Taking COVID Lessons Forward

  • By Heather Peeler, May 10, 2024

The conventional thinking is that COVID is in the rearview mirror. Yet the conditions for many in our communities have not changed and the challenges feel more daunting than ever. Our grantee partners are struggling to meet community needs, nonprofit staff are navigating burnout, and social sector leaders are experiencing a financial squeeze as pandemic-era financial resources end.

The pandemic created new opportunities and highlighted new possibilities for ACT for Alexandria and set in motion a fundamental change to our culture and our practices. To meet the moment, we had to plan actively and pivot operations overnight, build on past success to take on new work, and learn to follow in collaborations and partnerships. These imperatives have unfolded into a new normal for our organization.

As we implement a new strategic plan that sets forth a more ambitious, optimistic future, I find myself looking back and forward at the same time, wondering: how can the lessons from COVID guide us in forging a future where we can realize the promise of the work we do to transform lives for the better?

Plan Actively [& Act without a Perfect Plan]

I recently read How Big Things Get Done by Brent Flyvberg and Dan Gardner on the secrets to success for large complex projects – like the construction of an airport or the hosting of the Olympic games. Active planning - sketching out ideas, surfacing potential problems, evaluating alternatives, and experimenting - makes the difference.

Emergency response requires you to act “methodically fast,” with intention, but without a perfect plan. Our COVID response required us to lean into emergent planning and program implementation – doing our best with imperfect information, relying on hunches, and trusting our partners. We were planning and implementing simultaneously.

When the City of Alexandria received federal CARES Act funding in the fall of 2020, City leaders wanted to think outside the traditional public benefits box to get support to families and households: a grocery gift card distribution program.

We knew that community organizations had trusted relationships with residents and would be able to efficiently get the gift cards to families who needed them the most. In a matter of weeks, we partnered with the City of Alexandria’s Department of Community and Human Services to design and implement ALX Cares Grocery Gift Card program, a grant program that awarded funding to 12 competitively selected community-based organizations to purchase and disseminate grocery gift cards to residents facing food insecurity. As a result, 2,326 households received cards valued at more than $2.5M.

ACT had never taken on a project of this scale and complexity. We found ourselves doing new things, such as reaching out to local grocery stores to map out the logistics of a massive purchase of gift cards. We hired data and evaluation consultants to help us craft a data and card tracking system to eliminate duplication and garner feedback from partners along the way. It was a constant process of sketching a high-level plan, refining and revising, up until the end of the program.

The urgent needs of our community remain heavy with lingering uncertainty, and we will need to be ready to take action. Active planning will remain a core function as we move forward.

Build on past successes [remember what got you here]

Like many community foundations, we quickly set up an emergency response fund during COVID. With funding from the City of Alexandria, Amazon, the faith community, small businesses, and other local foundations and donors, we established the ACT Now COVID Response Fund within 2 weeks of the pandemic shutdown.

Building on our commitment to trust-based philanthropy, the ACT Now COVID Response Fund significantly simplified the application process and used a seven-question online survey to ensure the broadest possible ease and access for nonprofit organizations. Submissions were reviewed weekly by ACT staff and our colleagues in City government so that we could be hyper-responsive to community needs.

We shifted to virtual operations and distributed $2.9M to 147 organizations in 8 months, including many organizations we had never worked with before. We were able to act quickly because we had a blueprint: one year prior we had established a fast-response emergency assistance fund to support residents impacted by the five-week, partial federal government shutdown.

We also leveraged our track record and success as a community convenor. In 2014, ACT had served as the backbone for the Early Care and Education Work Group, a collective impact initiative that brought together local donors, government agencies, the school system, and nonprofit providers.

Aware of our past success serving as the backbone for a cross-sector, systems-building effort, partners turned to ACT in 2020, when the Alexandria school system announced a “virtual plus” model to support youth struggling to adapt to distance learning. ACT provided space and structure for school officials, city leaders, youth program directors, and donors to partner in new ways.

Community collaborations, which will continue to be a core part of our work, don’t always lend themselves to “rinse and repeat” approaches. However, building upon past successes, in particular, activities that establish credibility and trust with partners over time, is essential.

Know when to follow [let others’ passions be your guide]

Because ACT’s discretionary grantmaking is modest, we learned early on that partnership and collaboration are essential to impact. The pandemic highlighted our value as a follower - an intermediary who works behind the scenes and amplifies the ideas and efforts of others.

One of the pandemic activities I am most proud of is our response to the community to provide a forum to come together in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. In 2019, we prioritized a commitment to addressing racial equity. We offered training and educational opportunities, provided capacity-building funding, and launched programs to help nonprofit and civic leaders deepen their understanding of racism, prejudice, and bias. In May 2020, as our country witnessed another appalling example of police violence, Alexandrians asked what ACT was going to do in response. Our response: what would you like to do and how can we help?

Residents wanted an opportunity to grieve and express themselves in fellowship with neighbors. Over the course of a weekend, ACT provided the logistical support that enabled a group of 75 people to design and facilitate a town hall called Facing Racism, Demanding Change. More than 1,200 people participated via Zoom and Facebook. The success of this program led to a second town hall: Shared Voices Town Hall on Community, Race, and Policing, which enabled community members to provide input on community policing legislation that was before the City Council.

Prompted by the concerns of a fundholder, ACT partnered with donors and the City of Alexandria to launch an emergency response fund specifically for the City’s workforce of front-line staff who were particularly vulnerable and impacted by COVID. We worked with a nonprofit with a strong track record in providing emergency financial assistance to distribute more than $130,000 for basic needs to 255 employees from every city department.

In both examples, stakeholders came forward with ideas about solutions to community needs and we took on new, high-impact activities in response. Following the lead of others is a muscle we want to continue building. Recently, we launched a participatory grantmaking process to formalize this practice. The 11-person Community Advisory Board for the Fund for Racial Equity is determining the priorities, designing the grant process, and making funding decisions.

Taking COVID lessons forward

Pre-COVID, ACT was doing good work to strengthen philanthropy and our community’s nonprofits. We have evolved to take on a broader mandate to address the most pressing issues affecting our community’s well-being. We have new relationships with community-based organizations that were not on our radar. We have deeper partnerships with the local business and faith communities, as well as with city officials. And we have a broader base of supporters who are investing in the resilience and vibrancy of our community.

The experiences that led to these lessons were not as seamless as they sound. Our team was stressed, tired, and anxious. It often felt like we were building a plane while flying. Everything felt high-stakes and we felt pressure to respond to every need and request.

Looking forward, I am grounded in a new-found sense of opportunity and possibility for our organization. While some steps in our journey are still not crystal clear, we have built a capacity to figure things out, even under pressure. Active learning, building on past success, and letting others take the lead allow us to meaningfully serve our community with confidence.

Heather Peeler

President and Chief Executive Officer


Heather Peeler is the President & CEO of ACT for Alexandria. During her tenure, ACT expanded its service to the community and deepened its impact. Key initiatives have addressed racial equity, economic mobility for low-income Alexandrians, and youth success. In 2020, ACT distributed $5.76M in COVID emergency assistance. Prior to ACT Ms. Peeler served as the Vice President of Member and Partner Engagement at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, a highly regarded organization dedicated to effective philanthropy and nonprofit success. She previously served as Chief Strategy Officer at the Corporation for National and Community Service and as Managing Director at Community Wealth Partners. Throughout her career she has focused on bringing people together to make their organizations and their communities stronger. She regularly writes and speaks about capacity building, community engagement, collaboration, and learning and evaluation. Her own community involvement includes serving as Chair of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers and as a Commissioner on the Washington, D.C. Commission on Out of School Time Grants and Youth Outcomes. Ms. Peeler holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts and earned her M.B.A. from The Anderson School at UCLA in Los Angeles, California.