In the nonprofit sector, the fragility of life is always very present. Likewise, for nonprofit leaders, the fragility of our organizations is also always present. Fears of an impending recession and the decline in the percentages of individuals donating to nonprofits have made the sustainability of organizations a top concern for executive directors for quite some time. But none of us expected the sudden disruption of our lives and society brought on by a pandemic.

As nonprofit professionals scramble to devise new operating plans designed to serve as many as possible while protecting and caring for employees, the thought of sustainability seems almost quaint. All revenue streams, from foundations to individuals and even fees for service, are under extreme pressure. Indeed, for many executives, thoughts today are not on sustainability but survivability—and, as always, it is at these times our constituents need us most.

The initial steps to respond to the pandemic have varied by type of organization with the focus, rightly so, being on humanity—serving our clients—as well as safety and protection. Arts and culture organizations, educational institutions, and other community organizations have closed their doors for extended periods while several social service organizations continue to operate, balancing constituent service with social distancing. One constant across the sector has been the cancelling of spring fundraising events and the upheaval of development plans. As organizations struggle to maintain operations, payrolls, or both while revenue is decreasing, there are steps they can take to increase likelihood of success:

  • Understand your cash position.
  • Assess damage to revenue streams.
  • Look at the dual bottom line.
  • Include everyone in the discussion.
  • Communicate consistently.
Understand Your Cash Position

Cash is king. With expenses continuing and revenue on hold, knowing your cash position serves as a foundation for action. Certain common ratios like the quick ratio or current ratio calculate whether the organization has enough cash to pay its bills today, but they don’t provide guidance on how long it can weather this disruption. The best ratios for that help with understanding your liquid reserves:

This ratio calculates how many months of savings the organization has if it operates at its current rate and receives no additional income. The numerator subtracts restricted cash and receivables, assuming the organization will not be able to perform the work necessary to release those revenues. The denominator is simply the annual budgeted expenses divided by 12 months.

This is the purest form of a reserve. It allows leadership to understand how much time they have to stabilize the organization. For many organizations, this is somewhere between two weeks and four months.

For organizations that have ceased operations but are committed to maintain payroll as long as possible, a separate calculation that only includes essential expenses such as payroll, health insurance and occupancy-related costs in the denominator may be useful:

This formula lets leadership see how long their current position allows them to maintain these basic expenses. In this ratio we have excluded receivables, but they can be included if the organization believes there is a high likelihood of collecting them.

These formulas are the simplest way of calculating and monitoring the organization’s savings. A more strategic approach would be to prepare or update the organization’s cash flow projections for the next six months showing expected inflows and outflows of cash. With the ratios as a foundation and the cash flow projection as a tool, leadership can work with the board to build out scenarios if they have time. At the very least, leadership can monitor the urgency of the situation and make informed decisions about how to continue.

Assess Revenue Streams and Damage

The formulas above focus on the organization’s expense side, assuming no additional income. Attention should also be paid to revenue. Many foundations are attempting to continue grantmaking, and many local government agencies are seeking to fund expanded social service activities for vulnerable populations with emergency dollars. Therefore, revenue projections based on the updated development plans and budget, which take into consideration our new reality, can be inputted into the cash flow projection for a more realistic picture. While it is conservative to assume your organization will not receive any new income, acting on a worst-case scenario does not necessarily lead to strategic or beneficial decision-making.

Revisiting revenue streams also allows leadership the opportunity to discuss revised plans and to focus on those efforts where the organization has the strongest relationships and greatest likelihood of securing funds. For example, some special even