Connecting in the Time of COVID-19. An Interview with Public Innovator Rich Harwood (Part 1)

Innovation for nonprofits

Connecting in the Time of COVID-19. An Interview with Public Innovator Rich Harwood (Part 1)

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Social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us apart. We have never been so physically distant. Does that mean disconnection is inevitable? Or does it mean we need to change the norms about how we relate to stay connected? I talked about that with Rich Harwood, founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. He has dedicated his career to supporting individuals and organizations in creating change.

Rich’s work is about helping public organizations “turn outward”. He guides them on their path to connect with their communities in a more meaningful way. He sees the virtual communications we have turned to as an opportunity for a new kind of connection. Rich shared a touching story about a funeral service in a Jewish home, held by necessity over video. 200 people attended, all in different locations, including the family. Even though he wasn’t physically there, he could support the rabbi and the people grieving. He was able to witness their heartfelt sentiments much more closely than if he’d been there in person. When they spoke, he felt he was right there with them in an intimate way.

This is one of the ways in which we have begun to pivot in how we connect with each other as a result of social distancing. He also talked about a large meeting he attended by video, with 70 some people in different locations. The digital setting completely changed the norms of the meeting. People were more focused. There was more participation, less phone checking, and closeness to whoever was speaking. In a live meeting today, there is physical proximity but social distancing. In a virtual meeting, this flips 180 degrees. People feel more attuned to each other and the work they are doing.

Most of us now have shared similar experiences. They highlight new possibilities for communication in our interpersonal relationships. We have the opportunity to be more intimate and focused, and to change the norms for how we engage with one another.

On a larger scale, the nonprofit organization Rich works with will have to reframe their methods of engagement. Organizations are facing new challenges and financial pressure. This will force them to take a “shared responsibility” approach in their communities. They pivot to an orientation more about these communities and less about themselves. Moving forward, we will need each other. Most importantly, we will have to support one another, and work together to be effective.

See excerpts from my conversation with Rich here.

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