What’s on our minds

Selecting Digital Infrastructure Tools: 32 Options, 1 Choice!

digital infrastructure

In an increasingly digital-first world, it’s important to be able to collaborate effectively with our global team of volunteers to maximize impact and efficiency, but how do we do that effectively? What are the right tools for us today and tomorrow? What about next year, or five years from now?

Working with a limited budget, we’ve been creative with our tooling, using a variety of off-the-shelf collaboration and communication apps. We knew we needed someone to research available tools (CRM, project management, etc.) and design a cohesive plan for our technology infrastructure, so we can spend more time creating a socially resilient world, and less time managing technology. We put out a call for someone to help with this effort on VolunteerMatch and hoped for the best!

Enter Sharan Subramanian & Nirav Kanthed, two high school students from the San Francisco bay area, who volunteered to help research what types of digital infrastructure tool sets were available and what would work for our growing organization. Sharan and Nirav delivered in a big way, helping us narrow our list of non-profit focused CRM and technology solutions from thirty two down to just one for our immediate needs!

Curious about what they found? Read about it here, or watch the presentation here.

After a short thirty minute discussion, we decided to move forward with a trial period using Zoho Projects & Zoho CRM!

Thank you to Sharan and Nirav!


20 years ago today, I made a phone call

20 years ago today, on Sep 13 2001, I made a phone call. Today, I’m asking you to donate $20 to help create a more socially resilient world.

Here’s the story.

Sep 13 2001

I was trying to work on my dissertation, but, like much of the country, couldn’t concentrate. I vaguely knew that the Red Cross did something with disaster, so I called the local office. I thought that maybe I could shake a can at the local airshow that weekend.

Little did I know that phone call was the start of an entirely different life.

I spent that day and the next answering phones, and accepting walk-in donations at the Red Cross office. On the weekend, I took my first disaster class. I’ve been a Red Cross volunteer ever since. I’ve deployed locally and nationally to floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, taken numerous classes, taught CPR and First Aid, developed training exercises, and have served with four different chapters. This uncovered a passion for disaster management.

But that was only the beginning.

Straddling the gap

The next shift toward my new life came with a National Research Council fellowship (yes, I did eventually finish the d*dissertation) at the Pacific Disaster Center, and a subsequent job with InSTEDD, a non-profit startup working to use technology for very early detection of emerging infectious diseases.

These experiences brought me into touch with people outside formal response organizations who were working to prepare their communities for disaster. I gained a deep appreciation for the people who respond to disaster because they happen to be in its way, and a recognition that grassroots responders far outnumber trained responders.

But I was still not ready to let go of technology, and leap into a life in disaster.

My own crisis

As is so often the case, I needed my own crisis to catalyze real change. I had been working on a very large, very challenging, and very prestigious project. It was also very contentious. I was in over my head in more ways than one, and failed both myself and the project. Traumatized by the experience, I went on a six-week road trip determined to understand what I was doing wrong, and how I could ensure that I never got myself into such a situation ever again.

I came back with two insights:

  1. With all the privileges I’ve been given, I had absolute no right to be unhappy; I should find a way to be happy or give everything to someone who could.
  2. Most of my life, I’d been living other people’s lives, disaster was my real passion, and what I really wanted to do was to work to make grassroots crisis responses more likely to happen and to be effective.

That gave me a clear direction, albeit with vague marching orders.

Making the leap

Fast forward to today, Sep 13 2021.

I have transformed myself into Founder and Executive Director of a non-profit startup. Creative Crisis Leadership is gaining momentum every day. We have five active team members. Others come and go as we undertake new projects. We have done research, and tested our training approach. We are talking with several community organizations about partnering with us in our Wildfire Readiness project. We have an active blog, a YouTube channel, and are launching a LinkedIn page — maybe even later today. We are recruiting people to help us to develop strategic business, fundraising, and marketing plans, so that we can make ourselves worthy of the support our small following of active supporters and donors have given us.

In the past two years, disaster has gone mainstream. I no longer have to explain that everyone is at risk, people need to work together in disaster, or that people need to be ready to take action in crisis to help themselves and their communities rather than waiting for someone else to take care of them.

Creative Crisis Leadership has the right mission at the right time. My next goal is an organization that doesn’t need me.

Am I happy?

Yes. For the most part. I still have some changes to make in my personal life. Starting a non-profit is a guaranteed recipe for financial worry (unless you’re independently wealthy, which I’m not). But I’m living my own life, and have no one else to blame for any unhappiness I experience.

Sep 13 2021

Twenty years ago, I made a phone call. Today, you can help create a world of people who are ready to act, improvise and overcome when facing disaster.

I’ve given 20 years. Will you give $20 to help the world get through the next 20?

Learning from COVID-19 grassroots leaders: What we can do (part 2 of 2)

Six hands holding each other in a circle

We talked to grassroots leaders in COVID-19 to understand what support would help them. This is what we take away.

You can see an overview of the research on the study’s project page. Read the full report to get all the details of how we conducted the study, who the participants were, evidence for our findings, along with our takeaways and recommendations.

Our goal was to  understand  how we might expand our services to support Spontaneous Leaders — people who emerge as leaders in situations of ambiguous leadership — during a crisis.

You can read a brief summary of our findings here. These are our takeaways.

What we can do

First and foremost, continue with the CCL mission!

Second, help SLs to understand and succeed in a daunting and unfamiliar journey,

  • Develop educational materials that foster appreciation of SLs and that offer SLs inspiration, practical advice, and emotional encouragement. See, for example, “Advice from the frontlines” on our Leaders page.
  • Spread the skills and mindsets needed to start and run a successful grassroots crisis response effort.
  • Guide SLs through the common journey of a grassroots crisis response — from ideation to stabilization – using the principles of Design and Entrepreneurial Thinking.

Third, finding and connecting with SLs to offer them support in the midst of a crisis poses a substantial challenge. They are busy with the needs of their response effort, don’t self-identify as leaders, and, often, both!

  • Rather than attempting to market services directly to SLs, it may be more effective to rely on local communities and response organizations for referrals to CCL’s materials and services.
  • CCL should leverage the training program to promote awareness of the value of Spontaneous Leaders and grassroots crisis efforts.

Fourth, CCL could provide or foster specific services of value to SLs. Most notably, help them,

  • Develop situational understanding and knowledge, especially understanding of crisis response practices and the resources that may be available.
  • Identify and develop connections to their broader community and support networks.
  • Operate in ways that foster legitimacy and credibility, so they can win the trust of those they seek to help, and those from whom they seek help.
  • Identify and find the professional services that they might need, e.g., legal, financial, marketing, and personal mental wellness services.

Finally, tailor service and materials delivery to accommodate the vastly differing needs and attentional resources of individual SLs. For example, provide materials and services in differing modes requiring varying levels of commitment,

  • Quick hit guidance consumable in minutes, such as simple one-page infographics and checklists.
  • In-depth materials consumable in sporadic bursts, such as a highly-curated, easily-navigated library of resources and references.
  • Ongoing support, such as peer support from other, possibly more experienced, SLs, expert mentors or coaching.

In conclusion

We have our work cut out for us!


Read more about the findings
Read the full report

Learning from COVID-19 grassroots leaders: What we found (part 1 of 2)

"Reaching out" by andrew and hobbes is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

At the start of the pandemic, we talked to 11 fascinating individuals about COVID-19 grassroots responses. Here’s what we learned.

You can see an overview of the research on the study’s project page. Read the full report to get all the details of how we conducted the study, who the participants were, evidence for our findings, along with our takeaways and recommendations.

Our goal was to understand  how we might expand our services to support Spontaneous Leaders — people who emerge as leaders in situations of ambiguous leadership — during a crisis.

This blog is a brief summary of our findings. Our takeaways will be described in another blog.

Our first finding – an affirmation of CCL’s mission!

Our first finding confirms that SLs emerged in response to COVID-19 and are likely to do so in other crises. It also affirms that starting a grassroots response is emotionally and logistically difficult, and that SLs would benefit from the kind of training and empowerment support services that align with CCL’s mission – spreading the skills and mindset necessary for collective action and improvised leadership.

The study revealed a critical need to tailor service delivery to the needs and attentional resources of individual SLs – the SLs interviewed exhibited substantial variety in backgrounds, skill sets, and bandwidth for taking in new information.

The study also underscored the difficulty of identifying and reaching SLs in the midst of a crisis. This suggests that spreading awareness of the role and importance of SLs to crisis response, prior to a crisis, is essential to successful delivery of prospective CCL services.

The rest of the findings – What support do SLs need?

The rest of the findings describe the support that SLs need.

  1. The SL journey is difficult and fraught with obstacles. Guidance along the journey would be highly valuable to maintaining motivation and momentum. Interestingly, and maybe unsurprising to some of our readers, the SL experience bears striking resemblance to that described by Design and Entrepreneurial Thinking.
  2. An SL’s  effectiveness is strongly correlated with their situational awareness – their understanding of the larger situation they’re working within. This includes understanding what resources might be available, knowing what those they are helping need,  what social, logistical and economic forces are at play. Unfortunately, SLs’ ability to understand the situation is often hampered because they are overwhelmed and operating in unfamiliar waters.
  3. In COVID-19, most SL efforts were focused on “brokering the last mile” — getting available resources to the individuals that need them. Grassroots efforts are often instrumental in filling local gaps, providing detailed knowledge of local conditions and community members.
  4. Networks and relationships are critical to an SL’s success. Social connections are invaluable in overcoming issues of awareness and trust. SLs especially rely on connections forged before the disaster happens, but also need to be able to develop new ones quickly during a crisis.
  5. SLs must have the trust of the community they serve and the resource providers they need. Without legitimacy and credibility, SLs struggle to maintain the connections needed to succeed.
  6. Eventually, most SLs need some form of professional advice or help, most commonly, legal counsel, accounting and tax support, fundraising and marketing expertise, insurance coverage, and even mental wellness support. Unfortunately, SLs may not recognize their need for professional help or have the wherewithal to obtain it, complicating their journey and possibly placing them at personal risk.

In conclusion

CCL is on the right track! These findings give us heart that SLs are out there and they need our help. Furthermore, the findings provide insight into what kinds of support would be of value to the SLs.


Read about possible support services in this blog
Read the full report

Our COVID-19 research report is out!!!

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we set out to learn how we might expand our programs to help those who are helping others.

Here is our report!

We extend our deepest appreciation to

  • Garett Dworman for generously volunteering his time and skills to conduct interviews, analyze data, and write the report,
  • Zach Pipkin of Tableau Software for his copious help with recruiting and data analysis, and
  • Malina Cheeneebash for her invaluable support with finding and vetting leads, and with data analysis.

Special thanks to Amy Alberts and the User Research team at Tableau Software for their extensive support with research planning, identifying leads, recruiting, and scheduling participants, especially Britta Fiore-Gartland, Eden Heller, Erin Bartuska, and Melanie Tory.

Our gratitude to Meghan Ede, and General Assembly graduates Adriana Orland, Hannah Feldman, and Victoria Zhambalova for their support with research planning and recruiting efforts.

Finally, our heartfelt gratitude to our study participants for giving us their time, and for giving of themselves to help others get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

This study is dedicated to the
Spontaneous Leaders who try, including those who fail.

They accomplish more than you think.