5 Ways to Adapt Your Nonprofit in Times of Change

May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge for nonprofits. Demands are high, resources are low, and everything feels uncertain. Your organization can still survive--and even thrive--when we don't know exactly what the future has in store by adapting the right strategy and actions. We sat down with Dr. Michael Marsicano, President & CEO of the Foundation For The Carolinas, to discuss how nonprofits can adapt to the changing and unusual situation we are facing today.  Dr. Marsicano quickly responded to the pandemic by partnering with the United Way of Central Carolinas to establish the COVID-19 Response Fund, one of the largest efforts in the country. We rounded up a five of Marsicano's key lessons,  best practices and action items to help you and your organization navigate the post-COVID-19 world. 


1. Live in the future 


It can be easy for the day-to-day internal operations of an organization to absorb most of the Executive Director's attention. The leader, however, needs to be focused on the future in order for the organization to move forward and adapt to the uncertainties ahead. Marsicano recommends that in times of normal operations, the CEO or Executive Director spend about 75% of their time working externally and bringing back ideas and strategies to their team.  

If your organization's operations are temporarily put on hold, this is a great time to reflect and evaluate your strategy. 

"Get a brain trust of volunteers and board members that you can be in touch with on some provocative begin to think about doing things differently than you have done before," suggests Marsicano. 

Frontline leaders may need to transition the bulk of their attention back inwards to manage change management issues or other operational challenges.  Even if your capacity for external projects is at a minimum, keep a forward focus and look externally for solutions and support as time allows to foster collaboration and find innovative ideas to cope with the changing situation.

2.  Look for alliances and partnerships


Connect with other nonprofits and organizations that serve the same population as yours and look for ways that you can work together. Heavily taxed frontline organizations should seek out collaborations that can support their efforts to help lighten the heavy workload, increase efficiencies, and learn from other's ideas. 

"It may be that out of those collaborations [that] some light bulbs go off along the way that can have them think strategically about doing things differently," says Marsicano. 

If your organization has had to press the pause button, consider partnering up with other similar institutions in your community or around the country to brainstorm and swap solutions.  After collaborating with peer organizations, you can emerge from this situation ready for action with a strong strategic plan and innovative new ideas.  

3. Communicate with your team and board

Even though the vast majority of nonprofit staff has been working remotely for the past few weeks, many organizations have been more connected than ever before.  Using tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts humanize your conversations with face-to-face interactions with your team while staying safely at home. 

You can also use video conferencing to keep in communication with your board.  Your organization likely has had to make a rapid succession of big decisions regarding funding, grant restrictions, and operations. It is crucial that you keep your board in the loop about these decisions, their impact and other ways you are responding to the COVID-19 crisis, even if it means increasing the quantity of your board communications.

Make sure to balance keeping your board up-to-date without overwhelming them with more meetings or communications than necessary. For example, Marsicano felt it was necessary to  keep his board updated on a weekly basis at the beginning of the pandemic. Instead of having a weekly required teleconference meeting, however, he had each of the direct reports on his team send him brief key updates, which he consolidated into a brief email newsletter for his board members each week. To avoid making the board feel overwhelmed with content fatigue, FFTC transitioned to bi-weekly communications once they felt that the situation was under control, and only included select board members in calls when necessary. FFTC also took advantage of a provision in their bylaws to allow the board to vote electronically from home. 

 Although this strategy worked for FFTC, other nonprofits have benefited from having Zoom calls with their entire boards. Work with your team and board to figure out how to communicate comprehensively and transparently with your board while limiting extraneous time commitments from your board and staff during this stressful time. 

4. Approach donors strategically 

With unemployment rates steadily increasing and an uncertain financial outlook, you may feel a little uneasy about approaching donors. Listen to your donors, use your intuition and be sensitive to each individual situation. Start by giving them a call to say hello, check in, and let them know that you wish them well. If you determine from your conversation that they are in a good position to give, don't be afraid to make an ask. Candidly advocate for the needs of your organization and the positive impact a gift would have. Just make sure to consider the financial position of your donors to determine your approach.  

For example, more affluent and generous donors will likely be just as able and willing to support efforts to uplift the community in this time of crisis as any other time. 

"For those who have great means, while they are compromised to some extent, they still have great means and most of them are generous of heart. I think we should be just as much an advocate for the needs of our communities across the country right now from those folks as we have ever been, if not more," said Marsicano. 

Those who have a more modest financial resources still may be willing to give what they can. For example, many members of the community have received the financial stimulus check despite retaining employment and not facing financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic. Those individuals may be interested in giving this money back to the community in the form of a donation to your organization. 

Regardless of the donor's situation, it is important to reach out to them during this time. Even if  a donor is facing difficulties and is unable to give, a heartfelt phone conversation will be a meaningful act of stewardship that will make a great positive impact on your relationship.

5. Prioritize self-care

Even though working remotely means shorter commute times, the lack of division between work and home can lead to longer workdays. Additionally, the responsibilities of caring for and working next to family members who are sheltering in place with you adds extra stress to an already exhausting situation.  

"The nonprofit sector is the heart of the community, and I worry about the mental health of all of us who are working so hard--and this is not just about adapting and adjusting to working at home. We're really adjusting to living at work," says Marsicano. 

In order to stay healthy, happy, and productive, Marsicano recommends building in breaks to your day. When you are working from an office, mental breaks are built into your day.  You can take a walk to pick up lunch, chat with a coworker in the coffee room, and can decompress during your ride home. 

"Well, right now I've got my iPad up, my laptop up, and my phone on. I've got Zoom and conference calls,  and I go from one to another and it's just overwhelming. We've got to turn them off, walk away and get outside," says Marsicano.  

If possible, schedule time for yourself between your virtual meetings to leave your electronics and go for a long walk, watch a short exercise video, read a book, or do something for yourself. If you find yourself stuck in back-to-back calls, take some on your porch or back patio to get a daily dose of sunshine. You can't effectively serve your community unless you take care of yourself, so make sure to invest your physical and mental health during this period of transition. 

Additional resources: 


Community Leadership in the Philanthropic Sector (Michael Marsicano) Episode #32, Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership Podcast 


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Blue Ocean Strategy by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne