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The New Normal: How Nonprofits Should Update Their Operations to Account for COVID-19

Editor’s Note: This guest post was prepared by Amanda J. Stewart, an assistant professor of public administration at NC State, with her PA536 Spring 2020 Class. Particular thanks go to MPA graduate students Rachel Davis, Madison Kirshner, Elena Price and Alex Taber who all contributed substantially.

“Management of Nonprofit Organization” is a master’s-level course designed to prepare students to work with nonprofit organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant upheaval in what constitutes “normal” operations for any industry, and nonprofits are no different. So we modified the class accordingly.

The class had a higher-level view of the nonprofit sector during these uncertain times, a luxury in light of the urgency of those in the trenches doing the critical and hard work of mission delivery during a pandemic.

As a closing exercise, we gave thought to what nonprofit managers should be prepared to do to turn the lights back on – as stay-at-home mandates concluded and nonprofit operations prepared to re-open under these “new normal” conditions. We have compiled our ideas among three themes: Leadership and Staffing; Financial Management and Resources; and Programming and Mission Delivery.

We share this listing or checklist to spur on thinking and encourage action among those continuing the work of their organizations, perhaps giving thought to areas that might otherwise be overlooked or even affirming that a nonprofit is investing time well spent. Our compilation is by no means exhaustive. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that it’s hard to imagine the realities of others, and we know classroom knowledge is taught in a vacuum that may look far different than the reality of a pandemic, so they are humbly offered with the intention of being helpful to a sector stretched thin and responding faithfully.

Leadership and Staffing

  • Practice sensitivity: The impacts of COVID-19 are blurred across personal and professional boundaries. Staff and volunteer engagement should understand that we have all been changed by this shared experience. Investments in morale and supportive staffing practices will yield dividends for organizational capacity in the short and long-term.
  • Revisit the strategic plan: Plans made in pre-COVID times may need to be adjusted, differently prioritized, or even overhauled. Though remote meetings may introduce new challenges, collaboration and input remain imperatives for developing strategic plans.
  • Update board recruitment criteria: New opportunities and challenges posed by COVID-19 introduce new considerations for board leadership. Update capacities and criteria that are used for searching and recruiting for board members. Consider adapting criteria for current board members serving through the pandemic, as well as demonstrate grace to those who may not be able to fulfill their designated duties, similar to adapted employee performance metrics as discussed earlier.
  • Align staff performance criteria to COVID-19 operations: Remote work, operational challenges, and program adjustments introduced by COVID-19 required staff to quickly adapt and take on new challenges. Update performance management/staff evaluation criteria to reflect the current environment and updated expectations. Also, ensure your staffing plans reflect your organizational capacity.
  • Update risk management: Many risk management practices pre-COVID-19 did not adequately account for the risk and practices necessary to navigate a pandemic. Update risk management practices to account for CDC and local guidance related to COVID-19, and provide safety supplies and training as necessary.
  • Reevaluate volunteer engagement: Many ways volunteers were engaged pre-COVID-19 no longer seem appropriate or safe. Consider alternative means of virtual engagement or new roles volunteers might hold towards mission delivery. Update volunteer management practices accordingly.

Financial Management and Resources

  • Communicate to donors and funders: Fundraising is all about the relationship, so be transparent to donors. Ask if restricted funds can be reallocated to serve current pressing needs. Keep donors abreast of the need the organization is serving, the operating realities, and the challenges encountered.
  • Be tone sensitive: Recognize the environment your donor solicitations will be entering and practice sensitivity in framing your appeals. Assess the difficulties of soliciting for a nonprofit that may not be able to provide its services during a pandemic. Focus on a development plan that emphasizes the necessity of this nonprofit to open its doors again after COVID-19 or social distancing recommendations resolve.
  • Adjust revenue projections: Reassess and amend as appropriate revenue goals and sources. Consider re-confirming major donor pledged gifts, and reevaluating earned income or interest earnings projections.
  • Assess expenses: Budgets developed under different conditions may no longer include relevant priorities for spending, and new needs may have also emerged. Investments in technology or other equipment or supplies that equip a socially different environment may be critical.
  • Re-do funding searches & update search criteria: Many foundations, government, and other sources have developed new funding sources or updated criteria for funding in response to the pandemic. Re-evaluate funding sources to assess fit for your organization in light of possible criteria changes. Also if mission delivery activities have updated or changed, modify the criteria and prepare to adapt the narratives used to explain the nonprofit’s mission and activities.

Programming and Mission Delivery

  • Realign programs with updated strategic plan: Redirect staffing and resources to programs that are in keeping with the organization’s updated strategic plan.
  • Focus on critical and emerging needs: Recognizing that COVID-19 has revealed new vulnerabilities in our communities, triage and prioritize service delivery to meet critical needs without overlooking or creating new needs from the absence of services. Also, revise and update eligibility criteria, recruitment information, and other pertinent communications that describe who the organization is serving and how.
  • Educate about COVID-19’s impact: Inform stakeholders and policy makers about how the people and communities your organization serve, as well as the mission area, are faring in light of COVID-19. Offer insights and policy solutions to remedy the concerns you raise.
  • Be transparent about COVID-19’s impact on your organization: Be forthcoming with donors, policy makers, and other stakeholders about what your organization is doing, the resources it takes, and the impact of COVID-19 on your organization’s capacity and operations.

We also encourage nonprofits to check out this re-opening guide prepared by the NC Center for Nonprofits and more general guidance prepared by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

This post was originally published in NC State News.