The decision,” Rosmarie Voegtli

April 29, 2020; Slate, New York Times, and the Springfield News Sun

For nonprofit organizations, many of whose doors have been closed, the ending of stay-in-place orders may bring a false sense of relief. It will also confront them with an hard set of choices, for which they lack much-needed information. If they will operate in this new era, how will that look?

One fieldwide example with enormous repercussions comes in the case of colleges and universities, which must decide now what they will do for the coming academic year; their experience provides us with a window into the difficulty of this moment.

The need to respond to the crisis has dominated these last months. Schools and campuses closed; students were sent home, dorms emptied, and classes shifted online. Difficult budgetary and personnel decisions had to be made as the scope of the crisis became clear.

Like many nonprofit organizations, schools, no matter how effective their online efforts, are feeling economic pressure and the urgency to get back as close to normal as possible. But that “normal” will not return quickly—or perhaps at all.

Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, spelled out the difficult position even well-funded organizations now face in a New York Times essay: “The basic business model for most colleges and universities is simple—tuition comes due twice a year at the beginning of each semester. Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.”

It is unclear when or if schools can fully reopen; should they be taking this time to redevelop their entire economic and community-of-learners model? Keeping the virus under control until we have a vaccine demands ongoing vigilance and some level of continued social isolation that will make doing what we used to do impossible. John Nunes, Concordia College’s president, explained the uncertainty to Slate. “I don’t know yet what returning means, but it will look different.”

Planning in this environment is difficult. When should dorms be reopened? How should students who contract the illness be isolated after school starts? What size classes can be held in person? What about the social life that is a part of the campus experience? What will the university do if there is another national spike in infections? Should we continue to transition to online instruction? The entire nature of the experience that attracted students and funded the university has been altered by the constraints the virus imposes, with no certainty if they will ease or need to be tightened.

Paxson describes a radically changed experience that will greet students on her campus when it reopens.

Our students will have to understand that until a vaccine is developed, campus life will be different. Students and employees may have to wear masks on campus. Large lecture classes may remain online even after campuses open. Traditional aspects of collegiate life—athletic competitions, concerts and yes, parties—may occur, but in much different fashions. Imagine athletics events taking place in empty stadiums, recital halls with patrons spaced rows apart and virtual social activities replacing parties.

The new safe experience may not, as Slate wonders, be attractive enough to meet enrollment goals. Will more students see less value in a college education in the post-COVID-19 world? Colleges and universities are reluctant to make firm commitments about the future, with many deferring decisions until summer.

Even those who have committed to returning to campus life by this fall recognize that their decision might need to change. Consider the stance of well-funded Harvard University:

Harvard will be open for fall 2020. Our goal is to bring our students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows and staff to campus as quickly as possible, but because most projections suggest that COVID-19 will remain a serious threat during the coming months, we cannot be certain that it will be safe to resume all usual activities on campus by then. Consequently, we will need to prepare for a scenario in which much or all learning will be conducted remotely. Even if conditions do not allow for a traditional fall experience on campus, we are committed to ensuring that the learning and research of our students will continue at the highest levels of excellence and that we will do our part to enable them to achieve their aspirations.

For some, the stress of the past months may have been too great, and the future too uncertain, to reopen at all. In announcing his school would end operations after more than 100 years, Urbana University’s executive vice president Christopher Washington explained that the last months have drained their resources and made an already challenging future more than they could take on. As he explained to the Springfield News Sun, “We weren’t able to raise our enrollment above 500 students and that’s where we need to be to have a capable and economic campus. So, with coronavirus, it was really a tipping point in terms of enrollment projections we were seeing in the last month or so, we really couldn’t handle the negative impacts of that.”

The decisions made in nonprofit board rooms in the coming weeks will mirror those made by colleges and universities now. The uncertainty of the future makes this a particularly difficult moment. For organizations without the resources to drastically redesign their service systems and support themselves through a difficult period of transition, the coming months look exceedingly bleak. They will need their supporters to step forward and provide them lifelines to get to their future.—Martin Levine