On Learning the Hard Way

I haven’t posted to this blog in a long time. The global pandemic came and knocked all of us for a loop. I didn’t pretend to know what impact it would have on nonprofit organizations, and so I’ve waited until I gained my own clarity to post. But now we have reached the phase where the pandemic has become the new normal, so it is time to resurrect this blog…

While the pandemic has been absolutely devastating to many organizations, I have been astounded by how well others have risen to the occasion. Most organizations have had to radically alter the way they operate and serve their constituents. Most organizations have cancelled or dramatically changed their fundraising events. Many have identified new challenges to tackle facing the people that they serve. The amount of creativity they have demonstrated in the face of adversity has truly been unbelievable. I can’t even count the number of nonprofit leaders who have told me that they are actually now serving their communities better than ever before.

But the very fact that organizations have responded so powerfully to this crisis illustrates an important weakness that existed previously: complacency. While we cannot realistically consider every possible crisis that we could face and few people could have imagined a pandemic of this scale, we have to acknowledge that many organizations had simply been conducting business the way they always had. Take, for example, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship. To avoid large public gatherings, they have had to conduct their services virtually. But prior to the pandemic, these institutions frequently had congregants who were infirm, immobile, or simply out-of-town. Why had these organizations not streamed their services previously? It is unlikely that any of these organizations will ever return to their in-person-only status quo, so why did it take a pandemic to recognize this need?

Arts organizations have embraced virtual shows and screenings. Sports organizations have operated outdoors and socially distanced. Food banks have offered contactless pick-up, drop-off, and home delivery. While it may have taken a pandemic to institute these changes, many of these new ways of doing business will remain long after the pandemic is over. Does anybody really believe that a snow day will mean a day off of school ever again? And if that is the case, it means these new ways of doing business should have been happening all along.

So without specifically predicting the next crisis, what can nonprofit organizations do to continually evolve?

  1. Prioritize board recruitment – find new members with new ideas to bring to the board. Identify people with unique backgrounds that don’t match your existing members. Put them on committees where they can have an immediate impact and prepare for leadership roles within the organization.
  2. Listen to your constituents – conduct frequent surveys to identify their needs. They will proactively tell you ways that you can change to better serve them. All you have to do is ask.
  3. Revisit your strategic plan annually – A great deal of effort goes into developing strategic plans, but after one year they often end up buried in a desk drawer. Look at the mission and goals of your organization. Are they still relevant? Is anything missing? Are there ways to achieve your mission that you haven’t considered?
  4. Pay attention to innovation – Technology is accelerating rapidly. New apps come on the market constantly. As you learn about any new technological innovation take a minute to ask yourself: “Could this help my organization? And how?” More often than not, the answer will be “no,” but when it is “yes,” you will have created an opportunity when you didn’t even realize you had a need.

The global pandemic has impacted us all in innumerable ways, most of which are very bad. But it has pushed us to think in new ways and to be creative and flexible. Let’s hope that the pandemic goes away quickly but that our ability to think outside the box flourishes for years to come.

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