How Nonprofits Can Accelerate Out of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Most nonprofits have been in crisis mode for the last two months. In crisis mode, your sole focus is on keeping the ship afloat. This time is filled with unforeseen challenges, like canceling events and figuring out how to keep the lights on. You make tough choices about cutting costs, often at the expense of long-tenured staff members or mission-critical programs.

Crisis mode is terrible.

But once the bottom stops falling out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the immediate fires have been extinguished, you need to be ready to put your foot on the gas to accelerate out of crisis mode and into a period of both recovery and growth.

The future of your nonprofit depends on it.

This post is all about that transition out of crisis mode and getting the most out of the period that follows it.

Your Unique Transition from Crisis to Growth

Transitioning from crisis to growth will look different for every nonprofit. You can’t simply do what you see every other nonprofit doing to accelerate out of this crisis. You aren’t them. Your community isn’t the same. Your relative strengths and what makes your organization unique aren’t identical.

While that adds to the challenge of finding the best path forward, it also creates opportunity. Now is the time to use those differences to your advantage.

If you focus on copying others, you’ll always be a couple of steps behind and a whole lot less successful than they were. Sure, adapt what works, but make it your own.

Believe growth is possible

As a nonprofit leader, you need to believe it’s possible to transition from crisis to growth. If you don’t buy it, you’ll take your foot off the gas too soon and be a whole lot less likely to clear the chasm this crisis has created.

The path isn’t going to be straight for any of us. It’ll be filled with two steps forward and one back.

But that’s okay. That’s still progress.

There’s no roadmap for what lies ahead. But hopefully what follows in this post will get your wheels turning.

Don’t Sacrifice Tomorrow’s Growth to Today’s Panic

Part of managing this crisis in the short term is cutting costs. Almost everyone, from nonprofits to businesses to families, is cutting back on expenses that aren’t essential.

These decisions are hard and oftentimes personal. They’re the type of decisions you wake up thinking about in the middle of the night.

But with each cut you consider, make sure you’re weighing the impact it’ll have on your ability to grow as the crisis eases. This can apply to members of your team. To partners you work with. To services you use. To memberships you hold.

All else being equal, if it’s something that will be instrumental to your ability to grow after the dust settles, do your best to keep it. At least consider alternatives before cutting it and make sure that how you come out of this downturn is part of the equation.

Another option is to look for opportunities to scale back instead of cutting something altogether. Perhaps there’s a way to scale back in the short term and ramp back up down the road.

At the end of the day, you may still end up needing to cut that person or tool in order to save enough to survive. But the fewer cuts you can make that undermine your growth potential, the better positioned you’ll be on the other side of this.

Continue to Engage the Community You’ve Built

Nonprofits with a dedicated community are best positioned to succeed as they transition out of crisis mode.

Having an engaged community of supporters is always a competitive advantage. But it’s as advantageous as ever during the fallout from COVID-19.

If you’ve built a community, make sure you’re as focused on them as you can be starting today. With all the uncertainty swirling around right now, you need to be staying in touch with your supporters and stoking the connection they feel to your cause.

Remind them why they love you and support your work. Share tips based on your area of expertise that are relevant right now. Showcase stories highlighting the difference you’re making in the world during the pandemic.

Your community gave you their email, or followed you on social media, or donated, or came to one of your events (remember those days?) because they care about your work and believe in your mission.

That care hasn’t evaporated because of COVID-19. They may have less disposable income right now, but that’s no reason to avoid reaching out.

We’ve all been stuck in our homes watching a worldwide tragedy play out in real time. We need your light more than ever.

What if you don’t have an engaged community to lean on?

If you don’t have a strong community built up, get started building one. Here’s a quick rundown of what I recommend from the get go:

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to growing your community. But it’s a start. It’ll be slow at first, but stick with it. It’ll gain momentum.

Identify Post-Pandemic Needs for Your Target Audiences

Most nonprofits have a few distinct groups of people that make up their core target audiences. The better you know these folks, the more likely you are to pull the right growth levers coming out of this crisis.

Consider each of your target audience personas individually, and answer the following questions:

  • How are they being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What major challenges are they going to face in coming out of this crisis?
  • Which of these challenges can your nonprofit help with in a meaningful way?

Remember to focus on your unique differentiators and what you can offer that others can’t. This is where you’ll want to focus as much of your attention as possible since it’s your best opportunity to stand out and maximize the value you provide to your community.

If you aren’t the right fit to help alleviate a particular persona’s challenge, but you know an organization that is, this could be a great opportunity to collaborate. There’s tremendous value in connecting someone with the help they need, even if you’re not the one providing that help directly.

Avoid Defaulting to Recreating Cancelled Events

The worldwide economy has been crushed by the abrupt cancellation of in-person events. The nonprofit sector is no exception. Many nonprofits were banking on that cancelled conference or gala as a major revenue generator.

Once we get the “all clear,” it’ll be tempting to simply pick a new date and put all that preparation you did for your cancelled event into motion. But be careful about making that decision without considering alternatives.

Not only is the landscape going to look different on the other side of this, but I also expect there to be a flood of postponed events vying for attention.

Weigh your options. Maybe a new event or virtual gathering is much more likely to engage your community. Or perhaps you forgo that event altogether this year and replace it with an online fundraising campaign.

At the end of the day, you may decide relaunching that cancelled event is the right move. Just make sure you’re actively making that decision because it’s the most likely way to engage your community and deliver results.

If you do decide to reboot your cancelled event, at least revisit your messaging around it. The social climate is undoubtedly different than when you planned the event originally. Be sure you’ve adapted to it.

Consider New Revenue Opportunities

First, some good news. There’s hope that the negative impact on fundraising could be milder than initially feared. A recent study by Fidelity Charitable found that 25% of the donors surveyed plan to increase their giving in response to COVID-19, while another 54% plan to maintain their current giving.

Many nonprofits have continued to fundraise during these uncertain times. You should be too, especially by reaching out to that dedicated community I mentioned above. ViTreo has a great curated list of resources on how to fundraise in the time of COVID-19.

But the economics of philanthropic giving will be shifting for the foreseeable future in a way that could make traditional fundraising more challenging as well. There’s going to be unprecedented demand from nonprofits that are hurting at exactly the same time many of your traditional donors are seeing their disposable income diminish.

Nonprofits that get ahead of a potential fundraising challenge are going to put themselves in the best position to succeed in spite of it.

Double down on what’s worked, but adapt as needed

This isn’t the time to abandon everything you’ve historically done when it comes to generating funds. There’s a reason it’s worked for you in the past, and a good chance it’ll continue to be an area of strength for you in the future.

But make sure you’re considering how things may change in the era of social distancing. For instance, an organization that’s relied heavily on thrift store sales may see fewer shoppers coming through their doors in the near future.

I recommend evaluating each of your revenue sources individually to see how you think it’ll be impacted. Measure each on a monthly basis so you can spot trends. Approach the ones that show the most promise with renewed focus.

Expect to see nonprofits exploring earned revenue models

Many organizations that have historically focused largely on fundraising will be exploring alternative revenue sources. Earned revenue is likely to be a popular choice.

Earned revenue (also commonly known as “earned income”) is simply money that you earn by providing goods or services. You’re doing something of value and being compensated for it.

An often-cited example of earned revenue is the Girl Scouts. All those cookies you’ve bought over the years “fund life-changing, girl-led programs, experiences, and learning” according to their website.

But this could also apply to selling consulting services to local businesses. Or rental fees for an organization that offers their building as an event space. Or the cost of attending a workshop or webinar.

That’s not to say you should run your nonprofit entirely like a business. You work in the nonprofit space for a reason and have a mission driving every move you make. But for the right organization, earned revenue can be a worthwhile approach to at least explore.

The Society for Nonprofits has a nice overview of earned income pros and cons to consider as you weigh your options.

Start with what you already have available

I spoke with Aimee Dunne, an operations consultant and principal at The Coras Group all about earned revenue. When an organization is considering a shift to earned revenue, Aimee recommends they start with what they already do.

“It should start with something that you do naturally already. What do you already have that has monetary value to someone outside of who you’re currently offering it to?”

Aimee Dunne, The Coras Group

This could be a product you’ve created, like original research or a curriculum. It could also be a service, like a training or workshop. But by starting with something you’ve already developed, you’ll save yourself a lot of ramp up while ensuring what you’re offering is aligned with your mission.

It’s worth noting this does not mean charging those you’re already serving for things they’ve come to expect for free. Such a move would not only anger your community but also likely undermine what you stand for as an organization. Instead, it’s about finding new horizons for your nonprofit to explore.

When considering introducing earned revenue as part of your strategy, Aimee recommends nonprofits start by auditing themselves. Specifically, she recommends starting with a few key questions:

  1. What do you do already?
  2. What are you best at?
  3. Who do you serve currently?
  4. Who else would benefit from this product or service?
  5. Would this new audience be willing to pay for your expertise?
  6. Is this endeavor a good use of your limited resources?

Once you’ve audited what you currently have available, you can start looking for ways to adapt it to meet demand and stand out from what others are doing.

Aimee gave an example to help illustrate what this could look like. “Let’s say you’re an animal shelter. You could take a step back and say ‘Gosh, we do a really good job of training when animals come in. Let’s sell our training.’ That’s very different from what others are likely doing.”

In the time of social distancing, maybe this training happens online and you add an in-person version of it down the road.

Weigh the downsides of earned revenue

All that said, Aimee was quick to caution that earned revenue isn’t right for every nonprofit. “Too many organizations think it’s a silver bullet, and it’s not, ” she said.

First off, it’s a lot of work and inevitably ranges into conversations around pricing and business strategy that can quickly take focus away from work that’s more central to your mission. It also often takes a surprising amount of time and money to get off the ground.

For some that jump into earned revenue, they’ll find it ends up being a drain on their organization and its ability to do all of the other good work they do. For that reason alone, it’s critical you have a measurement plan in place to track how much time and money you’re spending on the earned revenue side of things. That way, you can easily evaluate if it’s worth the trouble.

While undoubtedly a murky issue, I expect to see more nonprofits wading into these waters in the next year or so. For the right organization, it can be a major step toward sustainability and growth in the long run.

Check In with Nonprofit and Corporate Partners

Sticking with the theme of maintaining relationships, now is also a great time to touch base with both your nonprofit and corporate partners, including anyone that’s sponsored or partnered with you in the past. But I’d advise against your first outreach being an ask right now.

In fact, depending on their mission or the industry they’re in, it may be unlikely you’ll see the support you’re used to from them in the immediate future.

Instead, send a personal message to see how they’re doing. Let them know you’re thinking about them in what is a difficult time for everyone. This is all about showing you care and maintaining that relationship. For Momentum has a great post on how to navigate cause partnerships in these uncertain times, but a lot of the advice would work for two nonprofits that collaborate as well.

Once things have settled and the current restrictions have eased, you can reach back out to see if they’d like to partner on a community event or program. If they’re local to you, even better.

Corporate partners may not have the funds to pay for a sponsorship as they have in the past. Nonprofit partners may not have the resources to be as involved as they were previously. But get creative on what collaboration could look like. Maybe they can donate services or goods in throwing a joint event for the community. Or maybe they can donate the space for you to host an event or help promote it to draw in some new supporters.

On the road to recovery, these relationships will matter more than ever. Be sure you don’t lose sight of them in these tumultuous times.

Focus on What’s Next as Much as Possible

I know it can feel next to impossible these days to look beyond tomorrow. Most nonprofits were stretched too thin before having to deal with the coronavirus.

But as much as you possibly can, keep an eye on the future.

For some, this may mean a few minutes a day for now. If that’s all you can spare, that’s fine.

But as you shift out of crisis mode, push yourself and your team as much as you possibly can to get in the habit of dedicating time towards where you go next. You’ll reap the rewards of that effort in the long run.

What questions do you have about transitioning from crisis mode to a growth mindset? Or are there any points above you’d like to see us elaborate on in the future? I’d love to continue to offer tips and resources as we all look for ways to get through the COVID-19 crisis.

Sending well wishes your way from Saint Louis. Stay safe everyone.