How Nonprofits Can Outlast the Coming Downturn

By Ken Saxon   |   May 14, 2020

The financial fuel that makes nonprofits go – from earned income, government funding, private donors, and foundations – will be suppressed for months and maybe several years. Meanwhile front-line organizations are facing more need than ever, with so many people out of work. If you’re someone who cares deeply for one or more nonprofit organizations and their mission, you’re needed now more than ever. It’s crunch time.

Santa Barbara is a place that cares about causes. Most people I know here support at least one local charitable organization in an ongoing way – serving on boards, volunteering, attending events, donating. It may sound cliché to say “when you give, you get,” but that has certainly been the case for me. My involvement here with nonprofits has provided me with a strong sense of purpose, and many of my closest friends are people I’ve met doing charitable work.

Nonprofit organizations are an inextricable part of the civic culture here. And to be honest, I’m nervous about this particular COVID-19 crisis and how it will affect them. No one was prepared for a disruption of this nature and scale, and even a couple months in, we still lack basic visibility into the future. How long and deep will the downturn be? When will we get to some sort of new normal, and what will new normal look like? When will social distancing end? We don’t know. In a situation like this, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. And overwhelm can lead to panic or paralysis and to bad decisions.

I’ve been reflecting on how we can help our favorite nonprofits make it through this massive disruption. Truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Some front-line organizations are busier than ever. Others are changing over to remote work and determining what they can sustain of the rest of their activities. And some may be forced into hibernation, hopeful to re-emerge when they can. Different situations will require different strategies. But no matter which category your favorite nonprofit falls into, they need your love.

This is a good time to remember that nonprofits tend to be resilient. When the Great Recession of 2008-2009 hit, I was serving on several local nonprofit and foundation boards. I remember being surprised how very few local agencies actually disappeared during that really scary economic downturn. Most managed their way through that crisis, albeit along the way making difficult decisions about staffing, compensation and/or programs. And since that time, most of those organizations have grown well beyond where they were before the crisis. It helps me to remember that.

So, what can you do to help your favorite nonprofit make it to the other side of this pandemic? If you’re a donor and have capacity, consider stretching to donate at a higher level in 2020, when it will be needed most. Your contribution can help sustain your chosen organization through a time of great uncertainty. Ask the Executive Director other ways you can help. If you’re a board member, it’s time to lean in. Show up, actively engage in deliberations, and offer to serve as a sounding board. Decisions made now will have an enormous impact on how the organization makes it through the coming downturn.

As you think through how to help your favorite nonprofit through this time of global crisis, I want to share five characteristics I’ve seen in the most resilient organizations. This list may help you think into where you can be useful, as well as what discussions should be on the table right now.

Prepared – When you have little visibility on the future, you need to plan for multiple scenarios. I’d recommend all nonprofits reforecast their budget given what they know now, and also look at their revenues and expenses under different scenarios – including a worst case. Having had these discussions, an organization’s leadership will be better able to respond quickly to changing conditions. Scenario planning is no fun, but the alternative is sticking your head in the sand, which can be fatal in a crisis.

Focused – Looking back to the Great Recession, the organizations I saw navigate it best got very focused on what they did that was most critical, and they were willing to let go (temporarily or permanently) of other programs. This may be a time for a nonprofit to consider putting some of their core, long-time services on hiatus. On the other side of the crisis, they can reflect anew on how those services fit their vision as they rebuild.

Flexible – An extended crisis like this is a time for organizations to hold their existing budget and strategic and operational plans very lightly, and to be open to changing almost everything. Especially when one lacks visibility of what’s ahead, leaders need to be nimble. The one thing nonprofits should hold tightly to is their mission statement, which will prevent them from straying too far just to survive. “Mission creep” can cause nonprofits big problems in the long term.

Communicative – In this time when nonprofits are being forced to adapt so much, it’s crucial to take the time to bring people along – staff, volunteers, board, donors, partners. One cannot overcommunicate at a time like this. A crisis is also a new opportunity to frame the critical nature of an organization’s work, to get its message out, and even to reach new audiences.

Collaborative – In recent weeks, I’ve heard so many terrific stories about organizations that have begun collaborating or communicating regularly. That’s another gift of crisis, when the limits of what individual nonprofits can do are self-evident – thus agencies have no choice but to partner in order to meet the needs of their constituents.

One thing we know is that there will be a time after this crisis. And the needs that our local nonprofit organizations exist to meet will still be there. They may be even greater. As our nonprofits keep one eye focused on today’s needs and another eye trained on the future, they need their supporters more than ever. Yes, it’s crunch time.


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