3 Things Nonprofit Leaders Can Do Now

March 2020

"I don't know where to start," confided a nonprofit Executive Director I was speaking with last week.  Like so many of our colleagues in the charitable sector, she was trying to triage the nearly overwhelming number of issues in front of her, facing more questions than answers.  We worked through her situation, and came up with a plan that has been reinforced by conversations we're having with each of our nonprofit partners.  As you ponder your game plan for the next 30 days, here are three areas on which you can focus as you adjust to this "new normal."

1.  Start With Your Team.  You've certainly been in touch with your staff, likely in sporadic fashion as everyone adjusts to remote working environments.  Focus a virtual meeting this week on four things:

A. Establish a daily communication channel.  Some organizations are maintaining their daily morning "huddle" as an online check-in; other Executive Directors are sending a daily email to provide updates from the last 24 hours.

B. Determine your communication tree.  Identify every constituency that connects to your nonprofit:  board members, volunteers, donors, vendors, program partners, and of course, the people you serve.  Make sure a staff person is assigned to each group and discuss this week's communication with them.

C.  Create a unified message one-pager.  Every individual outreach should be guided by an outline of key messages, and the team should anticipate the most likely questions and put it in writing. Suggested elements of the organizational message:

a.  We remain focused on our mission (serving the people we serve, who need us now more than ever)

b.  This is what we know (focus on the next 30 days, calendar changes, etc.)

c.  This is what we don't know (and acknowledge we're working on it)

d.  This is how we'll communicate going forward (through our web page, weekly updates, etc.)

e.  Ask: How can we help you?  What questions do you have and how can we best communicate with you?

D.  Revise your website.  Double-check your online messaging and social media, which likely still have dated information on upcoming events and activities.  Create a simple "Updates" page linked prominently on your home page, so the latest information is easily accessible with one click, and you can provide subsequent updates which highlight the date posted.

2. Align With Your Board.  You and your board chair/executive committee are likely having rapid-fire conversations as you adjust quickly to event cancellations and upcoming meetings.  When you connect with your board leaders this week, consider these four things:

AConfirm new meeting mechanics.  At minimum, an executive committee meeting is likely warranted this week, which can provide an opportunity to test virtual meeting capabilities and discuss meeting protocols going forward.  Look at the next few regularly scheduled meetings and determine the viability of an online set-up.

B. Send the unified message one-pager to the entire board.  Using the template vetted by your staff, send a one-pager to the board that confirms the answers to questions they're already getting: reminds about mission-focus, confirms what is known, acknowledges what is not known, and confirms how/where communication will occur going forward.

C.  Be prepared to discuss the financials and personnel.  This is a good time to align the board's expectations in terms of what information they will require, and at what frequency.  Your staff need not be burdened with unnecessary reporting, but real-time revenue and expenses are certain to be a board request, as are forecasting models given uncertain revenues going forward and the possibility that a staff member might contract the virus.

DMaximize the board's network and influence.  Board members should be willing to advocate for your nonprofit as federal, state and local relief measures are considered.  Make sure the board has access to this type of information, such as what the NC Center for Nonprofits is providing in this state.

3. Seek Your Alliances.  It's hard to be strategic when you're trying to keep your head above water, both personally and professionally.  However, as we've seen in previous periods of crisis, those organizations that are able to keep a periscope above water are the ones that are going to get through this successfully. Start with two key constituencies this week:

A. Your key donors.  Clearly this is a constituency that deserves personal attention as you divide the outreach efforts among your staff and board leaders.  Be cautious about conveying a "desperation" fundraising pitch.  They know you need funds, but are also evaluating their personal circumstances as well as those of other organizations they support.  As with other constituencies, consider a communication "outline" with each donor that acknowledges the difficulties of your situation, but also demonstrates an organized plan going forward:

a.  Assure mission focus and the genuine needs of those you serve

b.  Update them (as partners) about what you know and don't know, and event/calendar changes relevant to them

c.  Highlight key revenue and expense drivers that are being monitored closely (they're investors; treat them as such) 

d.  Seek their advice and continuing support, and follow-up with an email of thanks and links to key information 

The more individual communication to donors the better, but prioritize your "20-10-5" (top 20 individual donors, top 10 corporate/faith partners, top 5 foundation/governmental funders).  Once again, remind them of your website through which you will provide real-time updates.

B. Connect With Peer Organizations.  In addition to the personal networking value of a peer connection, these conversations will allow you to compare notes on real-time challenges in your sector, revisit previous programmatic partnerships, and possibly brainstorm shared-service opportunities ahead in light of the ongoing pandemic. Better to start these conversations now, as the funding community may well mandate greater partnerships and alliances just as they did following the 2008-09 economic downturn.  Who are the three most likely current/potential strategic partners for your organization?

Many questions remain in this changing environment, but hopefully these three areas of focus can help you effectively connect with your most important stakeholders, and maximize the talents of your staff, board and key supporters.  Thank you for the remarkable work you're doing in unprecedented and uncertain times.

Dr. Patton McDowell is the President of PMA Consulting, a firm helping dedicated individuals excel at nonprofit leadership.  He's also the host of the weekly podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership.