Nonprofit Strategy Guide for When the Economy Reopens

by Howard Levy

When the economy reopens, life will not go back to the way it was. It’s time to be creative and leverage change to achieve your mission and have even more impact. But we can’t do that by looking over our shoulder at what was and trying to recapture the past. Instead, let’s accept the changes, and see how we can use them to serve our clients and make the world better.

There will be businesses that support nonprofits that will go out of business. Individual volunteers and donors may be looking for work. Government budgets will be slashed. And the needs of the communities you serve may have changed completely. The services you offered for years may no longer be what the community needs most.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the pandemic forced people to make changes in how they provide service and sparked the development of new services, such as child care for essential workers and online schooling. Are you ready to pivot?

With greatly reduced income and increased need, nonprofits may have to find new ways to deliver outcomes — whether evolving existing programs, embracing technology or partnering with businesses. Thinking beyond current parameters is crucial.

Let’s not just plug the holes, let’s step back and look at the big picture. What can we do differently and better now that we have to shake off old habits?

  1. Communicate effectively with your constituents. Let your participants, partners, donors and other stakeholders know how the COVID-19 situation is affecting your organization and what you are doing about it. Remember that the needs of the people who you are serving, or your other audiences, may have changed. Solicit their ideas and concerns. That’s how you’ll find out what programs are still needed and what new programs you may have to develop. Talk to them about online options and how they might be implemented. Discuss new rules that may be put in place, from hand sanitizer stations to temperature taking.
  2. Learn from the past. If you tried telecommuting for staff, assess what when wrong and what was good. The quick fixes used during the pandemic may have had problems. What were they and how could they be eliminated? Talk to others in order to learn from their mistakes.
  3. Re-imagine your future. Prioritize what you need to do to keep afloat, but also take concrete steps to re-imagine your future. Whether forming a strategy committee or soliciting input from staff — get new ideas flowing. A good question to ask: If we had to start an organization from scratch today to address the problems our clients have, what would that organization look like? The way you raise money may also have to change. Brainstorm new options with your staff, donors and board.
  4. Rethink both your short-term needs and long-term goals. Addressing your immediate cash flow and other needs is crucial, but it’s also an opportunity to rethink your overall strategy for delivering impact. Organizations that come out ahead in the end will be the ones that have a compelling vision that maps to this new reality and inspires donors. Financially lean organizations are often more creative in their approaches, so leverage this chance to slay sacred cows, abandon ineffective ways and forge bold new plans for solving problems and delivering impact.
  5. Engage your board. Now is a good time to engage your board so that they have skin in the game. Your board needs to provide leadership through these troubling times, set an example for others (particularly with their continued financial commitments), be effective ambassadors representing the organization to funders and the public, and actively participate in the organization — it’s all hands on deck. This can be an opportunity to bring your board to life, improve communications between board and staff, and eliminate the deadwood. It may also be time for a new strategic plan; one that reflects the after-effects of the pandemic.
  6. Decide how to bring staff back to work. With uncertain cash flow, you may not be able to restart every program at the level it was. Also, due to health vulnerabilities, some staff members may need to remain in isolation. And as mentioned before, the programs you offer may have to change. New programs and procedures may require retraining staff. Start thinking now about how you will meet the criteria needed to reopen, whether you need a phased restart and what you will need for the programs and people involved.
  7. Adapt your fundraising approaches. If everyone is hurting financially, funding will become more difficult, but not impossible. Express empathy for your donors and create connections — we are all in this together. People still have philanthropic desires, and there are still ways to fulfill those desires — pledges for the future, smaller monthly gifts rather than larger single ones, in-kind contributions, volunteering, stocks that can be appreciated in value and other ways. Think about infrastructure changes that may cost less in the long run, but allow you to provide better services. Bring donors into the conversation about your needs now.
  8. Experiment. Now is the time to find new ways to deliver more services or impact for less money. Nonprofits previously stifled by the fear of failure are now free to experiment with new methods. Use this opportunity wisely. Document your process for developing new ideas. Record what’s working and what’s not, and report back to your stakeholders. Celebrate your successes, and use the opportunity to cultivate a culture of experimentation that can lead to breakthroughs in addressing the problem.
  9. Ask and listen. Keep your ear to the ground. Ask your constituents how their needs have changed and what can be done to fulfill them — don’t assume. Check out your competition (ahem, organizations with similar missions), to see how they are adapting. What ideas and best practices are emerging? Is it possible to complement the services of other organizations in your community or sector? Perhaps collaboration is a better strategy than competition. Offering redundant services in a community is not a good option in tough times. How can your organization be positioned to lead in its field while maximizing impact? Your business model, strategy and brand are more important than ever. How will your organization adapt?