The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the US economy, causing far-reaching and severe impacts for the nonprofit sector. Now more than ever, nonprofit organizations need practical strategies to rebound.
Nonprofit leaders need a toolbox of possible responses and resources so that they can pick the best tools for their own unique mission and situation. The ability to assemble a portfolio of strategies gives an organization the adaptiveness and flexibility necessary to respond to the changing external environment. But it’s not necessary to recreate the wheel. Nonprofits have withstood major extended crises before. We can learn from nonprofit organizations that have demonstrated resilience during such crises. And hopefully, by learning from past crises, we can improve our nonprofits’ abilities to adapt, survive, and possibly even thrive in the throes of the current pandemic.
What can nonprofit organizations do to improve their resilience in the face of a crisis?
Beginning in 2015, the state of Illinois did not pass a state budget for 736 days. Many nonprofits with state contracts did not get paid during this period, even though they still needed to deliver services to the public. We spoke with 31 nonprofits that survived the Illinois budget impasse and asked them how they did it.
You might ask, “What does this have to do with nonprofits across the nation, today?” Well, state revenue will certainly plummet over the next several months as activities like shopping decline. Reductions in local shopping volume will dramatically impact state and local sales tax income. Then there are some of the less obvious ways that state revenue declines can affect nonprofits. For example, in some states, marriage and divorce fees fund nonprofits addressing domestic violence. During the recent recession, fewer people could afford to get married or divorced, resulting in significantly reduced funds for these nonprofits. If history repeats itself, these nonprofits will find themselves in the same place: fewer dollars available from government sources. All of this means state and local governments may, once again, find themselves unable to pay their contractual obligations.
Compounding the problem, different nonprofit mission areas will become higher priority for public dollars. Nonprofits not addressing the new priorities may find themselves losing or renegotiating the contracts on which they’ve depended for years. In short, the future for many nonprofits, and the sector as a whole, may look vastly different once the crisis has passed and all of its impacts are realized.
We offer five recommendations culled from the experiences of the nonprofits who survived the Illinois budget impasse that we’ve contextualized to the current pandemic:
Recommendation 1: Engage in Meaningful (Virtual!) Touch Points
Just because you’re not able to rub shoulders at your annual gala doesn’t mean that your donors aren’t looking for ways to engage. Effective nonprofit fundraisers are still great relationship builders. Given the new circumstances, March of Dimes is shifting their tried and true model to a virtual walk captured creatively through social media channels. The organization is maintaining relationships with their existing stakeholders and connecting them with each other across virtual channels. These exceptional times are creating new channels to connect in meaningful, authentic ways with those whom we may not have had such access to in traditional practices.
But it’s not just about redefining the way we interact with those who we already engage with; it’s also about finding new ways to reach those who we rarely engage with. The silver lining to this new virtual reality is that much of access is equalized. One thing that resilient nonprofits did well during the Illinois budget impasse was to engage with local and state officials. While nonprofit leaders today cannot go to the state capitol building or city hall, as was done successfully in Illinois, leaders can utilize virtual conferencing to create meaningful touchpoints with the elected officials who serve your clientele, letting them know how your nonprofit is being impacted and what that means for the citizens that elected them. Empower your stakeholders to attend local virtual town hall meetings and speak up on your behalf by providing talking points and online access information. Stakeholders who may not have had the time or inclination to become involved on your behalf before may be interested in branching out in their new daily reality.
Recommendation 2: Make Hard Facts Easy Reading
Not everyone knows how money flows into and out of a nonprofit organization. Educate funders, whether they be governmental or private, about your revenues and cash flow. Help all stakeholders understand how cash gets from an approved government allocation through several steps until money actually gets to the nonprofit. This is especially true if the cash itself doesn’t arrive until after services are delivered. Nonprofits in Illinois reported that many elected officials were unaware of the many steps between their approval of the spending bill and the deposit of allocated money into the nonprofits’ bank accounts. One of the keys for payment was for nonprofits to shift some of their communications away from their individual missions and toward educating their legislators about the contracting process (Young, Wiley, and Searing, 2019).
Most importantly though, follow the principles espoused by famous journalism teacher Dr. Roy Peter Clark: “make hard facts easy reading” (Clark, 2020). Use the most simplistic language possible. During such tumultuous times, many people are reacting to information overload. Use an old journalism trick when talking about your finances: break it down in under 60 seconds, using words no longer than three syllables. In essence, keep it simple.
Recommendation 3: Be the Squeaky Wheel, Then Change Your Tune
Do you remember that old adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease? It’s still true—you have to speak to be heard. But what if you’re a squeaky wheel in a room of other squeaky wheels? The constant sound becomes white noise. Then, you’ll need a different way to attract and hold attention.
Advocating by sharing your message is critical, but at some point, emotional exhaustion may set in. With no immediate end in sight for the pandemic, the endless stories of hardships faced not only by nonprofit organizations but by most individuals may cause numbness and avoidance by even your most loyal stakeholders. How do you tell your story without minimizing the hardships faced by everyone?
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During the prolonged Illinois budget impasse, nonprofit organizations learned that switching tactics and changing their message framing was a critical tool to reattract the attention of a media-fatigued public. One way was to change the message away from the nonprofit’s individual hardships and toward the economic impacts on the greater nonprofit sector. Nonprofit leaders reported that focusing on the larger sector was more effective than emphasizing the value of one nonprofit’s mission. The shift in messaging reunites and reinvigorates individuals to re-engage. The second way was through specific calls to action rather than the use of a hardship narrative. Providing a link and specific instructions for someone potentially spending more time than normal at a computer will likely yield more engagement than another email informing them of the steps you’re taking to handle COVID-19.
Recommendation 4: Rebalance Your Power through Checks and Balance Systems
During the 2015–2017 Illinois budget impasse, many nonprofits did not receive the money their contracts promised, even though they continued to deliver services. So, when legislative advocacy failed, one group banded together and sued the state of Illinois. Shifting the authority from the General Assembly to the courts helped secure some of their funding (Wiley, Searing, and Young, 2020). The decision to shift venues was based on two elements: the nonprofit’s leadership recognized the opportunity and presence of a coordination mechanism among nonprofits to mobilize enough support to achieve the venue shift.
In the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are already seeing the first inklings of venue shifting occurring as a result of legislative failures. Civil rights groups Lambda Legal and Democracy Forward filed lawsuits against the US Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] on behalf of three LGBTQ advocacy groups. The groups are “alleging that its (HHS) proposal to allow organizations to receive federal funds even if they exclude LGBTQ people violates federal civil rights statutes” and limits resources available to serve LGBTQ people impacted by COVID-19. Our country’s judicial branch was intended to be the final check in the federal checks and balance system. When legislative venues fail, the judicial system may be a viable alternative.
Nonprofits may be hesitant to take on a behemoth like government itself or jeopardize their individual government relationships. This is where coordination mechanisms to mobilize support amongst similarly minded nonprofit organizations may be critical, which leads us to our final recommendation.
Recommendation 5: Take Advantage of Available Networks
Power amongst people is not just multiplied, it’s exponentiated. Nonprofit organizations benefit from the collective power that occurs through strong networks, which span multiple boundaries. Organizations can harness collective power by joining statewide nonprofit associations, becoming active in local nonprofit resource centers, or participating in collective bodies dedicated to certain causes and subsectors. These powerful coordination mechanisms can advocate on your organization’s behalf. They may become critical when relief bills and subsequent implementation programs are subjectively interpreted in the context of nonprofit organizations, like whether organizations that violate civil rights statutes should be included.
These networks are not just about who you know; they are also about what can collectively be achieved. Nonprofit organizations rarely have the individual capacity to afford luxuries like retaining lobbyists and legal experts. But by banding organizations together, coalition building nonprofit organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, the Colorado Nonprofit Association, and the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida have won major policy battles that benefitted their members. These organizations can share the financial burden and the associated resources to collectively retain legal and policy experts on behalf of their nonprofit members. As we move into uncharted waters in the current environment, you will surely want them, and their resources, on your side.
Surviving to Thriving
Like everyone else in the pandemic, the nonprofit sector faces a long road ahead. By finding meaningful ways to engage; advocating for individual missions and collective value contributions to society; breaking critical information into bite-size pieces; and recognizing how checks and balance systems can help rebalance power; nonprofits have a chance to not only survive, but perhaps even to thrive. However, the most important thing that nonprofits can do to secure their future and the future of the sector is to see the power we draw when we stand united together.
Clark, R.P. (2020, February 21). “How to make hard facts easy to read.” Poynter Institute.
Wiley, K., Searing, E. A., & Young, S.L. (2020). “Utility of the advocacy coalition framework in a regional budget crisis.” Public Policy and Administration, Advance online publication. Doi:10.1177/0952076720905007.
Young, S.L., Wiley, K., Searing, E.A. (2019). “When politics and public administration collide: The impact on human service delivery.” Illinois Municipal Policy Journal, 4(1), pp. 103-120.