2021 Strategic Planning, COVID-style

With 2020 finally over and the COVID-19 vaccine on the way, there is certainly cause for optimism in 2021. Still, with cases on the rise, mutations popping up, and a post-holiday wave, organizations across sectors are preparing for at least several more months of quarantines, safety measures, and virtual work environments. As a result, this year’s annual strategic planning looks different.

We know from past disasters that the year after a crisis hits can be even harder for nonprofits. The demand for services stays high, but the response from funders and volunteers doesn’t. The work isn’t done yet, but as grants run out, they’re harder to renew in a changed economic climate. Volunteers are navigating their own personal scenarios, safety and security making it more challenging to serve. On top of this, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is even more difficult for BIPOC-led nonprofits, which are disproportionately less likely to receive funding, even if their needs are greater and their work more successful than that of their peers.


GivingTuesday was great, but it’s not enough.

Some of you might still be riding the Giving Tuesday high. After all, it was record setting, with donations up 25% over 2019. Nearly $2.5 billion was donated to nonprofits in the U.S. alone according to GivingTuesday, the organization behind the campaign. But not all nonprofits experienced a bump in donations. Those serving basic needs or whose mission is directly connected to the effects of the pandemic (e.g. food banks) tended to receive more gifts than previous years, whereas organizations that have been “in hibernation” because their service models rely on an in-person environment (e.g. arts & culture institutions) may have even experienced a drop in donations compared to 2019.

But even the significant increase in giving doesn’t match with the overwhelming increase in community need that so many organizations have navigated this year. Increased demands for services, costly safety measures and PPE, disruptions to funding, staff layoffs, and a two-thirds drop in volunteerism have put immense strain on nonprofits, especially those that are directly or indirectly providing COVID-19 relief in basic needs areas like healthcare, hunger, housing, and education.

Plus, the “K-shaped” recovery trend is already emerging, with larger, more established, and well-endowed organizations bouncing back from the earlier phases of the pandemic more easily compared to smaller grassroots organizations and BIPOC-led nonprofits that are less likely to be given the funds, resources, and support they need to adapt to and withstand this continued crisis.


Annual planning may be trickier than ever.

So many of us made ambitious plans for growth last year, only to be forced to throw those out the window for a global health crisis we never factored in as a threat on our SWOT analysis. Like so many others, my leadership was stretched in new ways as I took steps to ensure stability for our partners and staff team. We reforecast our goals and budget and pressed “pause” on planned priorities to focus on the more urgent and important realities of a pandemic and the unjust murder of Black Americans.

Here are three of our lessons from 2020:

  1. Know your “why.” We’ve seen many nonprofits be pushed to innovate in this environment. This is often wise advice, but can lead to mission drift. To stay true to your organization’s mission while being open to change, continually ground yourself and your team in why you do what you do. The “how” – program models, operational processes, staffing structures – can shift. But be clear on your organization’s vision and mission, and the type of change you seek, so your team has a compass through instability and change.
  2. Look to skilled volunteerism as a powerful resource. As you adapt your plans, new gaps in your organization’s infrastructure – or old ones now in the spotlight – might be exposed. That’s where planning for capacity building and resilience efforts like skills-based volunteering can be key. Leveraging the expertise of pro bono volunteers can help you “know what you don’t know” and support business continuity, financial forecasting, HR changes, and so many more organizational needs so that you can direct your budget resources elsewhere and still grow your capacity to deliver on your mission.
  3. Center racial justice and equity. The nonprofit sector is closer than most to the ways in which racism impacts communities of color every day. Still, the sector and its leadership are overwhelmingly white, and we need to do more to fight for racial equity. If you are a white leader, think about how you can lift up BIPOC voices within your organization and release some of your power. Make supporting Black communities and Black-led nonprofits a priority. Commit the necessary time to reviewing and improving your organization’s DEI policies and practices and reflect that commitment in your budget. Whatever your organization’s mission, size, or maturity in building an anti-racist society, there is much more work to do.

As we build our strategies for this new year, let’s do so informed by all the learning and unlearning we did last year so we can continue to put communities and partnership at the center. That’s how we’ll overcome this set of crises and prepare ourselves for others, together and stronger than before.