Are You Asking the Right Questions?

A crisis may not seem like the most convenient moment to take stock, but it can be an opportune one – if we take advantage of the opportunity. 

U.S. society will be profoundly different post-pandemic. What that new order will look like is up for grabs. Nonprofits are positioned to lead the way to a more just and moral future. But to do that, we need first to radically reframe the way we think about and organize our own work. 

Instead of asking, “How can we squeeze the most out of our staff given our limited budget?,” we should be guided by these principles:

  • Nonprofit organizations should be built to attract and retain committed staff. That means providing compensation and benefits commensurate with the economic and non-economic value nonprofits add to their communities. 
  • Our interactions with donors and our internal operations should proudly assert our unique contributions to society. We need to replace the mindset that nonprofit donations are charity handouts with one that recognizes them as essential investments in societal infrastructure.
  • While we’re working long term as leaders to raise salaries and improve benefits across the sector, we should also be acting locally to make careers in the nonprofit sector appealing and sustainable. We need to walk the talk of work-life balance and support staff in their career development aspirations.
  • Advocacy should be part of the mission of every nonprofit. We need to advocate not just for our individual missions but also to help advance general public appreciation of the tangible and intangible value of nonprofit work.*  

Revisiting strategy and tactics regularly is basic good practice under any circumstances. But when organizational survival is at stake long term planning can feel like an unaffordable luxury. However, if the disruption is severe but temporary, the old cliché about turning crisis into opportunity comes into play. 

If that’s where you find yourself now, seize the moment! Innovative solutions often emerge from desperate times. And devoting collective energy to creative thinking about the future can be a morale-builder for board members and for staff who have been focused on short term, urgent matters and are showing signs of stress or burnout.

If your work-from-home circumstances allow you to set aside time for deep thinking, it will serve you well to allocate some of that time for reflection on your organization’s current path and desired future. Exercising that discipline now will position you to move ahead quickly and decisively when the crisis passes. 

A few steps nonprofit leaders can take now:

  • Revisit your mission/vision/values:  Take a thorough look, with your key stakeholders, at your charter and mission statement. Is your purpose still relevant? Does your long-term vision need to change? 

Are your organizational culture and day-to-day operations consistent with your stated values? If not, what steps can you take to address the gap? Could your programs be restructured for more impact?

  • Take care of staff: Did you have to lay off staff? Has your staff suffered financial hardship or worse? As a leader, have you felt even more burdened and stressed out than before? 

There are things you can do! Don’t accept the status quo! Advocate vigorously with your board and funders for the resources you need to improve pay, benefits, and working conditions as the economy rebounds. 

  • Upgrading compensation and modernizing HR policies aren’t just the right things to do; they’re good investments. Making those changes a priority enables organizations to recruit and retain high quality staff, maintain continuity of programs, stabilize operations, and build long term relationships. For an overview and specific recommendations, read Class Action’s excellent report: https://classism.org/programs/staffing-the-mission/
  • Consider shared services and/or merging operations: Before you start rebuilding your infrastructure, think about whether you’d be better off joining forces with others. Could you share back-office services, combine programs, even merge organizations? (Caveat: nonprofit mergers pushed by funders or others outside the affected organizations usually do not succeed.) It’s not easy but it may be worth the effort. 

For more information:

https://pj.news.chass.ncsu.edu/2018/10/08/shared-services-a-model-for-nonprofit-innovation-and-collaboration/; https://ssir.org/articles/entry/nonprofit_mergers_that_work

  • Hold philanthropy accountable, now and into the future: Some funders have responded to the crisis by relaxing restrictions, being flexible and creative. Those that aren’t stepping up should be pressured to do so: fidelity to mission – and the law – require putting the needs of grantees ahead of self-interest. 

The real test will come when the crisis abates. Can nonprofits develop a unified strategy aimed at convincing funders not to revert to their previous policies, many of which are driven by institutional self-interest, or will we fall back into our old patterns, continue to act powerless, and compete with each other for the same limited resources?

The suggestions above aren’t meant to be comprehensive; the nonprofit world has never been short on innovation or leadership. What we’ve lacked is a unified voice, a cohesive vision, and a strategy to make that vision a reality. This may be the moment to harness our power to lift up ourselves, our organizations, and the people and communities we support. 

*Footnote: According to the National Council of Nonprofits, “Nonprofits employ more than 10% of America’s private workforce – more jobs than in manufacturing, construction, or finance.” https://www.nonprofitimpactmatters.org/?utm_source=web&utm_medium=site&utm_campaign=main-sidebar

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