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Such a Year - Part One: Leadership During the Pandemic

The weeks leading to Impact Austin’s Annual Meeting are typically a time to take stock: to measure what we’ve accomplished and supported in the year past, and to ponder how we can improve in the year ahead. It’s a celebratory process and also a learning opportunity. The 2020-2021 year has been… shall we say it? SUCH a year!

Through July, three essays will document significant actions, changes, and approaches that developed within Impact Austin since lockdown in March 2020. This first piece considers the leadership that Impact Austin, and Executive Director Christina Gorczynski in particular, demonstrated in the early months of the pandemic. Upcoming essays will examine Impact Austin’s grantmaking shifts and the pursuit of our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging framework.

Christina Gorczynski makes clear that much of what seemed to happen so quickly in Spring 2020 was actually due to groundwork laid in 2018 and 2019.

Christina began to cultivate relationships – yet unaware how she might leverage them – when she joined Impact Austin in Fall 2018. There was community awareness of Impact Austin, to be sure, but the organization had lacked a consistent “face” since Impact Austin Founder Rebecca Powers stepped away from leadership in 2011. Christina began to represent Impact Austin in the community, re-defining existing relationships and building new ones.

Christina joined Leadership Austin’s Experience Austin program and also tapped their Fellows Program. She developed a close relationship with Mission Capital’s Madge Vasquez. Christina connected with Courtney Manuel of I Live Here, I Give Here; together they created a podcast, “The most generous city in the country,” as part of Indiana University’s Philanthropy Plugged-In series. Christina joined the Women’s Fund at Austin Community Foundation. And she met scores of existing members, new members, and non-members at Impact Austin events (Town Hall, Discovery Day, Annual Meeting) and cultivation “coffees”. These meetings forged relationships. “I made friends with anyone and everyone who was open to collaborating,” said Christina. “My role is to amplify Impact Austin’s work and the best way to do that is through the power of relationships.”

The moment came when each budding relationship became invaluable.

Coming from Houston, Christina had already been involved in disaster philanthropy after Hurricane Harvey. As COVID crept into our community and lockdown loomed, Christina anticipated an immediate need to pull people together. The first big hit to the Central Texas region was the cancellation of South by Southwest, which was set to be held in March. But the pandemic had reached Austin. “I had a gut feeling that canceling SXSW was not going to be the crisis,” she recalled. “The cancellation of SXSW was just the beginning of the damage to our economy and the livelihoods and safety of our friends and neighbors.”

Reality started sinking in that our lives were about to change. Christina knew nonprofits would be stretched and she was certain that supporting our community was going to take a whole new level of collaboration and teamwork. So she started working her contact list. When you are in crisis, your relationships are critical, your relationships are tested, and your relationships are strengthened,” Christina reflected.

A series of weekly meetings ensued among community leaders*. (See Christina's contact list below.) Several partners identified the piece they would contribute, the role they could play.

  • Mission Capital would be point on data, issuing a nonprofit pulse survey to gather nonprofit and constituent needs (see 2020 Impact Report).

  • One Voice Central Texas drove advocacy. Chair Dan Leal and Christina co-authored a Statesman opinion piece to encourage investment in local nonprofits. “We were building a drumbeat to support our nonprofits,” Christina recalls.

  • I Live Here, I Give Here would run the #GivingTuesdayNow funding campaign, and they also partnered with Austin Community Foundation and United Way for Greater Austin on the All Together ATX fund. United Way could also deploy volunteers.

  • Impact Austin was a connector and convener, reaching out to 70+ past and current grantees to ask, “What do you need?”

  • PBS Austin KLRU-TV leveraged its communications machine and led on publicity and spreading the word about community needs.

  • The call went out to Impact Austin members, too. In newsletters, e-blast, and social media, Impact Austin encouraged our readership to support Central Texas nonprofits, highlighting current and past Community Partners in particular. These were organizations already vetted by Impact Austin, already doing work we valued in Bastrop, Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties. The 2020 Annual Meeting recapped our partners’ response to COVID in a moving video tribute. That year, we extended grants to a record number of partners.

What are some of the pandemic challenges still facing Impact Austin and its members?

  • Most of us experienced emotional struggles. Isolation was especially tough on single and retired members. Some members lost family to COVID.

  • Lives were turned upside down. Many members left their jobs to home-school children. Still others lost their jobs, or their households lost an income.

  • Membership recruitment has been tough. Personal connections are important to our organization, so “virtual recruitment” doesn’t yield the same results. Some members have had to reconfigure finances, perhaps cutting back on philanthropy, perhaps caring for other family facing difficulty.

And what are some of the positive legacies left to Impact Austin from the pandemic? In short, COVID provided an opportunity to process concepts we already had.

  • We strengthened “really meaningful relationships in the community,” according to Christina. We were all in it together in a new way. Some of these relationships developed into speakers and expert sources who continue to share their wisdom at Impact Austin learning events.

  • We built our reputation by showing up, week after week, advocating for our Community Partners.

  • COVID required that we shift quickly to an online experience. All programming had to go online: leadership meetings, membership recruitment, philanthropy education, special events. All business operations went exclusively online. Website upgrades were needed. The work had been outlined, but we needed funding to grow our capacity. St. David’s Foundation made the grant to Impact Austin for this big technology undertaking.

  • Philanthropy Education shifted into high gear. Online webinars like Women Leaders and Discovery Days offered a range of content that would not have been possible in our traditional framework. “Philanthropy education is core to who we are now,” Christina says.

  • Going virtual made it possible for some members to be involved in ways they previously could not be, either because of work, distance from Austin, or other barriers. Suddenly, almost anyone could “attend” an event or training or committee meeting. Some new members joined because they were now at home with more time.

  • The pandemic could boost the human spirit. Some people were inspired to get directly involved in the community. COVID made really clear we have something to give back.

Christina believes our members have inspiring stories to tell about new ways they found to give back during 2020-2021: new ways to engage with our Community Partners, new roles to play within Impact Austin, other organizations to benefit with financial or hands-on support. How have you given back during SUCH a year?

* Christina's COVID-19 community contact list

Impact Austin, Leadership Austin, Austin Community College Nonprofit Center, One Voice Central Texas, Austin Community Foundation, United Way of Greater Austin, The New Philanthropists, I Live Here I Give Here, Mission Capital, Woollard Nicols and Associates, KLRU, Notley Ventures, MEASURE Austin, Go Austin/Vamos Austin, Financial Literacy Coalition of Austin, St. David's Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, JP Morgan Chase, Community Advancement Network (CAN)


Part Two of this series will be posted in late June.


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