the past is no longer prologue

Where is the new roadmap?

In Short

Many of the changes in the nonprofit arena that we are currently confronting, and navigating, were not caused by COVID, but were certainly accelerated and punctuated by the challenges of the last two years.

Philanthropy is alive, well and vibrant, but admittedly more complicated. Despite all the things that draw us apart, however, I contend that what has the greatest potential to bring us together is in our shared commitment to making the world a better place and to improving the lives of people and communities.

The past two years have been ones of change and dislocation, a disruption of the norms and practices of the past, and an uneven transition to the reality of today and to the prospect of tomorrow. The one thing we seem to know, that we are sure about, is what we are not really sure of. 

And many of the changes in the nonprofit arena that we are currently confronting, and navigating, were not caused by COVID, but were certainly accelerated and punctuated by the challenges of the last two years. We were forced to pay attention to and approach things in different ways and often more quickly. We were compelled to revisit organizational missions, purposes and activities sometimes reaffirming, sometimes adjusting, sometimes revolutionizing things we often knew that we had to do but put off because the “going was good” or we didn’t want to complicate things. We certainly have done things differently, learning to use new tools and employing new strategies for decision making and doing business. 

The good part? Throughout the COVID crisis, philanthropy has stood up and stayed with those whom they serve. Unlike with the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009, giving continued and grew during COVID, even when the financial markets first cratered in March 2020. Philanthropy stood firm, driven by the sheer scope of the challenges, and powered by the rebound of the markets, though significant funds were redirected some permanently, some temporarily within the marketplace to address short term needs and immediate priorities. However, major donors and funders, despite the wealth at their disposal, have sharpened their due diligence and are asking more probing questions, insisting on a business case alongside the “passionate” case, ensuring that their funds are being used effectively, for intended purposes, and to achieve expected results. 

Thus, in our increasingly hyper-competitive environment, where many old rules no longer apply, and where many new rules are not yet formed, a successful nonprofit must simultaneously stay focused on its value proposition, on measurable results demonstrating what it brings to the community it serves and the people it supports and on communicating effectively to recipients and stakeholders alike. 

So, what does this all mean, especially for the world of philanthropy? What will guide us and how do we need to think and act differently? 

We must accept the fact that past is no longer prologue. We cannot necessarily count on past experience to guide us to goal setting, decision making and strategic direction. Circumstances today are different, period and they are likely not going back to pre-COVID realities. 

Boards and professional leadership function differently. They deliberate and make decisions in changed venues and conditions. Setting policy for organizations large and small is changing, the measurement of results and projecting the impact of those results are changing as well. 

In an article published in Forbes on February 28, 2022, – “11 Strategies To Implement To Measure The Impact And Efficiency Of Your Nonprofit”, Anne Evens, from Elevate, suggested the following: 

As a nonprofit leader, I feel that it’s important to be grounded in our theory of change and make sure that our measurement tools are well geared to measure our intended impact. As the world changes around us, we must be listening to the communities that we serve so that we are truly meeting their needs. That means, we may have to evolve, adapt and grow our services. That’s how we stay efficient.

If we follow Ms. Evens’ suggestion, we must be proactive and to listen, not just base decisions on what came before. In the marketplace of the future, determinations are made based on outside and empirical data, together with information that is gathered from the “inside out.” Listening to stakeholders, opinion leaders, donors and consumers is vital to organizational success. 

In discussing the focus on societal change that has become so central to so many conversations in the philanthropic space during the past two years, Ginger Choy, a Senior Director at CCS Fundraising, a leading fundraising consulting firm (and fellow member in the Giving Institute), wrote the following in a paper published on March 22, 2022, “What is System Change and How Can Nonprofits Fundraise For it?”:

Changing systems that are inequitable and exclusionary will have positive long-term societal, and financial rewards. It will also require investment in time, talent and money. Now more than ever, we need to build a future where nonprofits and funders work together to address the conditions required for equitable health and well-being.

We can no longer rely on the value propositions and modes of past operation to guide us successfully through the world we live in today. Effectively setting and achieving goals will require new approaches across functional and likely yes, political, lines. Absent the willingness to coalesce around issues and imperatives that impact us all we will continue to fray the ties that bind us and harden divisions. And in that circumstance communities in need, those requiring assistance to join or regain access to the full benefit of our economy, will once again fall short. 

So, what are approaches and actions that successful nonprofit Board and professional leaders must consider?

  • As suggested earlier, good decision making is based on knowledge, fact-based data, experience, good intuition and strong listening skills. Anything less is selling your organization and your efforts short and shortchanging the end user who really needs the help. 
  • Use that knowledge and data to plan forward, assess the marketplace, understand the resources and inclination of current and prospective stakeholders and funding partners and move ahead assertively and with confidence. 
  • In advancing your organization’s fundraising capacity and results, understand your value proposition, the unique role that your nonprofit plays in the marketplace and in the community, how to translate that into an effective Case for Giving or selling proposition, and how, and where and through what mix of platforms or tools, to communicate that effectively for the best results. 
  • Focus on results. Philanthropy is not about trying; it is about achieving. While success is not always guaranteed, we are expected as fundraising professionals, to understand the environment and what it takes to achieve our goals. Remember the intensive due diligence that is now a more present and intentional element in the decision making of lead and major donors and funders. 
  • Commit to financial transparency and good governance. Enough said.
  • Always be grounded in your devotion to making the world a demonstrably better place. The most fundamental motivation for giving in todays’ environment, aside from who asks because people still give to people is the ability to show how your organization will achieve goals using its resources smartly to improve the lives of people, families and communities. Those results, in the context of transparency and good governance, will be one of the most important measures of your nonprofit’s success. 

We wish you success in the months and years to come…and stay in touch.  

Avrum Lapin is president of The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising, and management consulting firm for leading nonprofits. For a full bio, please visit the TLG website here.