When the severity of the global pandemic was fully understood in the U.S., my organization made the very difficult decision to postpone our largest annual fundraiser, and the implications of that loss in revenue became clear and needed immediate triage.
We quickly shifted gears and targeted only special, major donors to ensure the company would be able to retain our team through the crisis. Once the survival panic was mostly assuaged, we pivoted again. As an international water nonprofit, we knew we could play a role in combating COVID-19 in the rural communities where we have projects, so we got to work on creating a plan (and a fundraiser), launching a campaign and utilizing emerging technology.
During this process, we learned key lessons about crisis management, including how to pivot but stay on mission, how to keep team performance and morale high and how to strengthen our brand despite the more difficult environment. Based on this experience, here’s what I have learned from the process.
Repurposing The Team To Respond
Our first organizational challenge to tackle needed to be within the team. Since the core of what we do, as well as the landscape of how we support that mission, became very different worlds overnight. Job descriptions needed updating immediately to ensure team morale remained high and our mission remained the driving force of our efforts.
For example, we pulled all of our small team into our donor cultivation strategy, and everyone became responsible for donor gratitude (e.g., emails, calls, videos, notes in the mail, etc.). We knew that donor retention would be more important than ever, and, over the past two months, these efforts have shown surprising results with new contributions and inspiring, positive feedback from our supporters.
Nonprofits can reorganize (and even inspire) their teams by quickly planning for the pivot so that role updates can also be made immediately. In my experience, team members are more productive when they feel secure, and consistently reassuring them that the organization is on a good course can facilitate this.
I advise against sheltering your team from changes and challenges during times of crisis. More than anything else, your staff wants to know that their jobs are secure and that they can count on you as a leader to see them through troubled times. Communicating this to employees requires frequent updates and reassurances, and doing so on video calls is best, since your team will likely have more faith in your words if they can see your body language and expressions.
Once we knew the team felt safe and motivated with their new(ish) roles, we tackled the repositioning of our programmatic work in East Africa. This proved a significant exercise in adaptability, since our regions of work have been, for the most part, inaccessible. We knew we could help our beneficiaries with vital information, but we couldn’t get our teams into the communities to deliver this critical training.
We decided to leverage our partner organization and visited the availability of mobile technology in our regions of work, as well as internet connectivity. Since each of these technologies are prevalent where we needed to send the training, both companies got to work building resources into a digital tool that would be interactive, updated with new information in real-time, and provide ongoing “chat support” to each and every user.
I think that most nonprofits, whether in crisis or not, could benefit from taking a look into what’s already available to them to accelerate their missions — particularly in partnerships and thinking outside of the box. Before taking on these resource evaluations, you should consider:
- Who is in your sphere that aligns with your mission and has already shown support or interest in support/collaboration?
- In what ways can you use new information or tools and technology that are available now that weren’t when you established your previous model?
- Are there beliefs you are currently holding about your current way of doing things that are no longer serving you?
Since we needed to rely heavily on our local teams to properly design the training tool, as well as provide ongoing support to the recipients, this project has become their new full-time jobs for a while. In order to support their efforts (and not have to cut local staff), we launched a fundraiser to cover their efforts and technology needs throughout the program.
We built and launched the virtual campaign as soon as the training tool was in coding, and we raised enough in funding to complete the deployment of our new project. We also leaned on our digital platforms to bring awareness to our fundraiser since we could not host events or in-person meetings. By leveraging telephone calls and zoom meetings, we targeted all donor segments digitally.
Through all of this, we now know that higher-level donors do want to know what organizational cutbacks have been made in response to the crisis before they commit any additional funding. With a larger gift, most donors are more likely to contribute when you have established you are doing everything you can to extend your runway through the crisis. Lower-level donors responded best to our appeal for the safety of our beneficiaries. So we focussed on stories from our communities and metrics on the impact of our new program.
I recommend avoiding letting your general audience at a lower-level giving average in on your budget cuts and organizational concerns. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just that they want to know they are doing good in a time that’s tough (without the burden of yet another company’s problems).
As a leader, the skill that has served me most over the past couple of months is my solutions-focussed attitude and language. Most things are attainable once you verbalize that they are and ensure your actions reflect the same. The defining theme of your success will be the commitment of your leadership to “making it work,” your collective change management skills and your scrappy resourcefulness.