Written by: Jacob Martinez
CEO of Digital NEST
“COVID is picking up – we should pay attention to it,” I remember saying to board members in a meeting back in March 2020. Two days later, we made the call to shut down for a couple of weeks and see how the virus would play out. Little did we, or anyone know at the time that a global pandemic was unfolding and we’d be forced to stay home for over a year. As society reopens, I’ve been reflecting on how we’re emerging from COVID better than we
We doubled down. We focused on our founding principle of abundance, and the belief that our members, employees, local businesses, teachers and neighbors deserve the best.
Here’s what we did and what we learned:
We responded quickly to community needs.
“Whatever the community needs, do it. We could run out of funds, but we’ll go down with our heads high knowing we did everything we could to help our neighbors,” I told staff.
Teachers needed content for classes, clinics needed COVID-safety materials, undocumented neighbors needed resources, artists needed help, and small businesses did too.
We built a bridge.
Our high school and college members were stuck at home with time on their hands. They have talent and skills, and wanted to help. An employee suggested engaging them to solve the community’s COVID-related challenges by creating NESTCorps.
Similar to AmeriCorps, NESTCorps connected members to meet local needs. Members designed arts and crafts videos for kindergarten classes and a platform to read books that teachers could send to students. They created a COVID-awareness video and other materials in Spanish to help keep monolingual neighbors stay safe. They created a virtual gallery for artists who needed a place to show their creations when art spaces closed. They also helped raise $500,000 for UndocuFund Monterey Bay to provide undocumented neighbors and families with emergency financial assistance and other resources.
It was such a powerful experience for youth – to assess community issues, identify problems and create solutions – that NESTCorps is now a permanent Digital NEST program. I cannot think of a better outcome of pandemic than empowered youth solving community problems. Strategic and focused efforts like these build local economies.
We invested in our staff.
We listened to our staff about what they needed to do good work from home. Many are from the community. They live in multi-family, multi-generational households. One employee lives with her aunt, uncle, niece and nephew, and had to care for the kids when their parents went to work. We gave staff flexibility to shift their schedules and tend to family.
We provided desks and computers for those who needed a dedicated work space at home. My family and I delivered goodie bags to each employee. We did everything we could to keep up morale.
We supported small businesses and brought them into the digital economy.
Businesses we work with through bizzNEST – our consulting service where youth provide valuable technology skills to businesses – asked if we could help fill the gaps during COVID. Many local businesses weren’t, and still aren’t, online and needed help selling their products and services. An employee had the idea to create an online directory so people could find them more easily. We partnered with Looker – a Google company – to launch @831. Our team reached out to local businesses to get them onto the directory.
The long-term economic benefit of bringing local businesses online extends beyond COVID. These are small businesses who don’t have digital expertise. Now with their online presence, they see the economic potential of the internet.
What we learned.
I wasn’t sure if we’d recover from COVID – what future lay ahead for Digital NEST. When the pandemic hit, funders were scaling back and focusing on healthcare and supporting school districts. Nonprofits were closing programs or shutting down completely. Our experience was different.
The work we did for the community became our calling card. Funders wanted to invest in us, seeing how we took calculated risks, pivoted and responded quickly in mission-aligned ways. We learned the importance of Digital NEST’s culture and founding values – trust, wellbeing, compassion and love – that guided us when we had to make tough decisions.
But unknown lessons lay ahead. We’re figuring out how to help our team transition back to the office. We’re being more aggressive in taking care of our staff by giving them an increase in salary, more benefits and more paid time off. We’re learning how to work in a new landscape of unrestricted philanthropy.
COVID taught us to lead with our values and continue listening to each other. It taught us that anything is possible.