Give grace to people and ask for grace when we need it. Grace will be necessary as we all face shortages, delays and difficulties resulting from the pandemic.  Whether in our organizations or at the grocery store, we show up with kindness and presence in every interaction.

2.  Revisit 2022 plans and put nonessential items on hold. At Maryland Nonprofits, 2022 is a convergence of our 30th anniversary, the beginning of a new strategic planning process and renewal of our compliance with the Standards for Excellence. Our board and staff will move in new ways to plan with bandwidth to respond to this crisis and make steady strategic gains.

3. Normalize self-care to endure this crisis. Take vacations and sick days. Take time for your mental health and make it OK for staff to do the same. Spend time enjoying and caring for your family and household. Breathe, practice mindfulness and/or silent prayer, and rest.  

4. Maryland Nonprofits has encouraged self-care during the pandemic by taking the following actions to support our staff:

    1.  Supporting a remote working environment,
    2.  Adding 4 hours of paid leave per week for self-care;
    3. Reimbursing up to $100 a month for each employee’s home office expenses that may include cell; phone, internet, utilities, etc; 
    4. Closed the office for a full week in August and again in December;
    5. Added Juneteenth as a day of paid leave for service and reflection; and
    6. Offering an employee assistance program and other resources.
    7. Now providing KN95 masks and tests for employees and reimbursements for home purchases of the same.

5. Make caring for each other a priority. Actively check in with colleagues and volunteers. Normalize having team members check in with each other. Ask people where they need help, where they’re struggling and connect them with other nonprofit resources. Help each other catch up when they are down or falling off track.

6. Center equity. People of color, people with low income, people with disabilities, seniors and essential workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic in terms of illness, death, and economic impact. To uplift and address issues being faced in specific communities, create space for open dialogue about how the pandemic is being experienced in people’s lives.

7. We must band together to get the funding that nonprofits need and was intended for the work we do, but is held up with complicated governmental systems. While responding to a crisis, we don’t have time to write more grant applications. With Maryland having a $4+ million budget surplus, we are asking “why are we struggling to make payroll and pay a living wage?” We need another program like PPP that includes all-volunteer nonprofits, and a process that is automatic and easy to access.

Nonprofits are the most resilient, heart-filled, kind, compassionate, and effective organizations I have ever had the privilege of serving. This pandemic has demonstrated how we can rally and continue to show up every day to continue the work. To care for the needs of many, we must care for ourselves and our teams. We can’t give from an empty cup, and we cannot survive alone. To endure 2022 in another crisis-response mode, we must strive to keep our well full in order to both fill our own cups and share a cup with others. 

Let’s inaugurate a New Year of Grace for all we encounter as we address the pandemic and ongoing community needs together.


Heather Iliff is President & CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, responsible for advancing the organization’s vision to create a highly effective, ethical and equitable nonprofit sector that drives change through collective action and advocacy.