The best-laid plans go astray. In 2020, many nonprofits saw proof of this in their organization. As leaders, we often struggle to translate theory and knowledge into the practice of inspiring people. We struggle to help organizations realize a larger impact in the community and to facilitate change with an eye toward improved performance. At the same time balancing the personal and organizational impact of COVID and racial injustice in our communities and honoring employee work/life balance needs. For leaders, there is no playbook. There certainly is no playbook that predicted what people and organizations experienced in 2020, or what we are experiencing now.
How Nonprofits Fared
In late 2020, Brighter Strategies, in partnership with the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, conducted a survey of local nonprofits to find out how they were experiencing these unprecedented times. What we found was:
- Organizations were experiencing an increase in need, while simultaneously seeing significant gaps in service.
- More than half of organizations were being impacted in multiple ways: dropped funding, changing client needs, increased costs, major shifts in strategic focus and energy, and a decrease in volunteer support.
- Many, but not all, organizations had significantly shifted their program delivery, many embracing online or hybrid models.
- And, overwhelmingly, the need was outpacing both funds and operational abilities.
The Leadership View
A couple of months after the survey, Brighter Strategies, in partnership with ACT for Alexandria, held a series of facilitated round table discussions meant to be a safe space for Executive Directors to come together to discuss the highs and lows experienced in supporting their staff, strategies for dealing with operational and strategic changes, and resources to explore future planning. We knew, from our survey, as well as talking to our clients, that due to COVID-19 many organizations experienced challenges with mission creep, knowing how to pivot to meet demands, and figuring out how to weather the pandemic while keeping operational, financial and programmatic realities in mind. As organizations began to think about opening up, we wanted to know what’s top of mind for leadership now?
We found that while leaders are focused on Covid return to work strategies, most leaders were also focused on:
- Rethinking new operational models – while many were forced to move to virtual programming, many of these programs have been successful, and organizations are now thinking about long-term hybrid solutions.
- Collaborative partnerships – many organizations are looking to partner with sister-agencies and other local businesses to creatively close resource gaps in funding and volunteer support.
- Bringing strength and vitality back into their workspaces – leaders are putting an intentional focus on building strong sustainable cultures that support staff, reduce burnout, and create engaged hybrid teams.
- Centering on race equity – many leaders are focused on bringing education and awareness to their board, leadership team, and staff to encourage a culture that embraces diversity and inclusivity.
Is There a Leadership Playbook for the New Normal?
At this point in August 2021, it’s unclear what the next phase of work life will be. Mixed vaccination statuses, the Delta variant and changing workplace norms will cause new challenges for both nonprofits and their clients. It’s important that organizations stay aware of the lessons learned during 2020.
Some organizations are just starting reintegration plans. Others have been in the office for months. Whatever your status, be intentional in how you engage in your new way of being.
There’s no real playbook for leadership, especially now. But we can offer four pieces of advice:
1. Create a sense of urgency to focus on what really matters.
2. Demonstrate empathy and concern for each other.
3. Support innovation and creativity through values-based leadership.
4. Be inclusive in communicating what’s coming next.