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How nonprofits can evolve following a time of uncertainty

July 01, 2021

News_sheet_musicAs the country begins to reopen after more than a year of uncertainty and isolation, the need for a sense of community and belonging is greater than ever. There couldn't be a better time for nonprofit organizations to double down on their commitment to the communities they serve.

According to a recent study commissioned by Fidelity Charitable, 25 percent of current donors plan to increase their donations in the coming year and 54 percent intend to maintain their donation levels. What's more, most donors plan to support local charities. This trend presents a unique opportunity for local organizations committed to purpose-driven work to step up and lead.

For the Brooklyn Youth Music Project (BYMP), a small nonprofit dedicated to teaching and inspiring young musicians from diverse backgrounds, the inability to hold in-person rehearsals and performances caused us to think differently about our fundraising tactics — just as we were coming up on our tenth anniversary. We are certainly not alone in this situation; studies have shown that the pandemic has negatively impacted activities such as volunteering across all sectors around the world.

By changing our perspective on what's possible and staying focused on how to continue serving our community, BYMP was able to evolve and make this a record-breaking year right out of the gate. We did so by employing five principles that can help nonprofits ensure success and sustainability in even the most challenging times:

1. Re-commit. The three part-time employees who make up BYMP — with the support of a committed board of directors — stayed true to our mission despite the challenges we faced.

As an organization that is based on in-person rehearsals and performances, having to shift to a world gone virtual was a daunting task. By keeping our mission of serving the children and families in our community (many of whom had been with BYMP for years) in focus, we were able to find new ways of working and connecting with them. Re-committing to our mission meant doing whatever we could, and had to, to keep the kids connected through music. This also included being fully transparent with our community as to what was, and was not, possible.

2. Shake up the status quo. When faced with unprecedented circumstances, the sooner you acknowledge that old ways of operating need to be upended, the better. We did so by embracing technology that enabled us to leverage virtual events and showcase our students as well as broaden our reach beyond our local community. More on this in Principle 5.

3. Take chances. Unforeseen obstacles presented an opportunity for us to step out of our comfort zones and expand our horizons. We seized the opportunity to dial up our presence by scheduling five concerts over the course of the year — doing virtually something we never could have done in person, even in a milestone anniversary year, due to the resource and logistical needs of staging live events. Taking risks and stepping outside the collective comfort zone is the essential path to organizational growth.

4. Assess your results. Take a thorough inventory of your fundraising tactics and determine what worked and what could have had more impact. Our efforts resulted in record event attendance at virtual fundraisers and performances. Most importantly, donations from our first two fundraisers resulted in a 100 percent increase in donations over 2019. So we will look to incorporate virtual events into our program schedule moving forward, peppering them in with in-person events once pandemic protocols are lifted.

5. Learn new skills. Taking time to learn new skills and programs goes a long way in helping the professional development of your team and strengthening your organization's assets. A win-win for everyone. While it requires an initial investment in time, the long-term results can make for a strong return on investment. For example, the time our staff spent learning video and audio editing for online concerts was substantial, but the skills we gained will continue to pay off for years to come. In addition, by using existing free tools, we expanded our reach and made it easier for both new and existing supporters to donate. With YouTube Premiere, we increased views of a single video by more than 400 percent, and the text-to-mobile feature enabled by Pledge.com helped increase our donations during our concert watch parties.

The good news, as evidenced by the philanthropic community's uncharacteristically responsive, quick, and flexible support for COVID-19 relief efforts, is that individuals and corporations can approach local philanthropy with a sense of urgency. In fact, according to McKinsey & Company, one of the keys to ushering in a new era of giving is for large-scale donors to invest in local charities as a way to test and learn and fine-tune their efforts, which in turn can help inform their corporate giving models in advance of supporting national or even global initiatives. So, the task at hand is to make this a long-term reality for nonprofits large and small and those charged with more evergreen, mission-driven programming. Let's keep local charities front and center by re-committing to our missions, shaking up the status quo, taking chances, assessing our results, and learning new skills. These actions will drive forward motion, keep the momentum going, and help develop new ways of connecting with potential donors. This way, smaller charities can become an integral part of ongoing high-impact giving rather than a stepping-stone to larger organizations. There is room for everyone, and the benefits of local giving can be immediately felt within one's own community, which is reason enough to step outside our comfort zones and push through with confidence and conviction.

Every challenge presents an opportunity. In the words of Thomas Edison, "When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this, you haven't."

Pat Gunther_Brooklyn_Youth_Music_Project_PhilanTopicPat Gunther is managing director of Brooklyn Youth Music Project. She has more than twenty-five years of combined experience in nonprofit arts administration and project management.

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