Published on December 2, 2020, at 6:55 p.m.
by Katey Quinn.
Over the past year, many organizations’ best-laid marketing and communications plans have collected dust on a shelf. As the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly upended every aspect of normality last March, nonprofit organizations have especially felt the brunt and been forced to pivot for survival. Their very ability to provide the essential services so many rely upon has been hindered, amid rising demand for these services. As nonprofits look ahead to 2021 planning, they are having to build on the hard lessons learned this past year.
In early September, 42% of nonprofits reported “high” negative consequences on fundraising efforts, and 75% had to make cuts to their budgets. But there is optimism for the industry as 2021 approaches, and for some nonprofit organizations, this time of pause has given rise to ensuring the sustainability of their operations.
All plans are subject to change
Traditionally, nonprofits plan all fundraising events and efforts ahead for the entire year. But by the end of last March, program planning was turned on its side, and events were either canceled or moved to a virtual setting. After almost a year of responding to the rapidly evolving month-to-month scenarios of 2020, nonprofits have developed a better grasp on what to anticipate this next year.
“When we first started looking at things in March, we went into it fully believing that come October things will be somewhat back to normal,” said Angel Loewen, program director for the Autism Society of Alabama. “Yet the year is almost over and that is not the case, so it has definitely demanded that we look at things differently going into 2021. How can we still serve our families and do it in a different way, but still do so very meaningfully and positively?”
The greatest barrier for planning in any industry currently is that there is no guaranteed end date as to when people or organizations will be able to resume life and business as normal without restrictions. Some call this the “new normal,” but for nonprofits that rely heavily on fundraising to operate, this unpredictability creates tremendous uncertainty. Planning for next year will require continual innovation and agility to deal with issues and setbacks and overcome obstacles.
“Navigating the unknown is the greatest challenge. For nonprofits overall, it is the extreme budget shortfalls that are amplified by the pandemic and continuing month by month to keep the doors open and serve the people,” said Sara Franklin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Alabama.
As the world changes, necessities change
For most nonprofit organizations, the needs of those that they serve have been altered by the pandemic. Many of the services provided in the past are impossible to offer in previous form, requiring new approaches. Nonprofits have had to race to understand the changing needs of their constituencies and quickly adapt to serving them. As nonprofits plan for 2021, the obstacles that many nonprofits attempted to address this year have simply worsened in scope.
“For us, it has been a great time for innovation,” said Julie Sims, senior director of global marketing and communications at Room to Read. “While there have been challenges certainly, we have really focused on adapting to many children being out of school and how we can promote distance learning.”
Room to Read is a global nonprofit organization that seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in low-income communities by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. With 1.5 billion children and youth out of school and 186 countries with school closures, the need for Room to Read’s services has been tremendously amplified. The organization is now forced to adapt to the mass number of students without the ability and privilege to receive an education since the pandemic.
“In a number of the countries that we are in, many children don’t have access to the internet and devices, so we are providing alternatives,” Sims explained. “We provide what we call ‘no-tech or low-tech’ solutions, such as providing books and worksheets and then using high-tech such as our online ‘literacy cloud’ as well as radio and television.”
Specifically, marginalized populations around the world have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Nonprofits that aid underserved populations are finding that the needs are much greater than before. Just as Room to Read faces the challenge of providing low-income families the technology to attend online classes, the Autism Society of Alabama and Epilepsy Foundation are seeing their publics enduring higher levels of social isolation and stress.
“For epileptics, stress is a major trigger for seizures. People with epilepsy are losing their jobs and all sorts of things, so as seizures increase, so do the number of people that we will have to serve,” emphasized Franklin.
Pausing can be a time for growth
While this year has changed the landscape of the nonprofit industry, the pandemic’s effects will not last forever. Many organizations have used the time and setbacks to hit the “pause button” and engage in deep introspection. Nonprofits are examining what they are doing currently more closely and how to be more relevant and valuable in the future. Instead of taking a Band-Aid approach, they are thinking more strategically about the long-term sustainability of their programs and services.
“Crisis can be a great revealer. I think that it has given us an opportunity to take some time and candidly look at our programs, services and what we do each year and how we can make them better,” said Loewen.
Although the nonprofit industry has overcome unimaginable hurdles throughout this year, out of adversity comes important lessons. The greatest takeaway is to always be strategically thinking about what comes next — even when the future is unforeseen.
“Whenever there is a difficult situation in life and in the nonprofit world, it can either tear people apart or bring people closer together. My hope is that the challenges of the pandemic will bring our global community, employees and all of our stakeholders more closely together,” emphasized Sims.