How nonprofits can position themselves for success as the pandemic subsides

Alexis Kollay D’Ettorre, consultant, Hedges

Is anyone else feeling a bit of déjà vu after hearing ongoing news reports of an impending recession? You too? It feels as though we just finished with a recession … because we did.

The greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, The Great Recession, took place from 2007 to 2009, and was marked by financial decline worldwide. From a global economic standpoint, identifying causes of The Great Recession can help us avoid similar events … or to recover more quickly if we do. That approach could be especially helpful given that economy experts predict a continued financial slump and possibly another recession.

The good news is that nonprofits can learn from our experiences rebounding from The Great Recession too. Having experienced that financial decline, funders’ responses to crisis, and surviving the worst of the pandemic, how will nonprofits use that knowledge to not just survive but sustain and thrive?

A Nonprofit Quarterly study of nonprofit funding trends following The Great Recession illuminates potential trends as we navigate this economic downturn with no clear end date. While the rate of nonprofit closure was 13.5 percent during the peak of the recession (2008-2010), the rate was only 3.3 percent higher than it was two years prior and only 5.3 percent higher than it was the two years after. And, because new organizations were launched just as often as they were closed, the number of nonprofits remained relatively steady before, during, and after the recession. This study also found that the most stable organizations during The Great Recession were human service organizations. They experienced the lowest rate of closure and the smallest losses overall. Seems promising, right?

But it’s also important to consider that, on average, Great Recession recovery time for nonprofits lasted about five years, from 2010 to 2015. According to nonprofit fundraising software expert Classy, recessions last 15 months on average. In today’s terms, considering 2020 to be the start of the economic downturn, we’re potentially looking at being in recovery mode through 2027. If we want to be part of the 86.5 percent of nonprofits that weather the recession, clear well-thought-out goals, and actions to carry us through to stability are exactly where to start.

Until a decade ago, Hedges primarily provided grants-related services, but as we saw funders begin to show a deepened interest in nonprofits with active strategic plans, we established a service line dedicated to the inclusive, community research-based strategic planning processes that funders and organizations alike were calling for. Today, we’re seeing this need remain as strong as it was then, maybe even stronger. Whether an organization has a strategic plan is still one of funders’ most frequently asked questions.

When inching our way out of the pandemic, a meaningful strategic plan is an extremely effective springboard toward greater strength. On one hand, some nonprofits experienced significant funding gaps during the pandemic that have left them struggling to remain stable. On the other hand, other nonprofits were grateful to receive a healthy number of unexpected gifts as a reaction to the limited finances nonprofits then faced and the higher need for nonprofit services. But, as we begin to leave behind pandemic-bound operations and related funds have gone by the wayside, how will we re-establish financial security in this new climate? Here are three challenges an effective strategic planning process can solve for nonprofits amid the economic uncertainty we’re facing.

Challenge #1: Not being financially prepared

As the time in which many funders granted nonprofits unrestricted pandemic-related funds to address any need ends, it’s still unclear if funders will return to their pre-pandemic gift restrictions, including requiring that nonprofits fully align with their own priorities. But, so far, that seems to be the trend.

Large U.S. foundation funding increased from 2020 to 2021, but COVID-19-specific funding dropped 31 percent between the same fiscal years. Additionally, corporate foundation funding dropped even more drastically, by a rate of 76 percent. While foundations and corporations continue to give, it can be assumed that the unrestricted funding of the most difficult pandemic years will continue to decline.

Understanding what questions funders are asking now is a solid starting point for preparing your organization to manage financial instability. Many of the trending questions we are seeing benefit nonprofits greatly (and, subsequently, the participants who seek their services) include:

  • Describe your efforts to incorporate DEI into your organization’s work as well as your action plan for addressing your DEI limitations. Of course, this concept was coming into focus well before the pandemic, but as the COVID-19 crisis exposed how acutely present disparities in healthcare, education, and opportunities of all kinds are for people of color, funders and organizations alike are no longer able to place this issue on the backburner. Change must happen now.
  • How will your organization sustain this effort after funding has ended? This is a fairly common question, but it’s more important now than ever. This is your chance to feature the ways you were able to weather the pandemic storm and therefore be resilient and better equipped for continued bad financial weather. Strategic plans play a substantial part in an organization’s sustainability. When we set goals and keep our attention focused on them, we don’t stray toward flashy and potentially unbeneficial opportunities. We build strength and consistency leading to long-term sustainability.
  • Tell us how your initiative is innovative. Highlight your efforts to shift practices amid the pandemic to address community needs and then shift back s (i.e., how nimble is your nonprofit, which may predict your continued ability to sustain during the ongoing financial crisis).

As a part of your strategic plan, be sure to address the critical issue of maintaining funder cultivation and stewardship. While this is Fundraising 101 outside of financial insecurity, it’s easy to set aside relationship development when fires are blazing around us. However, nonprofits that don’t maintain communication and relationship with their individual, corporate, and foundation funders in times of challenge will lose their attention to other organizations who prioritize remaining top of mind.

“Trust, security, and stability” are three key factors Classy describes as essential to retaining and engaging donors in a pandemic and post-pandemic environment. Even as individuals reduce their amount of giving to nonprofits, they will still find a way to give to organizations that they trust. In other words, organizations that continually communicate with them, offer secure and streamlined donation methods, and show stability amid the crisis will earn their trust.

A strategic plan not only speaks volumes for your longevity and vision for the future, but it creates a set of instructions for how you’ll obtain and/or maintain stability. We learned earlier that recessions last about 15 months, and recovery time afterward is about 5 years. It would be wise to set financial goals for the coming three to five years which is, coincidentally, the typical timeframe of a strategic plan, and even beyond.

Challenge #2: Impulsively returning to pre-pandemic methodology

We’ve heard it said in countless ways: The COVID-19 pandemic brought our world to a screeching halt and then turned it upside down. While we’re grateful to have the worst of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, we’re still managing the after-effects, including a struggling economy. It’s safe to say that we will be for some time. Nonprofits shifted their practices in record time to continue their work in a tremendously challenging time. In many cases, organizations changed their methods of implementing existing programs and, in other cases, many established new programs to meet new needs. Regardless of whether organizations wanted to make those changes or not, we’re now faced with identifying how well those changes served us during the pandemic and now, as we move out of the pandemic.

With little certainty about what turn our economy will take next, it is critical that nonprofits analyze how they provided services before and during the pandemic. That analysis can help them determine how they can most effectively meet participant needs in the future. The sooner this is determined, the sooner organizations can operationalize their methodology and stabilize funding sources to match that need.

Holy Family Shelter is an excellent example of commitment to evaluating their service methods before, during, and while recovering from the pandemic, to identify ideal next steps. A program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, Holy Family Shelter operates as an emergency shelter specifically for families, regardless of religious affiliation, serving as a safe refuge for those facing homelessness and supporting them as they seek permanent housing and self-sufficiency.

When facing the pandemic, Holy Family Shelter was forced to temporarily limit on-site sheltering for those experiencing homelessness since their facility includes congregated communal eating and bathroom spaces. If Holy Family Shelter were to simply stop serving clients because of their facility limitations, more than 750 individuals could be without housing and a long-term support system to meet their self-sufficiency goals. Rather than simply stop partnering with those seeking their services, Holy Family Shelter leaned into what was once a much smaller-scale transitional housing program and worked with existing landlords to ensure clients could remain in their spaces.

They also diverted them to hotels and other safe, temporary alternative housing when no other options were available. Meeting basic needs and providing intensive case management services and long-term support toward permanent housing and self-sufficiency remained a critical component of Holy Family Shelter’s partnership with clients, even in this non-traditional service model, because much of it could be done virtually.

Even as the pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, Holy Family Shelter staff members analyzed their pre- and mid-pandemic methods and determined that they can serve far more clients by continuing to use their new methods than they could before, while beginning to re-integrate on-site housing as well. As a result, what came to be known as the Sustain, Support, and Divert program became a central approach. While these major changes certainly required a significant operational adjustment, returning to pre-pandemic programming practices would simply diminish the impact they could have.

Holy Family Shelter’s experience is a prime example of why strategic planning is so critical. Rather than continue along the same path we always have, strategic planning processes allow us to ask critical, and sometimes tough, questions about why and how we do what we do as well as set a realistic plan for operationalizing new methods. And, when new operations, methods, and funding are required, a strategic planning process gives us dedicated time to set goals and related actions that will progressively move us toward our end point.

As you embark on a strategic planning process and evaluate former and current programming, you might ask yourself questions like:

  • What has changed for our participants since the pandemic began?
  • What will never return to how it was before the pandemic (for example, increased use of digital methods, increased knowledge of race/ethnicity-based disparities)?
  • Can our pre-pandemic methods still meet participants’ needs in this new climate?
  • What methods did we shift toward amid the pandemic that have worked well for our participants?
  • Are there programs we implemented before the pandemic that are no longer as relevant? Would other methods be better to solve those issues now?

Challenge #3: Operating in a vacuum

One of the most critical elements of a successful strategic plan is that it’s well-informed by a variety of voices and ample data. Through a community research-based strategic planning process, organizations will hear from stakeholders about what they need to change, and funders will be able to view the organization as sustainable beyond the pandemic. This introspection should be inclusive of both internal and external research.

Internal research will involve taking a close look at your strengths, challenges, and opportunities. It also will provide insights about what are you doing well, what hazards may come in your way (such as shifting funder priorities), and what exciting prospects are on the horizon (such as a sector-wide shift toward virtual services seen during the pandemic)? It’s also important to include your own staff and board. After all, these are the internal crew members who see your work, day in and day out. When invited to share anonymous and authentic feedback, we see crews impart their passion for the cause, the brilliant ideas they’ve been waiting to share, and constructive methods for improving overall organizational success.

This is where welcoming in an external entity to lead your strategic planning process is so important. As my colleague Hannah Gooding shared, a third-party facilitator provides “the necessary neutrality to collect real information.” Someone not currently close to your organization can serve as a “buffer,” making it possible to obtain honest feedback and share it in a productive way.

This comes into play just as much for external data collection. We must take time to ask intentional questions and gather information from sources we don’t connect with every day. External data collection may include surveying and speaking with clients, families of clients, volunteers, partner organizations, funders, donors, and more. You might also consider looking into the practices of similar organizations and gathering current data on best practices in your field.

Summing it up

If we were to magically jump ahead five years and you had made no changes to your nonprofit’s current operations, what would your reflections be? Would your existing finances and fundraising efforts have sustained you? Would your programs remain relevant if you made no changes to their implementation? Would you have all the information needed to address the true needs in our community?

Of course, as we’ve learned through a global pandemic and looming recession, we can’t possibly predict all conditions that would help answer these questions. But gathering data, making predictions, and implementing a plan that prepares our organizations for greater security, sustainability, and impact for years to come will leave us in an incredibly powerful position despite economic turbulence.

Alexis Kollay D’Ettorre has more than 15 years of experience serving dozens of nonprofits. Her passion for people contributes to strong partnerships with organizations across Central Indiana and beyond as they grow their capacity.

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