4 Ways to Embrace Organizational Resilience and Learning

April 2023

Over the past three years, nonprofits have been tested in unprecedented ways by the impacts of the disruptive COVID-19 pandemic and all of the challenges that have accompanied it. Nonprofits have had to drastically adjust their operations in the hope of staying solvent, a goal that has unfortunately failed for countless organizations. Furthermore, these new burdens have only exacerbated long-standing vulnerabilities in the sector such as difficulty planning for growth, fundraising, and making time for strategic planning. However, many organizations have been weathering this storm and proving the efficacy of organizational resilience and learning for confronting uncertainties in the sector. 

Organizational resilience is defined as the ability of an organization to "[respond] positively to a setback or crisis" and continue to deliver the goods and services that its stakeholders have come to expect. Nonprofit workers can enact this resilience through their actions, relationships with individuals both inside and outside of their organization, emotional regulation, and the creative application of knowledge in evolving situations. Alongside resilience, organizational learning occurs when specific "[k]nowledge is built upon previous experiences" and shapes responses to similar challenges in the future, which saves the time of having to repeatedly learn the same lessons. Within this context, nonprofits cannot be viewed as static entities into which staff are brought to apply a defined set of skills to an unchanging set of problems; rather, each employee performs processes that constantly shift and adapt based on their organization's internal and external environment.

With these ideas in mind, here are four ways to put organizational resilience and learning into practice at your nonprofit:


1. Finances and Fundraising

While unemployment continues to fall and inflation shows tentative signs of slowing, nonprofits continue to face significant financial pressures that challenge their ability to meet the needs of their communities. Recent survey data show that many nonprofits are struggling to provide adequate service levels owing to a combination of higher payrolls, gaping staff vacancies, and increased demand for services. This follows from earlier periods of the pandemic when many providers faced (and many continue to face) difficulties in conducting face-to-face fundraising activities, which has forced development staff to conjure new methods of engaging with and stewarding investment from their supporters. While external circumstances have varied significantly over the past several years, the financial health and fundraising capacity of nonprofits have remained under significant threat. 

Some organizations have responded to these external shifts by adjusting key aspects of their fundraising approach, for example by prioritizing donor retention over soliciting new financial supporters. From a wider perspective, the pandemic-era responses have shown that significant crises can sometimes validate and highlight the rationale for certain financial strategies, even and especially in times of relative stability. For example, some nonprofits have noted that the pandemic-related economic challenges have solidified for them the importance of income diversification and fiscal reserves. While one would hope that organizations prioritize these measures as a matter of best practices, nonprofit leaders should take advantage of the clarity and shift in priorities imposed by crises to make important reforms, especially concerning finances. 

Furthermore, when making significant shifts to the way organizations manage their finances and fundraising, leaders should put in the effort to get board and staff members invested in these changes well before attempting to implement them. While some of these changes may seem obvious or even matters of survival for the organization, there is no guarantee they will endure without the authentic buy-in of staff, leadership, and other stakeholders. This buy-in often proves to be just as crucial for the sustainability and growth of a nonprofit as the innovation and adaptability required to create solutions to organizational vulnerability.


2. Workforce Development

The stability of the nonprofit workforce has been significantly tested over the past several years, with pandemic-related stressors aggravating long-standing vulnerabilities in the recruitment and retention of employees. Burnout among staff remains critically high and is cited as a top priority for many organizations, including smaller nonprofits with fewer resources to spare. As the changing conditions of the external environment have forced nonprofits to drastically adjust their operations, staff have shown an ability to significantly adapt their skills and activities to meet the organization's needs. For example, some fundraisers have been able to perceive and adjust to shifts in donors' priorities and heavily pivot to digital platforms to sustain their fundraising activities. However, while these efforts by staff should be lauded, human beings are only able to adapt up to a certain point and can't be expected the bear the weight of these seismic shifts for an indefinite period of time. 

One way to support staff in times of significant stress and change is to empower them to redesign and adjust their own job descriptions based on their perspective of how the organization could best function. Managers can always accomplish this by themselves in a top-down consultation with an employee, as one fundraising manager described, and this is certainly a useful strategy for getting staff members on the same page about their updated responsibilities. However, nonprofit leaders should allow their staff more independence to adjust their responsibilities and entrust their staff to maximize their own productivity and contributions to the organization. This will create more buy-in from staff and give everyone in the organization a greater appreciation of the managerial perspective. Allowing for this kind of agency also highlights the difference between helping employees find meaningful challenges with increased responsibilities and pressuring them to carry an undue weight on their shoulders, for example, when performing emotional labor at work.


3. Collaboration and Partnerships

While individual nonprofits are adaptable and enact many practices to remain resilient in the face of dramatic changes, resiliency is much more effectively built by increasing reliance on peer organizations in the sector. This approach gives organizations more long-lasting stability because it decreases reliance on the ability of any one individual or strategy within an organization. To this end, some nonprofits found that the pandemic gave them opportunities to connect more with partners in their networks, with one fundraiser describing how their network "became a 'lifeline'" as the early days of the pandemic wore on. Another organization described how the shocks of the pandemic permitted (and perhaps forced) them to expand their networks, which they had "always wanted to do," but had never managed to accomplish. While these certainly have not been the ideal circumstances for building alliances and connections in the sector, it is encouraging that nonprofits have embraced the collaborative spirit, which will only make them more resilient in the face of future threats.


4. Crisis Planning

It has become an ever-present truism over the past three years that nonprofits need to spend more time planning for future crises; however, it is easy to downplay this recommendation and lose sight of the concrete benefits that this type of planning brings to organizations. While crisis planning is often time-consuming, possibly expensive, and often prepares organizations for crises that never materialize, engaging in this exercise can demonstrate an impressive level of planning and foresight to stakeholders. Furthermore, these plans can prove to be highly useful for the handful of crises that are actually encountered. Some organizations have embraced this practice over the past few years by "consolidat[ing] key lessons learned from their response to the pandemic" and developing protocols for reacting to similar events in the future.

However, leaders should recognize and appreciate a common Catch-22 that arises with capacity-building exercises like these: taking many of the actions required to build long-term capacity requires that organizations already possess a significant amount of capacity in the first place. In order to engage in important resiliency practices like continuous collaboration with constituents and local governments, nonprofits must already have the requisite staffing and capacity among their board members, not to mention the financial ability to sustain key partnerships. Nonprofit leaders should reflect humbly about the limitations to pursuing capacity-building measures, while doing their best to find creative ways to bolster their resiliency.


Over the past few years, nonprofits have largely proved themselves to be highly adaptable and resilient in the face of change; however, this flexibility has its limits and bears significant costs for the people who keep these organizations afloat. While efforts to improve the resiliency of individual organizations and teams are certainly worthwhile, far more attention should be paid to increasing the resiliency and adaptability of the systems that support and constrain these organizations. For example, some fundraisers have successfully negotiated changes to arbitrary and harmful limits on restricted foundation grants so that nonprofits can act more flexibly to respond to changing financial conditions. These types of measures will always do much more to make the sector resilient than the actions of any one organization or leader and they should be front of mind for anyone looking to transform the effectiveness of the sector. 


Additional Resources:

Beyond survival mode: Organizational resilience capabilities in nonprofit arts and culture fundraising during the Covid-19 pandemic by Herrero and Kraemer

Opportunities for organizational learning and innovation: A nonprofit case study during COVID-19 in Hong Kong by Chui

Meeting the Need: Building the Capacity of Community-Based Organizations by the Building Movements Project

Inflation and Labor Costs Squeeze Nonprofits as Pandemic Relief Wanes. Is a Fiscal Cliff Ahead? by Drew Lindsay 

The Data Is In: Nonprofits Are Getting More Operational Support by Jessica Culverhouse

The Time Is Right for Organizational Learning by Amanda Stewart, Marlene Walk, and Kerry Kuenzi 

Unemployment Is Low. Inflation Is Falling. But What Comes Next? by Ben Casselman


About PMA Nonprofit Leadership

As a firm, PMA Nonprofit Leadership is constantly developing content and programs to help you in three distinct ways.  The first way is to help you be a thought leader in the nonprofit sector by producing weekly content through our podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. The second way is through individual coaching, training and our unique Mastermind Nonprofit Leadership program. The third way is to help your nonprofit organization through support of its strategic planning, board & staff development, and fundraising. Through our exclusive partnership with the Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, we also  guide aspiring nonprofit leaders through the virtual New Development Professionals cohort training program, as well as the annual Leadership Gift School, now entering its 10th cohort season.  Let us know how we can help you! Join our community by signing up for our free resources here, and schedule a call if you'd like to learn more about ways we can help you on your journey to nonprofit leadership.