I am convinced that many good things will come out of the COVID-19 pandemic for nonprofits—at least for organizations willing to consider experimentation and reinvention right now. The crisis has created a unique set of circumstances that bold leaders will use to their advantage, leading to major changes that would have been impossible to consider just a year ago.
Apparently, I’m not the only person thinking this way. The latest video post from Simon Sinek shares a similar message. He argues that our current time is perfect for experimentation and reinvention. Sinek notes that COVID-related shortages and delays have made people more patient and accepting of less-than-perfect outcomes. That means you can take a chance on new products or services knowing that staff and customers will give you time to get things right.
My conversations with nonprofit executives suggest that, yes, experimentation and reinvention driven by the pandemic is under way, especially in three areas: fundraising, facilities and staffing.
Fundraising, especially related to events, is the most obvious area undergoing reinvention. Traditional galas require a big outlay of time and cash but often deliver skimpy net returns. But the virtual galas we were forced to test run in 2020 may be here to stay. Many organizations have reported lower gross revenues but higher net returns because they didn’t spend as much on food and facility rental. Donors happy to provide financial support for the nonprofits they love but tired of eating “chicken surprise” with a group of strangers will be the big winners.
Impacts on facilities may take longer to implement, but COVID-19 has done a good job of exposing the weaknesses of many place-based programs. Too many nonprofits are defined by the buildings they occupy rather than the services they deliver. When the crisis shut down facilities it forced risk-taking and experimentation, which led to many creative solutions. Some organizations pivoted to virtual service delivery. Others took their services on the road, meeting people in their homes or other safe locations.
This focus on people and services rather than buildings will be good for the nonprofit sector. Clients of savvy providers will enjoy more service options closer at hand and fewer barriers (like transportation) to navigate. With this shift in service delivery, many nonprofits will find themselves freed from expensive real estate and hard-to-maintain buildings that no longer fit their mission. People-focused nonprofits will have greater ability to adjust to future changes and crises and more money to invest in their most important resource: staff.
Speaking of staffing, the pandemic presents the perfect opportunity for implementing major changes. COVID-19 has prompted many nonprofits to stop hiring, furlough staff and postpone new initiatives until things get back to “normal.” Opportunistic leaders realize that the pandemic has created conditions that actually make change easier.
Staff have spent much of the last year adapting to change and are more prepared to embrace new systems, schedules or responsibilities than at any time in recent history. In terms of hiring, layoffs and job insecurity have created a windfall of talent that may not appear again for years. Talented people who might not have previously considered nonprofits will be open to opportunities. Recruiting them might require investing in wages and benefits to be more competitive and marketing to get their attention, but the long-term benefits of an influx of new talent could be huge.
Forget about simply surviving 2021; experiment, reinvent your organization, be bold. That’s the formula for thriving during the pandemic, and beyond.