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Lissa Harris, recently hired as executive director of Strolling of the Heifers, now leads an organization that has had to cancel its flagship parade and reschedule a packed weekend’s worth of other events — tasks, she says, that also afford the nonprofit “a lot of bright spots and possibilities.”

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A crisis brings new thinking, possibilities for Strolling of the Heifers

New executive director looks ahead to post-pandemic future for nonprofit

BRATTLEBORO—When Lissa Harris was hired as executive director for Strolling of the Heifers in January, her biggest concern was handling the logistics for all the Strolling events — the Slow Living Expo, the parade, the Tour de Heifer bicycle competition, and farm tours — that get jammed into the first weekend of June each year.

Then came COVID-19, and the nonprofit found itself in a position of watching a year’s worth of planning and preparation get cast into the wind.

And her new job got a lot more complicated.

Harris is a veteran of the nonprofit world. In her last position as director of capacity building at Windham & Windsor Housing Trust in Brattleboro, she was responsible for fundraising and marketing. Before that, she worked for national organizations such as the American Cancer Society and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

However, after nearly two decades in the field, Harris said that guiding a nonprofit through a pandemic is more than she ever bargained for.

“This job now is definitely not the one I signed up for,” Harris said in an interview with The Commons last week. “But it’s not necessarily worse. There are a lot of bright spots and possibilities.”

Reinventing a program

Harris said her biggest immediate challenge was canceling this year’s Strolling of the Heifers parade and rescheduling the Slow Living Summit, the Tour de Heifer, and Vendor Expo Festival.

Once the depth of the COVID-19 crisis became clear, Harris said she and her colleagues realized that that the Strolling of the Heifers weekend could not possibly happen as before — no way.

“The staff and I looked at each thing individually, asking ourselves what we can still do, or what can we do in a different way,” Harris said.

The parade was the first casualty of the crisis.

“We thought about having it this fall, but it would have taken a lot of effort to reschedule,” Harris said. “Plus, there is the ripple effect of this crisis. We’re not getting the revenue that we would be getting because of the crisis and how it has affected our sponsors and donors. Plus, we have no idea whether there would still be restrictions on large gatherings at that time, or how people would feel going to it.”

In the end, she said, the decision was made to cancel the 2020 parade “and come back strong in 2021 with a big celebratory event when everyone is feeling better about being in large groups.”

Harris said the Slow Living Summit will be held virtually, later this year, offering speaker panels via the Zoom online videoconferencing service rather than in person, which she says offers new opportunities for networking by participants.

“Many of our speakers are already moving to an online platform for their presentations, so this decision seemed like a natural course of action,” she said.

As for the Tour de Heifer, Harris said that will happen this fall and will be turned into a fundraiser for 4-H clubs that are missing out on their largest fundraising of the year because of the cancellation of the June parade.

Harris said riders will still register and locals can still follow the mapped routes on their own, or they might consider recording the rides and uploading the video online so riders can ride along virtually.

“Their registration fees will be donations, with a portion going to the 4-H clubs that usually march in the parade,” said Harris.

The Vendor Expo, which is normally held on the Brattleboro Town Common, may also be held this fall. However, Harris said that will depend on sponsors, vendors, and finding a location that is less cramped than the Common and that would also allow for social distancing.

“We’re trying to partner with other organizations,” Harris said. “Combining events might be a necessity since so many organizations are rescheduling their spring events. We’re just trying to think creatively while keeping in mind what the cultural climate might be like a few months from now.”

“We don’t want to necessarily go back to what we did before,” she added. “The possibilities are the exciting part of this time now. When we start feeling down about the loss in revenues, we can still feel good about the future, because we can look toward doing things differently and creating new partnerships.”

Collaboration is key

New possibilities are the keys to Strolling’s future, Harris said, as well as seeing that other nonprofits that are working in the same areas as Strolling are allies and not adversaries.

“We’ve been talking with the Retreat Farm and Food Connects, organizations that match our mission and are very happy to be thinking about collaborative efforts,” she said.

“It’s about looking at civic capital, the things we all do together, instead of looking at other organizations as competition and thinking there’s not enough to go around,” Harris added. “I believe there are enough resources to go around, and you can partner with other organizations, pool your resources, and make each other stronger.”

Also, Harris said it is important — as it is for any nonprofit — to engage with sponsors and donors to find out what they want.

One example: TD Bank.

The bank was a major sponsor of the Strolling weekend, but Harris said TD has suspended its donations for event sponsorship this year. Instead, the bank offered to reallocate that money to support Windham Grows, Strolling’s food and farm business accelerator program.

Harris said Strolling has switched the emphasis of that program to offer consulting services to farm and food businesses on how to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and to foster resiliency in the future. She said TD’s financial support has allowed Strolling to be able to offer these services for free.

Another initiative that Harris said Strolling is working on is a collaboration with several Brattleboro-based organizations and the town’s sustainability coordinator, Stephen Dotson, “to start a homestead and community garden campaign to help promote local growing and address food insecurities now and into the future.”

And, even before the current crisis, Harris said that Strolling was looking at ways to get more use out of its kitchen space at the River Garden on Main Street.

“That kitchen is so underused, and we would love to offer it as resource to the community, especially for the food producers and farms in the area that are trying to make value-added products and don’t have the kitchen space they need to do batch cooking,” she said.

Lots of help for a big job

Reinventing an organization on the fly is never easy, but Harris said she is excited to be taking on the task.

Harris credits the other staffers at Strolling for making her transition go smoothly.

“We were solid as a staff before the pandemic, but this has definitely pushed us to lean on each other a lot,” she said. “They’ve been fantastic, and we’re meeting with each other more now than we did before.”

Videoconferencing and lots of phone calls have kept Strolling’s team together through the COVID-19 crisis, especially since the closure of the River Garden late last month. “We can’t do the office ‘pop-in’ anymore; popping in to ask someone a question,” Harris said. “We have to be more deliberate.”

Harris says the crisis has also unleashed a great deal of creativity among her staff and the Strolling board, with an emphasis on looking at what the organization can be like in the future.

“There’s always a new set of challenges,” she said. “It’s almost like driving an obstacle course — turn to avoid that traffic cone, stop before you hit that wall and back up — with very little time to reflect on the adjustments.”

“Depending on the day and what gets thrown at us, it’s a real roller-coaster ride,” she said. “It’s a scary time, but it’s a good time, too.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #558 (Wednesday, April 22, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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