Pivoting and Planning: STRIVE’s Pandemic Progress

For STRIVE, 2020 began with plans for significant expansion. The workforce development nonprofit was getting ready to launch a new site in Atlanta, broadening its geographic reach and expanding its  operational portfolio.

STRIVE, which has been active in New York for 35 years, offers job-readiness training to low-income adults age 18 and older, over half of who have prior criminal justice involvement. The organization cultivates partnerships with local employers to help graduates find employment and with community groups to provide clients with additional resources. While STRIVE leads an affiliate network of 11 other organizations nationally, the Atlanta office was planned as the second site STRIVE would run directly.

Then came March, and the COVID-19 pandemic that upended social service agencies along with the rest of the nation’s businesses and schools, forcing many aspects of daily life online. STRIVE, like other organizations, had to rapidly pivot from completely in-person work to delivering services completely online. The Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) at MDRC had the opportunity to document some of the innovations and adaptations STRIVE’s New York office made in real-time.

A New York Transition Sets an Example

Greg Wise, STRIVE’s National Vice President, offered a first-hand account of how STRIVE approached its affiliate network and the planned expansion to Atlanta during this difficult year. His interview with MDRC complements the experiences of STRIVE New York staff and clients. It is presented throughout this brief.

“As a national organization, we are leading a network of organizations that are each navigating many of the same challenges. We believe deeply at STRIVE in the power of networks, which are especially valuable for learning and support during times of crisis.”

Indeed, STRIVE New York staff members and clients who spoke to MDRC showed an acute awareness of the emotional intensity accompanying the transition to the virtual realm. During the pandemic, STRIVE New York focused on consistent communications to develop and strengthen relationships between staff members, students, and alumni, who had not met face-to-face since March. As enforced isolation added to everyone’s daily challenges, staff members and clients openly shared aspects of their daily lives and struggles during virtual gatherings. They discussed their hopes, fears, and even their grief as some participants lost loved ones in the pandemic.

We Really Are All in This Together

Candor featured prominently in the online transition. As STRIVE adapted its programs, staff members were open about their own issues, and repeatedly told clients, “It’s really hard doing it like this, we’re all learning.” One client in the first cohort to transition online felt “everyone was like a family.” Another staff member noticed a different sort of intimacy immediately: “Because of where we are in the world, it’s a different bond. We can almost relate to each other even more.”

Wise, the national vice president, said the change was felt throughout the organization: “STRIVE has a responsibility to help our network provide the tools and trainings necessary to deliver high-quality programs – including in a pandemic. STRIVE was a resource as well as a fellow traveler in the brave new world of remote program delivery. Our early learnings in STRIVE New York provided a model for affiliates to deliver programs remotely.  We have all been in this together, moving programs 100 percent remote as we grapple with constant changes to local public health guidance, staff and student health concerns, and operational challenges.”

In New York, one adaptation was adding three onboarding calls for newly registered students, which helped staff members get to know each of them individually. Once the program began, STRIVE retained its traditional model of daily meetings between clients and staff, shifting to Zoom rather than in person. Generally, clients meet as cohorts of 10 to 20 students and are joined by several staff members, although they sometimes used smaller breakout groups or one-on-one conversations. Because screen time takes a toll on concentration, STRIVE added more frequent breaks for full-day classes to reduce the strain. Prior to the pandemic, STRIVE employment specialists hosted weekly Job Clubs, offering each attendee tailored job referrals and support. By April, those Job Club meetings doubled to twice weekly, also over Zoom.

That may have paid off. Multiple participants said STRIVE meetings were something productive to look forward to and, as one commented, “the most human interaction” they had on some days. Staff members echoed this sentiment, often telling clients “it’s a gloomy day but these Job Clubs are not just for you, they’re for us. Our treat. We get to see you all.”

On a national level, Wise said the need to adjust rapidly was vital, for both ensuring continuity of services and executing the organization’s longer-term goals of expanding its reach and deepening its networks: “We reinforced our learning management system, iSTRIVE, to provide continued coaching and training of staff across the network.  STRIVE rapidly put together Zoom sessions to build affiliate capacity on topics from virtual instruction platforms to job placement assistance. Monthly check-ins provided an outlet for shared learnings and problem-solving, along with sharing the human toll of the pandemic on staff and student lives. Camaraderie in facing common challenges provided a platform to share decision-making processes for everything from applying for small business loans to protocols for returning to the office.”

Giving Job Networks a Jolt, Virtually

Even as the city’s unemployment rate rose to double-digit percentages within weeks of the pandemic’s arrival, STRIVE New York continued vigorous efforts to sustain its employer contacts and other connections to community resources, and maintained a steady list of job openings for students that included both in-person and remote work opportunities. For some students, the switch to more frequent virtual offerings made STRIVE resources more accessible. Online check-ins allowed participants to join in while managing other aspects of their lives, all complicated by the pandemic. One alum, for instance, called to check in while waiting for his appointment outside of a medical testing center.

In recognizing new, unsettling conditions for its job-seeking clients, STRIVE cultivated a layer of explicit sensitivity to alumni’s challenges and fears. Staff members directly asked about individual comfort levels with different kinds of work during a pandemic, trying to direct assistance to match client responses, such as preferences for remote or in-person jobs. Staff emphasized that a temporary job opportunity, such as remote customer support or working at a supermarket, did not preclude other options, such as health care or construction work, in a future supported placement.

Wise said local lessons affected national considerations, both operationally and in terms of planning for a post-pandemic future. Just as placement specialists advised clients that short-term goals may evolve with the passage of time, STRIVE leadership is carefully deliberating what changes might work best at different times and in different places: “In extensive work with our network, our commitment to helping our students and alumni is strong as they address many issues, including a lack of equity, in their journeys to build careers and improve their lives. While it's been a difficult year of change, the work grows and continues, and we look to meet the moment with as much information and planning as possible.”

Help with a Crisis, Not Just with Finding Work

Because STRIVE aims to serve individuals with “the biggest obstacles to employment,” embedding support for clients’ varied challenges remains a vital part of every aspect of its model. During the onset of COVID-19 cases in New York, many clients faced new and greater needs, from hunger to sudden job losses. Consequently, staff members reached out more frequently, using phone calls, texts, and emails to ask clients “how you’re doing, and your family is doing.” Staff conveyed the message that they were available to help with “whatever they need besides work,” from food resources to unemployment applications, often through community partner organizations, such as food banks, that reached out to STRIVE because of its longstanding connections to them.

As one alum said, “there are staff who check up on me constantly, constantly in touch, making sure I was okay,” and that STRIVE connected him to resources. To keep track of new resources and the many changes to existing sources of support, STRIVE designated a point person who maintains and updates a list of available services to support student needs. Staff members added four weekly Zoom support groups for students and alumni to discuss their situations.

The pandemic heightened flexibility and responsiveness with the entire STRIVE community, as the agency celebrated client successes and continually adjusted its strategies in New York. That meant creating and discontinuing Zoom support groups based on client engagement — acting on findings, for instance, that generalized support groups were better attended than more targeted meetings for populations like mothers or home chefs. They continue grappling with challenges to technology access since some students lack computers, tablets, and effective internet connections, but have seen improvements. For instance, in the first weeks of going remote, one student could only access the internet outdoors, using free New York City Wi-Fi stations. Now, STRIVE can loan laptops and is considering additional fundraising or partnerships with internet providers.

That flexibility proved helpful in STRIVE’s national goal of opening its Atlanta office, Wise said: “Prior to the pandemic, STRIVE had announced that we would launch STRIVE Atlanta in fall 2020. Our Atlanta team benefited from the real-time program pivots of our flagship site in New York and lessons learned by our partners. STRIVE Atlanta was able to follow New York's pivots in program delivery, wraparound services, and leveraging of employer relationships to understand the labor market forecasts. STRIVE leveraged virtual program components from New York for Atlanta, and even provided a trainer with New York experience to kick off the first class. Atlanta adjusted its timeline, spoke to funders and partners about adjusted realities, and planned a pilot cohort which launched October 2020, beginning as a virtual program.”

Facing an Uncertain Future, Undaunted

As vaccine rollouts begin, haltingly, STRIVE is looking at a post-pandemic landscape that will be marked by profound changes, some of which may ultimately be beneficial. Its leadership will sift through STRIVE's national network to decide what changes worked, and which ones to make permanent. Through a longtime collaboration with MDRC on projects like the Applied Behavioral Coalition, it can take an evidence-based approach to design and test solutions, using qualitative and quantitative data.

Wise looks forward to the process: “While 2020 brought a host of challenges, 2021 presents even greater unknowns, making planning ahead a challenge. This next year is also an opportunity to continually build evidence on how changes in program delivery impact our students. With each enhancement of the program designed to meet the demands of a changing world and student needs, we will look to track our overall results over the next year.

Each affiliate is weighing the odds of when and how in-person program delivery might begin and what programs will look like after a COVID-19 vaccine. For instance, our network has already noted new themes around technology:  the lack of proper technology for students and graduates as well as the digital skills necessary to succeed in the remote environment. Planning together for a blended model of virtual and in-person programming across the network helps us have varied strategies for reaching our students.”