One advantage that distinguished nonprofits during the pandemic: learning

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a shocking stress test to nonprofit organizations. In the first few months of the pandemic, many organizations confronted the existential question: Do we still have a viable business model in this new reality?

Organizations responded in different ways. Some closed their doors, some sought to continue their previous ways of operating to whatever extent possible, while others adjusted.

Their success—defined by fundraising performance and program execution—did not necessarily correlate to their niche. For example, there were theater companies that thrived with a quick pivot to a virtual environment and hospitals that provided critical, lifesaving care that struggled to raise money. The common thread among the organizations that have thrived (and will likely continue to thrive) was their ability to learn under pressure.

For every organization that managed to persevere—but either didn’t thrive or could have done better—there are lessons to learn. The institutions that will continue to grow are those that don’t revert back to the old ways of operating and learn from this once-in-a-century experience.

How leading organizations adapted

When we examine what enabled some organizations to thrive amid an unfamiliar, challenging environment, we’ve identified four common denominators:

  1. Leadership employed a growth mindset. It created a pervasive organizational belief that its mission was relevant in the face of the existential threat posed by the pandemic.
  2. Organizations ramped up constituent and stakeholder engagement. Amid a global pandemic, the easy option would be to assume donors have more pressing needs than our organization’s cause. Yet many fought those inner assumptions. Those that thrived upped their communications and engagement in spite of their inability to do so in person. They engaged virtually using webinars, video calls, emails, and surveys, enabling them to improve upon the outreach they had before the pandemic.
  3. They fearlessly adopted new technology. Prior to the pandemic, many organizations let fears and assumptions prevent them from adopting new technology. Some of those fears intensified during the pandemic. Others saw their fears vanish as they employed a growth mindset that enabled them to work past the challenges and have a bias toward action. For example, Stop Soldier Suicide embraced Facebook as it developed a fundraiser in which people challenge each other—or themselves—to tasks such as running 100 miles in a month. The money went to support suicide prevention programs for veterans. The effort helped them build a following of roughly 500,000 on Facebook as it raised $4.1 million. Meanwhile, other organizations adopted online galas, virtual auctions, and livestreams of programming. The pandemic cemented the need to leverage technology and engage a broader group of donors and supporters. According to a recent survey of 32 peer-to-peer programs conducted by Event 360 and OP3, 85% of organizations plan to offer a virtual participation option in the future. None of the respondents said they would eventually drop the virtual offering.
  4. They adjusted their models, not their missions, to fit the moment. They asked themselves the tough questions, such as how do we continue to exist in the COVID-19 environment? What will happen if we go away? What happens to our staff and community without us? How can we make our business model work? These are questions that most nonprofits regularly grapple with. But when you have enough money in the bank, they tend to be farther of mind. However, if events or in-person engagement accounts for half of an organization’s revenue, it has no choice but to rethink its approach or rationale. For example, Beyond Hunger moved from operating in-person food banks to delivering thousands of meals to folks in quarantine. Teach for America pivoted from in-person training to a fully virtual learning environment for thousands of its teachers.
Now’s the time to embrace change and invest in learning

It’s clear that the next “normal” will not look like the pre-pandemic normal. That’s why organizations can’t simply revert back to the old ways of operating.

Now is the time for those organizations who struggled to ask themselves the tough questions. That requires reflecting on the past year and identifying how and why they missed opportunities. They need to ask several difficult questions such as “What obstacles stood in the way of change?” “Why didn’t the organization raise more money” and “Why wasn’t the organization able to deliver more impact?”

For some, the answers to those questions may stem from structural barriers due to the mindset of their individual leaders. Once leaders adopt a growth-mindset, they can begin the inward-looking process. They can ask themselves question like “Can you be less defensive about your mistakes?”, “Could you profit more from the feedback you get?”, “Are there ways you can create more learning experiences for yourself?” The changes they make in their work can then provide a model for their teams.

Others may find that they failed to adequately engage their constituents and stakeholders. But it is never too late to learn and adjust. Leaders can prepare for the next crisis by asking their constituents to assess their engagement and communications during the pandemic. That outreach—which may take the form of a survey—enables them to determine whether their perception matches the perception of their constituents. The survey may also solicit constituents’ opinions on how they could have done better and if they would recommend organizations to model.

By taking a critical look at the organization’s approach during the pandemic, leaders can make changes that position them to be stronger and better prepared to confront future challenges.

A commitment to continuous learning is always beneficial

In some ways, the pandemic leveled the field putting different organizations at a similar starting point. For various reasons, some took off faster than others. But the opportunity to change isn’t over. Chances are over the next year or two, we’ll be living in a middle ground between a pandemic and the next normal. That middle ground will be a time of profound opportunity. The need to learn and adapt will still be required. And even once that moment passes, every organization will need to continue learning and adapting. Learning is an enduring strategy we can help you discover.


You shouldn’t have to answer the tough questions on your own. While many of the answers exist in the collective wisdom of your organization, we can help you identify and source those answers and convert them into learning for you and your team. To learn more contact us at contactus@grenzglier.com.

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