Crossing the Rubicon: Navigating NEW Strategic Shifts in Your Nonprofit
Everything changed two years ago — so much so, many futurists, including myself, shifted gears from long-range planning to week-to-week survival. At Social Impact Architects, we even changed our website and created a “Nonprofit Coronavirus Resource Center” with all the latest information on legislation, remote leadership and every other pivot that we collectively encountered to continue important social sector work. And, our friends in the social sector rose to the challenge.
Now, as the country begins to reopen, we have begun shifting back to long-term planning. But planning is different now, because the past is not as reliable of a predictor of future work. In my speeches, I refer to this as “crossing the Rubicon,” referencing Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River in 49 BC, which led to the imperial era of Rome and his reign as dictator. Today, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” is a metaphor that means to pass a “point of no return.” And, we are now there.
We won’t and should not go back to business as usual — business and our lives have changed, and we need to start again with a refreshed mindset. Personally, I have mixed feelings. It is somewhat exhilarating — we can envision a new reality and get rid of things that no longer work much more easily. However, it is also worrisome, because we no longer have a guidebook based on past work. Data is changing; people have changed their habits; and our collective mindset as a country is evolving. It is a significant change, similar to when the automobile was invented and led to the collapse of the horse and buggy.
For nonprofits, the past two years were the ultimate stress test. However, the next two years present opportunities — to reinvent your mission, recalibrate your work culture and reinforce your systems. One of the best books I read during the pandemic (when I had more time to read, a habit I plan to keep) was Atomic Habits. The author, James Clear, who has studied goal-setting has a fabulous quote on this very point: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” The pandemic exposed those organizations (for-profit and nonprofit) that had say-yes-to-everything missions, fragile cultures and weak systems. Before the pandemic, 50% of nonprofits had less than one month of operating reserves and less than six months of cash. 66% of nonprofits took PPP loans, and many used these to survive. As we rebuild, we will likely see some nonprofits close their doors, some merge or be acquired, and some reinvent themselves as focused entities.
We need to prepare ourselves for the challenges (and opportunities) ahead. To get started, we have identified issues the social sector will face after having “crossed the Rubicon.” Some we have faced before, while others are new:
- Increasing interest in mergers & acquisitions as well as exits & wind-downs
- Passing the torch successfully through succession planning from Boomer CEOs to the next generation of leaders
- Evolving DEI to include IDEA (accessibility)
- Shifting to global interconnectedness & SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)
- Understanding & integrating intersectionality of issues
- Rebuilding trust in nonprofits through impact accountability
- Unpacking best practices on community-driven system change
- Utilizing marketing (not just communications) as a key lever for social sector organizations
- Integrating experience marketing into all key processes
- Recovering thoughtfully and successfully post-PPP loans
- Improving donor cultivation, especially with increased inflation
- Tailoring donor relations strategies post-pandemic based on giving trends and preferences
- Building a pipeline of equipped leaders for the sector
- Exploiting technology as a horizontal across every department
- Planning for cybersecurity threats
- Preparing to reopen offices during The Great Return
- Navigating generational shifts
- Considering the future of work, including hybrid and 4-day workweeks
- Prioritizing mental health, including self-care and burnout, sabbaticals and secondary trauma
- Re-engaging your board in the mission as well as key governance issues
“Crossing the Rubicon” is also one of the names of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs. It might be a nice break to listen to it today. In it, Dylan gives us a cathartic meditation for today: “Let the hour be mine / Take the high road, take the low / Take any one you’re on / I poured the cup, I passed it along / And I crossed the Rubicon.” I hope you embrace this day, cross the Rubicon and “embrace the goddess of the dawn.”
For us, at Social Impact Architects, we will be taking down our Coronavirus Resource Center while we begin “architecting” a new and improved social sector across the themes above. We welcome your thoughts on the issues affecting the social sector now — let us know if we missed any. We will continue to study them and share our best thinking on how to navigate them successfully together.