I remember when the markets crashed in September of 2008. As CEO and Founder of The Institute for Education (IFE), I was concerned that our supporting members, companies, and friends might have to cut their budgets and worried about what this would mean for IFE — specifically for our Youth Global Citizens program. In 2008, IFE had developed deep and meaningful partnerships with various NGOs around the world. We would send local DC high school kids to these partner-organizations for community service projects: water preservation in China, bicycles in Rwanda, entrepreneurship in Egypt to name a few. This mission was near and dear to my heart and I worried that without funding, we would no longer be able to continue this enrichment program.
As the markets took a nosedive, IFE not only lost many of our lead supporters, but much of our grassroots support dried up as well. All of a sudden, I found myself needing to cut IFE’s operating budget big time.
The first thing I thought about was our office space. IFE has always been a small, agile, lean organization run by independent contractors, interns, and fellows. I still remember our building on Connecticut and L, right in the center of where all the action was — a quarter mile from The White House. The office was our home base — a respectable address, a place to have meetings, store IFE related materials, and manage day-to-day operations. Yet, we never had staff sitting in the office working 9-5pm, the way most similar organizations would have, at least up until this recent crisis.
Suddenly, it was clear to me and the IFE leadership that we would need to move the office to be entirely virtual. As workforces and colleges shift to Zoom almost instantly, in our current crisis, this may seem like a small thing, but back in 2008 this was unprecedented. At the time, the idea of a “virtual office,” as I came to call it, was considered shady, not very prestigious, and a sign that an organization might be struggling to be a serious operation. Given the senior level of most of our members and speakers — I was very nervous to make this change and, admittedly, embarrassed. It was a big setback to the profile and portfolio that I had built at IFE over 15 years. Operationally it was almost no different, but I thought if word got around that we worked at home, virtually, it would be diminishing for IFE and for me.
I called an emergency meeting with our IFE leadership: the board of stewards, old advisors, and longtime supporters to discuss the situation. It became clear to us all that as useful as it was to have a primely located office space we would need to go entirely virtual to stay effective.
At first I kept it quiet. I got a P.O. box. When diplomats from the Chinese Embassy wanted to meet for our China programs, I winged-it and said the office was getting renovated. This was worrisome as IFE hosts plenipotentiary guests from around the world who are often accustomed to lavish surroundings. Moreover, our new mailing address was on Massachusetts Avenue on American University’s campus at the UPS store! When people would ask exactly where our office was on Mass Ave., I would again improvise — say close to AU, then quickly change subjects.
Team IFE was nimble and the China programs went forward. When organizing the Learn Serve China program, partnering with Washington International School (WIS), we decided to have a meeting on WIS’s stunning campus with the Chinese diplomats. The time was set for 3pm. I then realized that would be in the thick of carpool lines for after-school pick-up. I emailed and emailed the Chinese diplomats explaining the carpool line problem and suggesting we move the meeting to 2:30 or 3:30. No answer — radio silence. The day before the appointed meeting I called and spoke to my contact. No one knew what a carpool line was! That is not a word they had! Once I explained, they understood immediately, we met at 2:30pm, and everything kept moving forward at pace.
Early on, we upgraded our website to be heavy with granular content and it essentially became a big file cabinet, but a virtual one. We were early to stop using faxes for formal invitations — in those days if you invited an Ambassador to an event or to be a speaker, it was always done by telephone to the Social Secretary followed by faxed invite. Formal protocol of course. As a matter of fact, it is only in the last few years that Embassies have started operating with digital invitations. Next, IFE’s entire team got .org email addresses, with access to the virtual office. We taught and practiced “digital hygiene” before the phrase even existed. A real game-changer was when IFE COO, Kaivan Shroff, onboarded slack for the team a few years ago.
Gradually through the years, IFE scrambled and found new support. We were slowly becoming the poster-child organization for “innovation by crisis.” By 2013, I was becoming proud of IFE being virtual, as we were on the vanguard of the tech-revolution institutionally. I even got invited to Harvard Business School to speak to students about institutional agility and nimble business planning. This cracked me up, as initially I was so embarrassed, yet now I am so proud!
Just yesterday evening, I concluded another one of our “Zoom cocktail-hours,” this time with the EU Ambassador (IFE has already adapted to hosting Zoom events, including with the Irish and Belgian Ambassadors, and IFE Steward Dr. R David Edelman and Joanne Edelman). As COVID-19 continues to unravel the normal ways we do our work and live our lives — I remain optimistic that IFE and organizations around the world will discover lasting, productive, and positive innovations during this crisis.