Hectonichus / CC BY-SA

If any nonprofit receiving a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan made the mistake of thinking it was simply a mechanism to bridge, as the pandemic rushes through, from one familiar landscape to another, they were likely on the wrong track. For many nonprofits, part of the portion of the loan not mandated to cover payroll should have been used as change capital to help them re-envision their work.

Indeed, the pandemic has forced many types of programs to think outside the pre-conceived boundaries that can no longer contain the necessary currency of the work or revenue generation—not for any time in the perceivable future. The revisions that come from that could change some programs forever.

Much of what is being done does not come out of the blue but amounts to a deeper commitment to experiments once tried and to constituents, as well as to the impact and sustainability of outcomes and the sharing of results across organizations. What’s needed here, then, is more two-way communication toward very rapid learning and an openness to a different set of power relationships—in fact, a deeper set of relationships overall. These relationships can be forged either online and/or offline but must be approached differently than before—and with more of a co-design orientation.

In Colorado Springs, the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, or COPPeR, recently launched a program called Curbside Culture that “delivers live performance art to members of the community.” The program allows people to choose a participating artist and host a small-scale performance outside their home, business, or other gathering place. Signing up to participate is free for the artists, and it provides them with a way to make money even while institutional venues remain shut. At the same time, the events provide a bit more intimacy between local businesses, audiences, and artists, reinforcing the interdependence between them absent the intermediary of a theater.

This is not the only such experiment, of course. This article I wrote in July features a similar effort:

On July 11th in San Diego, a nonprofit named Mainly Mozart presented a series of live octets by Mozart and Mendelssohn in the parking lot at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. It was the first drive-in classical concert in the States since the start of the pandemic, and its reviews were great even with the predictable technical difficulties one might be faced with. Christian Hertzog at the San Diego Tribune wrote, “Eight musicians happily collaborating and communing was a joy that transcended any small sound equipment difficulties.”

Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a violinist himself, appears almost ecstatic about the two shows performed for 70 cars at a time. The shows were sold out—if you can say that about a donations-only show.

“It’s been really tough for those of us that are ensemble players,” Chalifour said in an article in the San Francisco Classical Voice. “But finally, after months of being frustrated we have these concerts to look forward to.”

Chalifour calls the choice of string instruments well considered. “Vocals and wind players will typically need a transparent shield around them to protect others, or a huge distance.”

“We were glad to experience making music together, using our sense of timing and being able to play with spontaneity,” Chalifour says—allowing, however, that the honks of horns as substitute standing ovations were pretty loud.

Chalifour says that even though there have been some more restrained and small events primarily for donors this summer, “A drive-in concert where everybody expresses their enthusiasm (with car horns and bright headlights) is much more exciting. It’s about the shared experience between players and audience!”

“They’re also so much fun. I could see them making a big comeback even when social distancing requirements loosen,” he says.

This kind of solution joins the multitude of online artist and audience engagement strategies that have proliferated since the beginning of the pandemic and fosters a new sense of common cause that has led to the forging of new relationships and business models.

Meanwhile, as some remain in a safeguarding mode, environments that have already been disrupted are wide open for innovation—and, yes, startups. One of these new endeavors is a seaweed farm in California’s Humboldt Bay, a joint project between Humboldt State University (HSU) and GreenWave, an environmental nonprofit that helps coastal communities develop and scale such sustainable and regenerative farming concerns.

“Seaweed farming is an industry that is about 500 years old,” said farm co-designer and HSU Fisheries biology associate professor Rafael Cuevas Uribe. “But this is going to be the first time here in California that somebody’s doing red seaweed at commercial scale in open waters.”

“It’s a low-impact design that really works with the environment,” said GreenWave’s California Reef Manager Karen Gray. “You don’t need fresh water, feed or fertilizer. The seaweeds are growing with the nutrients and the natural sunlight, and all it has to do is grow.”

And in so doing, the native seaweed creates habitat and hinders ocean acidification, all while absorbing excess phosphorus and nitrogen from the water. Clean water is essential to Humboldt Bay’s multimillion-dollar shellfish industry. By intertwining industry with environmental stewardship, this type of aquaculture creates a financial incentive to keep the bay clean.

This approach to economic regeneration that’s both responsive and asset-sharing is also at the core of Carina, an online platform originally aimed at connecting in-home care providers with seniors and people with disabilities. When, in the face of the pandemic, larger childcare sites began to shut down, executive director Nidhi Mirani saw a need to extend their service to connect home-based childcare providers with parents in need of care.

Partnering with Seattle-based engineers from VMware’s Pivotal Labs, in 11 days Carina modified its platform to include a match service for parents and providers in two languages. Forty thousand families have already used the site, wherein licensed providers can post video tours and share detailed information about their facilities, including languages spoken. Carina also partners with labor groups, from which it receives support, and Pivotal Labs, which provided two months of free engineering for the project, among other organizations.

I could go on, but the point is that nonprofits desperately trying to survive intact against the forces of change may be headed in the wrong direction. An orientation that centers the civil sector as agents for change is not only healthier but more powerful, a mindset that’s more attractive to those looking to it for leadership in dark times.

Some in philanthropy appear to be recognizing this need and opportunity and have been incorporating fewer restrictions into their grants while making them larger at the same time. We can consider this “refitting money.” All foundations have a responsibility to participate in this unique opportunity to slough off old forms and take on new and more powerful ones.