Story by Sara Carbone, CollectiveSun Content Marketing Manager
Nonprofits have been confronted with a host of challenges these days and they’ve had to make significant adjustments around how they address the fluctuating needs of the communities they serve. How Nonprofits are Pivoting During COVID is our series that offers support to our nonprofit partners by highlighting how nonprofits are adjusting to these changes brought by the pandemic.
Our first three articles in the series featured interviews with employees from Twin Cities Public Television, Wilder Foundation and the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. For this fourth interview we talked to Carter Lavin, Membership Director at California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA). He talked about how CALSSA has shifted gears to effectively address the needs of their members while continuing to take on the important policy issues.
What have nonprofits been doing to stay connected with the communities that they serve, given the changes brought on by COVID?
Well, they’ve been switching everything to digital and reminding folks that they are still there! An interesting aspect of working in the nonprofit world is that your organization does dozens of things or has all different types of relationships. But many people view you as doing one thing. So I think a lot of nonprofits have been letting people know that, despite being thought of as the group that does this one thing or that one fundraiser, they’re still there and still doing work. And they’re letting people know that even though they’re used to dealing with them in one particular way, they are going to expand on that.
How have you seen organizations adjusting to things like social distancing limitations when it comes to managing large groups and using indoor spaces?
Last year, we had 30 in person events, anything from 20 solar installers in Fresno getting together for pizza and beer to talk about the latest policy changes to a 150 person golf tournament or a full day of contractor training where we’re all in a small room together to learn about what’s going on with batteries. And now none of that can happen that way. We’ve switched everything we can to digital to continue to build community and educate people. And there are safe ways we can do these things because we know it’s not worth risking a single solar professional of the community. We don’t want to do something prematurely or put people in situations where they are uncomfortable. And while it’s rough not seeing each other, it’s been good to be able to say “let’s do this visual thing.” So it’s been a lot of webinars, a lot of trainings, a lot of zoom calls, and a lot more personal phone calls. Since we’re not going to relate to people en masse, we are going to have a lot more one-on-one conversations, which is time consuming but very worth it.
How has CALSSA adjusted to meet the changing needs of contractors during COVID?
The solar industry is filled with people who always need answers right now. I think that desire for immediacy around need and support has strengthened. I think we’ve done a good job at CALSSA of being more available. For example, our members text our policy experts in higher numbers than before because there isn’t that obvious way to ask them a question after an in person event. So we are getting much higher levels of inbound traffic. And that’s good. We want to make sure people are still engaged.
I think everyone’s work life balance is a little bit different these days, especially for those people who have kids and have to be school teachers on top of everything else. And so I think we have that flexibility. It does mean we’re responding to members a lot more at 2am, but we’re making sure that they’re getting the responses that they need.
How have you adjusted the way in which you stay in touch with members?
We have about 600 members that we are staying in touch with. The hard thing for us, and for every nonprofit, is that there is a tendency to think of email as the best tool and to focus on making that work. But you really have to internalize the fact that your network doesn’t want another email. Since everyone’s going to email and webinars you have to cut through that noise. That means really meeting people where they are. So it means more conversations on texts and LinkedIn chats. It’s being able to ask “where do our community members want to get their information?” and then being there. It means not being afraid to experiment and be on whatever platform they want to be on.
In the event of a disaster there’s always two different schools of thought. One is to hold firm as much as possible, weather the storm by being planted in those regions as firmly as possible. The other school of thought is to be a palm tree in the hurricane, bending and flexing and really working with things. Both methods have their strengths and drawbacks. I think the nonprofits that are doing well are the ones that look at alternatives, that don’t spend a ton of hours trying to figure out how to do a big golf event in a safe way. They instead do five other small things. It’s good to change it up, to recognize that your audience is looking for different things in a different world. Even if you were able to pull off the big indoor event with all the safety features in place, your audience is looking for something totally different because they want to feel safe.
One thing I come back to a lot when I think about our events is, fundamentally, what do all these different people want to get out of an event? When I think about something like Solar Power International, I consider the fact that I go to some of the talks but that I really go to chit chat in the aisles and hang out and talk in an unstructured way. So when we switched to digital, we really looked at what people actually wanted, the true essence of the experiences they wanted to have. I think this is a good exercise for people to be doing even outside of a pandemic or disaster. It’s always good to keep your focus on what your true value is, what you’re bringing to people, the core features. I think all of this is really forcing people to pay a lot more attention to that.
Is there anything else about the pandemic’s impact that may have caused things to shift in a positive way?
90% of our 600 members are in California, but we do have members in far off exotic places like Boston, Texas and Florida and abroad. In the past when it came time to have the San Francisco Bay chapter meeting in Hayward or Fremont or San Francisco, we’d fill up a big room and have a good talk. And even for a topic like residential solar finance, which really interests our members in Boston, they’re not going to fly six hours across the country to go to an evening chapter event. But now they can join a zoom call. So it’s interesting to see people who would usually only come to one event a year with us begin to come out more often to various things.
I think it means that people are using this opportunity to take greater ownership of their CALSSA membership by doing things like asking for things they wouldn’t have otherwise asked for. A lot of the structure has gone away and people are really making it their own. My general stance with members is to ask us a million questions and bring up that random favor or thing they need help with, though I’ll be happy to say no to you about something that we’re definitely not going to do. It is nice that people feel more liberated to ask questions, where before they wait to ask it offhandedly in a chapter meeting. It’s nice to be able to say, “I don’t know a commercial realtor in Fresno but we have 20 members and one of them’s got a cousin.”
Are there any segments of the industry that you think have had a harder time pivoting or adjusting to the recent changes?
I wouldn’t say its particular sectors, I would say it’s more about company mentality than anything else. I think there are people who said “Hey look, everything’s out the window. We’re starting from scratch, let’s figure it out.” Like embrace the chaos, so to speak. They just saw that they were going to need to do all their sales digitally and figure out zoom calls for their customers. I think those people are generally doing a better job than others. And I think it’s also those who have curiosity, a sense of adventure and of fun. They know that this is weird and tough and that no one’s an expert and no one knows absolutely anything.
It’s a bit like when the meteor came 60 million years ago and changed the whole global ecosystem. The people doing better are the ones who are flexible and up for trying out new things. They recognize that it’s better to try five new things, four of which fail, rather than try one new thing because they’re afraid of it failing.
What about advocacy around what policymakers are doing – any developments there that you have seen that are helping to ensure that nonprofits are supported in the short and long term?
That’s the million dollar question. I think there are phases to COVID. The first phase was what’s happening? The second phase was, everything is pretty terrible, what do we do right now? And now we’re in the third phase which is, I guess we need to accept that these are our lives until the federal government gets on top of this stuff. Legislators have had different plans at different phases.
When COVID got really big, in California the state legislator would not talk about anything that’s not strictly COVID related. They knew that California had got a dozen other crises that needed to be worked on, but unless it was COVID related, they didn’t have the time or the ability to work on it. This was exacerbated by the fact that the California legislature ground to a standstill for a while because there was so much COVID exposure in the legislature. California has a very strict timeline about when the legislative sessions happen. As a result, the legislators didn’t have enough time to address the stuff that needed to get done. In a normal year there are all these important things to work on and because of COVID so many things just got sidelined. And there hasn’t been a great expansion of legislative activity, something that we at CALSSA have had to navigate.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot of interests in Sacramento that are navigating all of this stuff with us, pushing on various things. For us, we know that there are still the fire, power and climate emergencies, and everything we do is to address those issues.
Any other unique challenges brought by COVID?
With a disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake, the next day is when the nonprofit gets the most charitable contributions, everyone helps out. The big issue is what happens two months later, when the cameras leave? Things can be really tough for us on the policy front. Issues like the net metering 3.0 fight, which is a foundational fight because it will determine whether or not those tens of thousands of jobs in the California solar market will continue to exist, are still happening, hurricanes or earthquakes or not. The Utility Commission is still considering whether or not to drastically cut down 3.0.
All this means that on top of those other policy fights, on top of the COVID fights, on top of everything we still have to do our jobs, and I think that’s a tough thing. Another example is with the federal tax credit. The federal government is still going to work on that, and there is a huge amount of work to be done to get it extended. And so I think for people outside the nonprofit space and outside the government affairs state, they don’t realize that there really is no such thing as a pause.
A new thing we’ve focused on is working with county health departments about the safety of being a solar installer. We’ve had to help health departments understand that solar installers are essential and safe. That it’s safer to have a solar installer crew up on the roof of your house and never interact with you than it is to get a pizza delivery because with the pizza delivery you have more exposure. Obviously that was not something we had planned to spend a lot of time working on, but we’ve spent a lot of time working on that!
Since 2006, Carter Lavin has helped solar and storage companies across nearly every aspect of the industry achieve their business development goals. Carter has helped manufacturers of thin-film and crystalline modules, micro and string inverters, racking and mounting systems as well as energy storage solutions providers, installers, hybrid power systems providers, energy monitoring software developers, MDV-SEIA and Solar Energy Trade Shows. At CALSSA he is responsible for expanding the member network, improving member engagement, and supporting member companies as needed. He earned a BS from Georgetown University where he studied international energy and environmental security.
Outside of work, Carter can be found on his bike, working on local transit policy, and reading about Bay Area history.