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Strategies for nonprofit success in a post-pandemic landscape

May 11, 2021

News_keyboard_donate2A recent survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund found that 60 percent of nonprofits experienced conditions in 2020 that threatened their long-term financial stability. As a result, most nonprofits had to reimagine how they engage with donors and the beneficiaries of their programs and services. Looking ahead, there are several strategies nonprofits can leverage to ensure their success in a post-pandemic world.

The power of storytelling

COVID-19 has underscored the importance of organizations staying connected to their mission and core values. Creativity and innovation are essential to engaging donors effectively, not only in terms of telling the "right story" but also in selecting the best virtual platforms to engage donors, who want to believe their contributions will have a direct impact on the causes they believe in.

Take the Downtown Women's Center (DWC) in Los Angeles. After the pandemic forced most things to shut down, the organization established a series of virtual community meetings to stay in touch with its clients; began to send regular email updates to donors, volunteers, and community stakeholders; and converted its largest fundraising event of the year — its annual in-person gala — into a virtual event. But its best move might have been the decision to adopt a peer-to-peer fundraising strategy. The resulting three-week campaign, Together Housed, encouraged donors and volunteers to leverage their own personal and professional networks on behalf of the organization, with DWC providing step-by-step instructions on how to set up a fundraising page, as well as email templates and social media content. Sure enough, at the end of three weeks the organization had exceeded its fundraising goal for the campaign by 35 percent and had secured support from eight hundred new donors.

Although grants from foundations tend to be top-of-mind for many organizations, the majority of giving to nonprofits comes from individual gifts and donations (Giving USA). No surprise, then, that building successful, long-term relationships with individuals is an important development strategy — and that donor retention strategies, including peer-to-peer fundraising and the use of third-party auction platforms, are critical.

Adaptive leadership is crucial

The pandemic also highlighted the importance of creativity and innovation for every organization. In the months and years ahead, nonprofits need to allocate time for experimentation and learning if they hope to adapt their programs and revenue-generating efforts to changing needs and opportunities. According to an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Community Wealth Partners, the organizations that thrive during challenging times tend to have strong and decisive leadership able to make quick decisions in response to evolving challenges.

Nonprofits should also evaluate their boards to ensure that the composition of the board is appropriate for where the organization is in its lifecycle. As BoardSource notes, "High-performing nonprofit boards are both thoughtful and intentional in creating a strategically composed board of directors […] Every board's ideal composition should be considered in the terms of the specific needs, strategies and lifecycle of the organization as the board looks forward several years."

A recent article by sgENGAGE echoes the importance of investing in leadership. Organizations should invest in diverse talent and provide opportunities for employees at all levels to grow and develop.

Modernize to engage donors

Innovative virtual programming is the key to creating new revenue streams. Not only is such programming a good bet to generate additional funds, it also is a wonderful opportunity to reach audiences beyond an organization's traditional geography.

A great example of how it should be done is the Petersen Automotive Museum, which last year launched its first-ever virtual museum and vault tour. The tour, along with a number of other innovative programs designed to keep virtual visitors returning for more, enabled the museum not only to reach a wider audience but to raise much-needed funds from people who had never heard of it.

Do not delay digital transformation

In its most recent Nonprofit Trends Report, Salesforce highlighted the correlation between organizations with high levels of "digital maturity" and those with the most innovative and confident responses to change. According to the report, 85 percent of nonprofits say technology is important to their long-term success, yet only 23 percent have a long-term strategy or vision for how to use it.

In a digital-first environment, nonprofits must be able to leverage data to inform decision making, reach new audiences, personalize communications, and make accurate fundraising forecasts. And with a reasonable investment in a virtual platform, there's no reason to restrict outreach and programming to an organization's local geography.

The thing to remember is that what worked in the past is less likely to work today or in the future, so establishing and tracking key performance metrics and trends across key functions is essential. According to the latest Charitable Giving Report from the Blackbaud Institute, the share of giving done online has grown steadily over the last three years. If they hope to maintain and improve their donor retention rates, nonprofits need to be on board with online giving and other important trends in giving. And if those retention rates are not improving, or are falling, it's probably a sign that the organization is not directing enough resources to its donor engagement efforts.

Seize the day

The pandemic brought much of the world to a standstill, but things are beginning to open up. For nonprofits that took a hit last year, investing in technology to improve program service delivery and impact measurement is a good place to start. Organizations should also evaluate their internal processes to ensure they are as efficient as possible and that their strategic plan is still aligned with their programs and mission. And they should have regular conversations with key funders — not only to keep them engaged, but also to make sure that appropriate actions can be rolled out quickly if a funder decides to shift priorities or cut back on its support.

Community Wealth Partners agrees: "First and foremost, make time to revisit your vision for social impact — the impact you are trying to create and how you plan to create it. This helps ensure that your work remains relevant."

Whether the end to the pandemic comes in two months or two years, the need for the kinds of services provided by nonprofits is not going away. Nonprofits with forward-thinking leadership and staff that can keep up and innovate in an ever-changing digital world are most likely to thrive and create the greatest impact. No one says it's going to be easy, but the alternative isn't really an option.

Wilson_Donella_philantopicDonella Wilson, CPA, leads GHJ's Nonprofit Practice and serves as president and chief philanthropy officer at the GHJ Foundation. She was recognized in 2018 as a "Women Executive of the Year" and in 2017-20 as one of the "Most Influential Women in Accounting" by the Los Angeles Business Journal.

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