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Your Not-For-Profit Reimagined

Crain's New York Business
November 9, 2020
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As seen in Crain's New York Business

Not-for-profit organizations are no strangers to adversity and challenges in managing their operations while continuing to serve the public.

The effects of COVID-19 in the past six months, however, were truly unprecedented and have created business disruptions on a global scale. All entities, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, have had to become creative and reexamine their operations to best position themselves to survive and thrive.

The severity of the pandemic has been a rude awakening, but recessions and natural disasters, among other global events, have often challenged the status quo for not-for-profit organizations and driven them to reevaluate and, at times, reinvent themselves. While adapting to changing times and reimagining organizations for the future may seem like a daunting task, it brings opportunities to make improvements, develop strategies for ensuring long-term sustainability, and recalibrate to what many believe will be a new normal.

In times of crisis, the public is often reminded of the critical role that not-for-profits play in the local and global community. Many not-for-profits have implemented short-term strategies to keep operations running while anticipating a return to normalcy. Unfortunately, the sobering reality for many in these changing times comes down to this: Longer-term decisions and strategies are crucial for organizations to thrive and continue serving the public.

Some critical considerations in assessing your strategic planning as your not-for-profit reimagines its place in the world:

Mission and program

A well-defined mission and related programmatic messaging are always important to a not-for-profit. They allow it to engage its sponsors, donors and constituents. In times of crisis, letting key stakeholders know how the organization and, more important, the people and communities it serves have been affected demonstrates confidence. The ability to reaffirm a commitment to mission and program during a crisis is even more critical to getting and keeping the support and trust of donors and constituents.

Development and fundraising

Successful fundraising begins by having an open and transparent relationship with donors. In difficult times, the ability to ask donors to redesignate certain restricted funds to serve immediate needs is often a strategy employed by development. To do so, however, requires outreach and donor correspondence to be up-to-date, timely and reflective of the challenges the not-for-profit is encountering. Fundraising personnel must understand the environment from which it is soliciting, especially during crises. It is important to exercise sensitivity in seeking donations. Appeals must be mindful of the local and geographical hardships, and they must emphasize the not-for-profit’s need to deliver on its mission during and after the pandemic.

Board engagement and leadership

The pandemic has reemphasized the importance of maintaining a close relationship between governing boards and executive management. Greater engagement is required of board members in working collaboratively with management, leveraging fundraising relationships, addressing financial and legal matters, and liaising with community leaders. Reinvigorating this partnership can result in new strategies and directions and aid in calming the fears and pressures of employees and those within their respective communities. Boards and executive management should seek to build on this solid foundation and encourage participation and dialogue to strengthen governance.

Financial and strategic management

The nationwide lockdowns and remote-work mandates associated with the pandemic forced many not-for-profit organizations to make difficult financial decisions. Donor contributions and conference and gala revenues, among other revenue sources, likely were either significantly reduced or became nonexistent. To survive, many not-for-profits implemented cost-cutting measures, such as programmatic reductions and staffing and overhead reductions. The transition from survival-and-crisis mode to recovery and growth will be different for each organization.

Simply relying on traditional revenue-generating events may not necessarily yield the same anticipated results, because the landscape most surely has changed. Abandoning completely what has worked, however, would be extreme. In the face of mandates for social distancing and phased approaches for reopening, adaption is critical to position your organization for success.

As the not-for-profit reimagines itself, the establishment of a robust and flexible strategic plan will play a critical role in advancing its priorities and mission. A strategic plan will help in the exchange of ideas between management and the board on the organization’s direction. It also will help define measurable goals, approved priorities and a commitment to the continued growth of the organization. Most important, the plan will be a valuable tool that should be revisited periodically and adjusted, as necessary, to reflect the changing environment the organization operates within.

Information technology

A remote workforce will be the new normal for some time. It is imperative that not-for-profit organizations equip employees with the technology and training needed to maximize their productivity and the organization’s overall safety. Talk to your employees about compliance and develop policies to address this new normal. Cost considerations should be factored in: Who pays for security and device upgrades? And for how long?

It is critical that solutions are in place to provide patching, monitoring and support to employees while they work remotely. With the surge of criminal activity accompanying the pandemic, combined with the many distractions associated with a work-from-home environment, regular cybersecurity awareness training should be a priority. Security content, particularly guidance related to social engineering attacks, should be revised to reflect the latest COVID-19-era risks to a remote workforce, so end users know how to identify and avoid these threats.

A penetration of the not-for-profit’s network could result in a loss of donor confidence and cause irreparable reputational damage. Now, more than ever, an organization needs to be proactive, and not reactive, toward IT security and infrastructure.

Future reimagined

Reimagining your organization is not a simple task, especially in difficult times. Taking the necessary time to reflect on new initiatives and outcomes that resulted from this pandemic can aid in making your organization better in its operations and its outcomes. While this may seem overwhelming, it is a necessary step for positioning your organization not only to thrive, but also to focus on what counts: your mission.