Lessons learned

Why are some nonprofits surviving COVID-19 and some are not?

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us so many lessons. If your board and staff have not taken a pause yet to discuss and understand it, you should. Consider this a springboard to starting that conversation.

“What lessons have we learned through this unexpected crisis?” is one way to approach this conversation. The other is, “Why and how did our nonprofit make it through it when other similar nonprofits had to close their doors?”

Here are some of the answers and lessons I have learned from the nonprofit organizations I’ve been consulting with that have successfully navigated this period:

  1. They never wavered from their North star, and continued to be driven by their fundamental values and mission. They asked, “What does this crisis mean for our mission? And how do we best deliver it?” vs. “What expenses do we cut so that the organization can survive?” They remembered that the purpose of their organization – from its inception – was not to just exist, but to exist to feed the hungry, offer medical help to the poor, educate children, etc. Most importantly, they had the discipline to not let fear and panic change the way they make their decisions, through the lens of their core values and mission. That discipline came from practicing that type of decision-making before the crisis and creating a default mechanism by which the organization operates.  
  2. They were obsessive planners (in a good way). In other words, they had their strategic plan in place and knew exactly what their goals were and where they were in accomplishing them when COVID-19 hit. They had their crisis management and communication plans in place, which spelled out who does what and when in a crisis. They had their succession plans in place in case top paid and/or volunteer leadership positions were to become vacant or part-time. They had their financial reserves in place.  This level of preparedness allowed these organizations not to scramble and, instead, mobilize their forces to deal with the immediate management (internal and external) of the crisis as well as to deal with the short-term changes in strategic directions for the organization in service of their community.  
  3. Relationships were at the center of their culture and everything they did before the crisis, and remained so during it. People always came first, whether clients, staff or donors. As a result, when COVID-19 hit, they had a loyal board and staff to lean on; they had a strong donor base to rely on; and they had a loyal and grateful community and clients to partner with. True relationships aren’t possible without honesty, trust, respect and transparency. Those are such crucial organizational assets to possess at all times, but especially in crisis. Those are more valuable than an endowment, for example, though they are certainly not mutually exclusive. For years, these organizations patiently and passionately invested their time, energy, and resources into earning the trust and respect of their community and building the relationships. That will always pay off, and it has in spades during this crisis.  
  4. In connection to the point above, they also had a strong working relationship between the board chair and the top professional. It manifested in the board’s and staff’s clarity about their respective lanes (governance and management) and being able to navigate their shared lanes more easily. That, in turn, resulted in organizational effectiveness, efficiency, and preparedness when COVID-19 hit.   

So, the main lesson in this all is that you cannot over-prepare by instituting solid practices and making them your organization’s second nature. And, if you have not started practicing any of the lessons shared above, start today before it is too late. And, finally, if you and your organization have learned any other lessons, please reach out to me to share!

Natasha Dresner is an organizational development consultant and mentor with JCamp180, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, MA. She can be reached at Natasha@hgf.org

Originally published in The Berkshire Eagle.