We’ve made it to August 2020. After a tough five months, we’ve flattened the curve, weathered the storm, and are headed back into life as we knew it before COVID – our kids are in school, restaurants are open, and conferences and special events are back on our calendars and NOT on Zoom. The vaccine is on its way, and if we can just hunker down a bit longer, we’ll be back to normal. Right?
Sadly, no. And if you are like me, you might be just waking up to the reality that the strategies of the past few months – as important as they were for survival – are no way to run a nonprofit business.
It’s a time for grace – for ourselves and others – but it’s also time for a reality check. Now more than ever, we must focus on leading our teams and organizations from wherever we find ourselves. And some of us find ourselves really struggling. But we, as a sector, have been here before, and by refocusing on the most critical aspects of our mission and not the crisis, we can get through.
In this new normal, where circumstances and policies seem to be changing daily, here are some ideas to anchor your work and your organizations in the things that really matter:
- Keep a close eye on your cash: Your revenue is still shrinking, your reserve is low, your PPP loan may or may not be forgiven, and you’re on your third budget modification to the board… but the phone is ringing off the hook with people who need MORE from you. This is not the most fun time to be grappling with cash flow, but your ability to forecast and proactively manage the precious cash coming your way is critical to staying afloat. If monthly revenue forecasting isn’t a part of your life yet…get ready to embrace it by pulling together your financial team and committing to regular assessment.
- Communicate clearly about what you need: With reduced public funding, banks pulling back credit, and philanthropy exhausted from its initial emergency response, your ability to articulate what you need and when you need it will help you stay relevant and funded in the coming year. Making the more traditional case for investment – our mission is important – isn’t going to cut it in this environment. Stay close to your donors and stakeholders and tell them what is really going on – both financially and programmatically – even if it’s just an email.
- Watch over your staff: Don’t WAIT until your staff breaks down. You know your staff is burned out, isolated, and/or scared to come in to the office, and those with children are dreading the new online school year. Running your business well during a pandemic means that mental health is now a critical business function. Pay attention. Provide safe space. And be flexible with deadlines and projects wherever you can.
- Do more with less: Remember the days when we would joke about “running our nonprofits on a dime?” It’s no joke right now. The tension between the needs of our communities and having the resources to address them is larger than ever, and many of our most vulnerable have no access to stimulus support. There have been some amazing responses to this tension – via remote service provision, new collaborations, innovative ideas – that have served as an inspiring silver lining during this depressing time. We are all thinking outside the box these days…because now we have to. What is the innovation or efficiency that you can bring into your own organization?
- Do less: Here’s something to ask yourself and your team – what can you let go? In a crisis, it’s easy to just focus on the fires, on the rote, or on the things we’ve always done. And while focusing on long-term strategies may feel like the last thing we have time for, identifying the most essential and effective aspects of your nonprofit can really reconnect you to your vision, and help clear some of the “noise” from your day to day efforts.
- Grow differently: You are going to hate me for saying this, but I’m saying it anyway, both to you and to myself. We owe it to our missions and our stakeholders to do more than just survive. How do I grow and do less, you may be asking? How do I give my staff the space and grace they need, and still push us into new opportunities? Frankly, I don’t know. But I’ll let you know when I find out.
Finding our way forward in this new normal is critical to the health and well-being of the communities we serve, and to our own organizational health. To borrow an overused and slightly traumatic analogy, the plane (our sector) MUST stay in the air to serve those most in need during this long challenge…and it needs to fly at a certain speed to do so. Here’s to finding the pace and the path that keeps YOU moving forward in this strange new normal.
Charitable Ventures, President & CEO