Embracing Change: A Post-Pandemic Nonprofit Sector

It is almost unfathomable that just a little over a year ago nonprofits were operating in a “world-as-we-knew it” mentality. The onset of COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on black and brown communities pushed the social sector to pivot, stretch and temporarily shutter programs in service to a singular goal: survival. Success was defined simply: avoid layoffs, sustain programming, and keep actual (or virtual) doors open. As we begin to consider what a post-pandemic world will look like for the nonprofit sector, the concept of turning towards new measures of success is daunting.

Last June, Independent Sector reported that 67% of nonprofits had furloughed staff and 51% had laid off employees. By September, the total nonprofit workforce remained 7.6% below pre-March 2020 numbers Just last month, 49% of nonprofit employees said they feared more cuts and layoffs were coming in 2021. Jobs weren’t the only loss for the nonprofit sector. A scarcity mindset caused many to nix infrastructure development, putting a hold on projects like website redesigns, CRM enhancements, strategic planning initiatives, and investments in talent development. Many of us held our breath, focused on survival, and tried to anticipate and plan for the what-ifs that might come next. A few organizations among us saw and seized opportunities for growth even mid-pandemic, proving how resilient the sector is.

Whether your organization paused or pounced, one thing is clear: there’s no going back. The social impact sector cannot return to a pre-pandemic operating model because we have adapted and grown in the last year. Our way forward is to embrace those advancements and consider how to invest in and institutionalize our growth both individually and collectively. To meet the moment, we must:

  • Be ready to release. To use a well-loved metaphor, hundreds of airplanes have been built in the sky over the last 12 months. Now is the time to step back and reflect on what is and isn’t working. Bring in folx with an external perspective, whether you engage your board or work with a team of skilled volunteers to complete an audit of your programming. Some programs won’t survive in a post-pandemic service model, and that’s okay. Find acceptance and make the changes now so you can divert resources to the new or pivoted programming that is effectively serving your community now.
  • Invest in leadership. The new normal requires bold vision and practical leadership. This past year has put a spotlight on the need to invest in and cultivate diverse talent. We must give employees at every level access to leadership development opportunities. Let’s move past traditional “talent development” to build leadership that is reflective of our communities, address the demands placed on nonprofit professionals, and mentor individual advancement. The following resources are a great start:
    • As part of a 2020 review, The Center for Creative Leadership outlined ways to address sleep deprivation in nonprofit leaders, including mindfulness practices and mental health resources.
    • Common Impact launched a crisis response Hotline model offering nonprofit executives the opportunity to connect with an expert professional on a specific topic. The platform has evolved into a free advisory resource for one-on-one, cross-sector peer conversation.
    • Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) offers coaching, training, and mentorship to develop civic leaders who look like and have the experiences of the communities they serve. LEE invests in leaders of color with a goal of creating a new type of political leadership.
  • Hold philanthropy accountable. Meeting the ambitious goals ahead of us requires a refocus on capacity building. We must hold those who signed the COVID-19 philanthropic Call to Action to their commitment to learn from emergency practices and shape philanthropy so that it meets the needs of nonprofits. The recovery process demands more, not fewer, services for the 70 million people pushed back into poverty as a result of the pandemic. The work of building sustainable organizations, investing in infrastructure or program scale, or making specialized staff hires should be priority.

Historically, the nonprofit sector has seen its greatest growth during times of upheaval. Following the onset of World War II, service organizations came together to organize relief efforts creating a powerful, singular social impact voice. The 1969 Tax Reform Act, developed in response to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, created the 501(c)3 tax status, establishing the framework for nonprofits as we understand them today. Social movements such as #OccupyWallStreet, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo were made possible with the launch of social media in the early 2000s. As the latest in this chain of revolutionary upheavals, COVID-19 necessitated rapid-pace changes in program delivery and stakeholder access. Let’s make sure this upheaval – like the others before it – creates long-term advances for the sector.