shaping the future

A nonprofit prophecy for the post-pandemic world

If you happen to read my column in The Berkshire Eagle regularly, you know that it’s called the Nonprofit Prophet. So, while none of us can predict the future, it seems only fitting for me to try and offer you my take on what the post-pandemic world may hold for nonprofit organizations.

  1. The “New Normal” – everyone is talking about what that’s going to look like.  It is only natural for us humans to strive for and want “normal,” which is what I think this term is really about – our desire (wishful thinking) for normalcy. The reality is that we have not and are not going to have a lot of normal, but we will continue to have a lot of new. So, we need to accept that and get comfortable with the ongoing need for change. We’ll all be better off if we stop fighting it and, instead, embrace and celebrate the opportunities, lessons, and positive developments it can bring. No matter what happens, we are not going back to what was. We are going forward to what is to be, which requires a constant “balancing act,” kind of like what surfers do on their boards when riding a wave. Thankfully, nonprofit boards are way smarter and more reliable than surfboards and can help us keep our balance and hang ten!   
  1. More need – it’s going to take a while longer for our economy and society, in the U.S. and the world, to recover and find its balance. As a result, we are going to continue to see increases in the various needs that nonprofits fill, especially with vulnerable populations and minorities. So, your organizations need to be ready for it. They need to have strategies to build their capacity to be able to meet that challenge in the community – e.g., set clear agreed upon priorities, change your case for support, encourage unrestricted and multi-year pledges, recruit and train more volunteers, partner with other nonprofit and for-profit institutions, tap into government support and breaks, and, if need be, pause programs and services that are less essential.  
  1. Fewer nonprofits – while it may seem counterintuitive, given the point above, we can anticipate seeing more mergers, consolidations, and various partnerships between organizations to help create economies of scale. The nonprofits that choose to work together and abandon the scarcity mentality of competition will find themselves in a more stable position with greater trust placed in them by their clients and communities.  
  1. More philanthropic support – the philanthropic support in response to COVID-19 this past year has not only been phenomenal, but it has been many times more generous than responses to previous recent crises. We can expect that trend to continue. So, be ready to give your donors plenty of opportunities to give. Just, first, make sure that you took the time to meaningfully thank them for their previous support, clearly painting a picture of the impact it has made in the lives of real people. Additionally, donors, who in the past didn’t have an appetite for endowments and Legacy Giving (e.g., bequests), may be much more receptive to those asks now, regardless of their age. And we know that, this past year, the organizations that had reserves or endowments have fared far better (see my earlier article from February 27, 2021 for details).  
  1. More need and more opportunity for lay leadership – let’s be honest, nonprofit organizations were not perfect about recruiting new blood and creating a solid lay leadership pipeline before COVID-19. As a result, many are finding themselves now with lots of burned-out long-term volunteers who stepped up during the last year and stretched themselves thin. At the same time, there are new people out there ready to learn, volunteer, and lead. They may not be coming through the traditional committee pipeline, but they are a real opportunity for new blood on your boards and committees that is desperately needed. They may also very well be the leaders you’ve been needing and, perhaps, even meaning to engage in the past – e.g. the younger generation and minorities – so here’s your chance.  
  1. More flexibility – after being forced into this experimental year, there are so many lessons we learned that will allow nonprofit organizations to be more flexible going forward, instead of looking to get back to what was before the pandemic.  
    1. very few businesses (for-profit or nonprofit) are going back to the 100% in-person office and/or way of doing business. Smaller or no physical offices will be a huge savings. Along the same lines, the location of your office(s) may now be up to you.  Do you really need to have an office in the heart of Manhattan or Boston, or can you move it to Pittsfield, MA, for example, if not entirely to a virtual office? 
    2. similarly, if you have remote (fully or partly) employees working for the organization, your ability to find and retain talent or a very specific set of skills has just grown exponentially. The ability to work from home is a major benefit to many people in the workforce who strive to have a better work-life balance, with many of them willing to work for less money.
    3. social media and video-conferencing technology will continue to improve and become more affordable, offering not only more productive ways for your staff and volunteers to work and collaborate, but to potentially also expand your nonprofit’s services and programs to new zip codes. These developments have enormous mission and bottom line impact.  
    4. lower cost of doing business will allow you to reinvest the difference in parts of the organization that need investing in – e.g., hire staff, pay for COVID-related expenses/facility modifications, pay off debts, and more.           
  1. More appreciation – all around.  For the work you do and for the basic things like hugging, being together (and not being together :)), sending your kids to camp, having friends over for dinner, having a playdate, and so much more we took for granted only a year ago. Our job is to enjoy it, and take advantage (in a good way) of this newly found appreciation, and find a way not to lose it. 

So, to go back to the beginning, while no one can predict the future, it’s up to you and your leadership to design the future you want to see and then work toward it. Don’t just wait for the future to happen to you – be proactive now about shaping it.

With deep appreciation for your work.

Natasha Dresner is an organizational development consultant who lives in Pittsfield, MA with her husband and two sons.  She can be reached at NDresner@nycap.rr.com

Originally published in The Berkshire Eagle.