NFPs, COVID and Beyond: Lessons in Creative Management

“The bottom just fell out…so we started experimenting.”

When the Executive Director of a regional non-profit told us this, it seemed like the perfect way to sum up 2020.

During July, we spoke with a small sample of non-profit executives, to see how they were coping with the pandemic. We had noted in an earlier blog post that it might be tempting for non-profits to go into survival mode right now, but in our discussions, we found just the opposite.

Far from hunkering down, many non-profits are actually responding by thinking bigger.


Beyond crisis

According to one NFP leader, the experiences of the 2008 recession taught a hard lesson that still resounds more than a decade later — that those who hesitate are lost.

When the pandemic first hit, like all of us, NFPs were faced with operational crises.

Some organizations, particularly service-oriented groups, experienced a pause in operations as they crafted workarounds to accommodate new safety imperatives. The performing arts ground to a halt and seem to be stuck there for the foreseeable future. And any organization that had planned an in-person event or a fundraising gala watched as their revenue expectations went up in flames.

Here’s where it gets really interesting.

A few of the NFP leaders we spoke with told us that the pandemic has actually reinvigorated the organization, giving them an opportunity to meet new needs and expand their reach.

We came away from these interviews with two main themes.


1.  When it comes to finances, expect the unexpected

For some, the first rush of the pandemic caused donors with strong emotional ties to the organization to step up their financial contributions, spurred to action by the suddenness and severity of the crisis and a desire to be of service.

One community foundation we spoke with had already raised and distributed three times the amount of money they had by this time last year. A substantial part of this came from one major contributor, who had responded to the COVID emergency by offering a $1M donation if the organization could find a way to match it. And they did.

As a group, however, the NFP executives were not so certain if this kind of crisis-giving is sustainable in the face of an economy in recession, a high-stakes national election, and a predicted second wave of coronavirus infections. As belts tighten for individuals, grantors, and corporations, donations may very well dry up.

But then again, they may not. There is evidence that, to a significant extent, “the recession is over for the rich.” The stock market and home values are at or near record levels, and employment for higher earners remains strong. If this continues, those organizations with well-crafted communications and a solid base of major donors may come out of this crisis in an even stronger position than when it began.

It’s impossible to say at this point. The Chronicle of Philanthropy makes a strong case for the danger facing many mid-sized charities, who often have high overhead but not huge financial reserves. The seas may get very rough for these organizations, especially those who don’t already possess a culture of flexibility that allows them to…


2.  Embrace the change

The Executive Director of the conservation organization (the one whose quote opened this article) told us about a promising new direction the pandemic had forced them into. Prior to COVID, they had run an ongoing program that connected local farmers to local restaurants, a kind of sustainable farm-to-table operation that benefited both parties and the surrounding environment. With many restaurants closing operations — temporarily or permanently — they were forced to turn on a dime to funneling those goods direct to consumers. Demand exceeded expectations, and they’re now working to make it a permanent part of the program.

But the Director was even more excited about future opportunities for expansion. This new direct-to-consumer program coincided with the sudden upwelling of the Black Lives Matter movement, and it got the organization thinking more about how they could support communities of color in their area, long one of their goals. This led them to an increased focus on “food deserts,” impoverished areas in the community where grocery stores are reluctant to open and access to fresh foods is limited. They realized they could help alleviate the food desert crisis in their community by delivering fresh produce from the farmers to the communities that need it most.

This is an expansion of their mission far beyond what most people would normally expect of a conservation organization, but the Executive Director was adamant that helping local communities thrive was absolutely crucial to the environmental effort.

We heard similar themes from other organizations we talked with, several of whom were turning a sharp eye to their programs and efforts in the light of Black Lives Matter.

After all, the energy behind the social and racial justice movements is undeniable. Public support of the BLM movement has gone from a net negative in early 2019 to a nearly 30-point net positive by June of 2020. According to a search of the ProQuest database of all U.S. news sources, mentions of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” increased 20x between May and June of this year. The phrase “racial justice” shows the same pattern, as does “slavery reparations.”

Non-profit leaders we spoke to believe we are experiencing one of the defining movements of our age, and there is a significant amount of thought going into how to support this change, even among non-profits that do not have a strictly-defined social justice mission.

One such organization that we interviewed has very recently made an explicit commitment to racial justice and finds itself well-positioned to be a leader in their city’s future conversations around reparations. Not a part of its stated mission, but completely in line with its goals and values.


Resilience is everything

Being attuned to the moment is critical to resiliency, and the non-profits we spoke to seem to be confident in their abilities to ride out this moment and, hopefully, come out stronger for it.

But with that confidence come two recognitions:

  1. That they are lucky to have stable finances now, but the future is a great unknown and they will need to be very creative in replacing lost revenue from galas and in-person events…


  1. That their operations, their fundraising, and to some extent, their mission itself, may be irrevocably altered by the crucible that is 2020.


Based on these conversations, we at Willow find ourselves inspired to think bigger, about how we can help non-profits meet the moment and thrive. Your story — and how well you tell it — will be more important than ever: motivating your donors to keep your mission at the top of their priority list; attracting new supporters; keeping your staff morale high; winning grants.

With that in mind, Willow has created a suite of research-backed solutions to help organizations match their message to the moment by crafting powerful narratives, driving meaningful engagement, and trumpeting their impact. Please contact Sara Parikh at 312.767.9471 or to find out more.

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