Expert Advice on How to Reopen Your Nonprofit

Social TrendSpotter
11 min readJun 17, 2021

How has nonprofit life changed since the COVID-19 pandemic started? What should change forever? What should be reconsidered? Now that we are close to herd immunity, many nonprofits are tackling big and small questions across all aspects of their organization about how to reopen safely. But, we are also tackling cultural questions — how do we come back together as a team? How do we reemerge even stronger? These questions have flooded the Social TrendSpotter comment box, so we decided to ask our colleagues who are experts in their fields for some guidance across strategy/governance (Suzanne Smith, Social Impact Architects), marketing/communications (Aimee Sheahan, Sheahan Communications), fundraising (Tawnia Wise, Wise Resource Development) and human resources/culture (Gabriela Norton, PPR). The summer is a great time for an executive retreat, so we hope this Q&A helps guide your discussions and intentional conversations about reopening your nonprofit workplace.

We have an existing strategic plan. (Or, we do not have a strategic plan.) How should we approach planning now? What are new needs that should be considered? (answered by Suzanne Smith, Social Impact Architects)

Long-range strategic planning has been in a holding pattern for the past year. In fact, we have helped many of our clients with “battle plans” that honed in on key tactics and needed changes and temporarily replaced their strategic plans for 2020. So, where does this put us now and how should we proceed? While 2021 will bring opportunity, I also think our line of sight is still short and fuzzy, which can make strategic planning tricky. Instead of focusing on a new three- or five-year strategic plan, we recommend that our nonprofit friends and clients consider a short-term action plan or a bridge plan for 2021 and possibly 2022. If you have an existing strategic plan, you may want to create a bridge plan by extending your existing strategic plan by a year or so. This allows you to: 1) sunset any completed or obsolete objectives; 2) add any new objectives based on changed circumstances; and 3) extend the deadline for strategic objectives still needing work. If you do not have a strategic plan, do a 2021 action plan that focuses on your top priorities and includes a future date to revisit long-term strategic planning. For more details, see our checklist. No matter what, it is critical for your team to come together (ideally in-person) to collectively revisit and decide upon priorities — we often call them “big rocks” — for reopening in 2021.

Our board and staff want to go back to in-person meetings, but Zoom meetings have also been efficient. What is your recommendation? (answered by Suzanne Smith, Social Impact Architects)

Meetings are meant to bring us together to create intimacy and to work toward a common goal. This is something that can never truly be accomplished through email. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we had to adapt, and Zoom became our only form of “meeting.” We became experts at online meetings, trainings and even parties. Now, as we reopen, we have a choice: to Zoom or not to Zoom? But going even further, the real question is: What is the purpose of the meeting and what is the best way to get that purpose accomplished? Then, we need to ask how people can safely attend that meeting? If everyone agrees to meet in-person, you need to acknowledge the awkwardness of this reunion by re-developing intimacy through icebreakers and easy agenda topics at the beginning. If everyone prefers to meet over Zoom, carefully consider the why, and ask if it is the optimal tool given the purpose. If the group’s preference is mixed, you may want to hold two meetings (one in-person and one over Zoom) or opt for a Zoom meeting so everyone is treated fairly. You could also alternate between the two styles so you get added efficiency and participation without losing connection. The key to all of these questions is being intentional and genuinely considering the best approach, given the purpose, participants and budget.

How has nonprofit marketing evolved due to the pandemic? What has changed for good? (answered by Aimee Sheahan, Sheahan Communications)

For decades, the nonprofit sector has lagged behind consumer companies when it comes to integrating digital strategies. While exceptions exist, most organizations lacked the resources, time and expertise to innovate. Or so we thought. As the pandemic unfolded, nonprofits everywhere had a choice: leverage technology to connect virtually or, at best, stagnate. COVID-19 forced their hands, and organizations responded in force. To keep their missions online, our nonprofit clients and friends answered the challenge with dizzying speed and variety. Holding virtual fundraisers, nonprofit’s flagship response to COVID, was just one example. Nonprofits also kept the lines open to supporters using online book clubs, virtual panels, expanded social media strategies, streaming arts performances and more powerful communications customized to their audiences. While some organizations kept their physical doors open to respond to the crisis with food or health services, others had no choice but to communicate online with those they serve. New texting programs, bilingual websites, virtual learning programs and digital public awareness campaigns were birthed sometimes in a matter of days out of sheer necessity. Not every effort took off, but in our experience the majority hit home and revealed previously untapped potential. A local, in-person run event for an international mission multiplied its reach and dollars raised exponentially by going virtual and national. Individuals who lacked transportation or time to access onsite programs became more engaged from home. Organizations successfully positioned themselves as subject matter experts through live chats and panels on social media. The clear-cut lesson here is that nonprofit groups were able to accomplish what they thought they did not have the time and resources to do. While many organization leaders have said they hope never to do another virtual fundraiser, the landscape has transformed. Our supporters and the people we serve have become even more sophisticated consumers of digital media and content. Their expectations have changed, and we cannot go back to the status quo. Sophisticated digital delivery is the new norm. The effects of months of quarantine have altered both virtual and in-person experiences. People more carefully curate what is worth their valuable time and effort. The nonprofit sector must continue to step up to keep people engaged. Now is not the time to retreat from leveraging digital and virtual strategies, but to double down. We must take the potential we found in digital — and our organizations — and dig deeper. The silver lining of the pandemic? We have proven that we can.

As employers, what HR issues should be considered as we re-open? (answered by Gabriela Norton, PPR)

As we reopen, employers must decide whether to make the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory or voluntary. If it is required, they must have a plan in place to handle requests for medical or religious accommodations. It is also important to establish protocols to control outbreaks, document contact tracing and respond to employees who test positive for COVID-19. Despite the excitement of reopening, we all must consider that a large portion of the workforce remains vulnerable. Experts suggest that the combination of economic uncertainty and the stressors of commuting, deadlines, disagreements and hot-button topics increases the potential for workplace violence. This is an additional workforce dynamic to consider as a result of this pandemic, and it requires proactive thinking about how to ensure organizations are offering a place for safe conversations, conflict resolution (instead of avoidance), accountability partnerships and overall de-escalation of stressful situations. Finally, conducting a thorough audit of all benefits plans and company policies (pre- and post-lockdown) is prudent and will ensure all policies reflect current law, guidelines and regulations. Some organizations will benefit from establishing new permanent or even temporary policies that can be implemented strictly to aid with reopening.

How do we manage hybrid cultures and decide who can work from home and who needs to be in the office? (answered by Gabriela Norton, PPR)

Productivity, the ultimate measure of success, depends on employee engagement. How do employers create an environment of trust, cohesion and shared experiences — the cornerstones of employee engagement — in a hybrid culture? With considerable skill, thought and intention. When deciding who can work remotely, ask “Can the work be done remotely?” and “Is the work more innovative or transactional?” Make sure denials for remote work are rooted firmly in business need. Establish clear parameters regarding the hybrid work structures, but be willing to adjust along the way. Gain trust and cohesion by surveying employees not just once or twice, but regularly to ensure the structure is still working. Be open to adjust as needed. We are learning what our new “normal” should be, so give yourself space for change. Be intentional about collaboration. Require employees to touch base often to gauge progress and feedback. This will lead to accountability, trust and connection. Clearly and regularly communicate the organization’s vision for the future to create shared experiences and underscore cohesion. Finally, commit to working through the inevitable complications. We are all healing together, so be generous with grace while maintaining healthy boundaries.

How do we strengthen our culture post-COVID-19? (answered by Gabriela Norton, PPR)

In some cases, work reunions may feel like starting over. And that is OK. Use an engagement survey to find culture gaps, and then design activities, policies and programs to address those deficit areas. You can start by reiterating the concept of a shared purpose. Do so by intentionally re-engaging teams around your purpose and goals — your organizational “why.” Focus on accountability by reminding employees how important their work is to the team and the company. While some professional relationships may have grown stronger during the shutdown, make sure there are no hints of favoritism, as this can quickly erode motivation — especially with newer team members. Highlight the not-so-obvious mutual dependencies between work functions. With staff working remotely, conflict was easy to avoid. Encourage employees to resolve conflicts quickly so that they do not fester and cause additional problems. It is important to create places where people want to be. This will help people work better to collaborate, focus, learn, socialize and rejuvenate. It will provide stimulation and inspiration.

How did fundraising evolve during COVID-19? What has changed for good? What will shift back? (answered by Tawnia Wise, Wise Resource Development)

Like much of life, fundraising activities adapted into a virtual space during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some nonprofits may choose to host hybrid events that have online and in-person options going into 2022, we anticipate that many are ready to ditch the complicated production requirements and potential snafus associated with virtual events. Most of our clients are eager to shift back to in-person interactions with donors, having missed the beauty of that direct human connection. The pandemic had another, more long-term impact on fundraising by revealing and testing the three pillars of sustainability: strong financial stability and management, demonstrated impact and continued relevancy (including ability to adapt to meet emerging community needs) and strong donor stewardship. Organizations weak in just one of these areas were more likely to struggle or, in some cases, shut their doors. Even so, these closings helped ensure that funding was being directed toward organizations that had the ability to make the greatest impact. Now, as funders shift away from making crisis funding their priority, nonprofits must still demonstrate their sustainability and relevancy. The pandemic showed what it takes for a nonprofit to survive, and it exposed the organizations that could not operate sustainably or demonstrate relevancy. Among those that failed: the nonprofit with the budget primarily funding the founder’s salary that refused to find new ways to meet the needs of their small number of clients; the organization funded by that one angel donor but with no demonstrable impact; the group that never communicated with its donors and hesitated to do so during the pandemic. These were hard lessons that showed being good stewards and caring about donors as human beings and true partners should persist in perpetuity.

Perhaps the most alarming long-term impact of COVID-19 on fundraising is the resulting shortage of skilled fundraising professionals. Even before the pandemic, a 2019 Chronicle of Philanthropy article reported that more than half of the fundraising professionals surveyed planned to leave their jobs within two years, citing too much pressure to meet unrealistic fundraising goals, coupled with too little pay and frustrating organizational cultures. Worse yet, three out of 10 fundraisers surveyed said that they planned to leave the nonprofit sector altogether. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this issue and accelerated the mass exodus of fundraising professionals. We have witnessed this play out in our recruitment efforts — in one example, it has taken twice as long as usual to recruit senior staff, leading one client to increase its salary budget by nearly $50,000 to attract an experienced professional. I don’t anticipate these challenges will change anytime soon. It is time for leaders to reflect on what nonprofit professionals are worth and work hard to attract and appreciate skilled staff.

How important is professional image in the social sector now? What has changed? What needs to shift back now that we are back in the office? (answered by Tawnia Wise, Wise Resource Development)

I thought I had successfully made it through the pandemic without an embarrassing Zoom blunder. I prided myself on mastering an enthralled look, and hey, I even wore pants during virtual meetings. Sadly, my bubble was burst just the other day when my teenage daughter interrupted my Zoom meeting with a client by impatiently gesturing to me. My colleague was leading the meeting at the time, so I turned off my camera so no one could see my look of anger when I demanded to know what was so urgent. My verbal response didn’t get any better when I learned her emergency stemmed from a missing phone charger. It was not until my colleague said loudly, “Hey, you aren’t on mute!” that I realized my mistake. Even recounting this story now, I sigh deeply at this clashing of my personal and professional worlds. Without much of a choice, we have invited work acquaintances and strangers into our homes and personal lives. They got to meet our demanding kids, barking dogs and curious cats. They got to meet our partners who popped their heads in to ask about dinner or kindly dropped in with a sandwich. They got to see us without makeup, in active wear and with our hair in a messy mom bun. We got real. Like REAL real — more so than we ever did during in-person meetings. But there was also grace. We needed that grace during a time when the entire world seemed to be upended. We gave that to each other because that was the least that we could offer in solidarity. Still, I often reflect on how quickly we adapted to this virtual existence and whether it has completely rerouted our concepts of professionalism. As social distancing restrictions lift, not all of us will go back to working in an office every day. Currently, seven out of 10 white-collar workers are still working remotely. However, as enough of us start going back to in-person meetings, our standards of professionalism, including dress and presence, will shift back to what we knew before the pandemic. Not only that, but we will have learned through our Zoom experiences that minimizing distractions, giving our full attention, being prepared and using our time wisely go a long way in showing respect for our organization, our work and the people we meet with.

We have had a collective, traumatic experience — unlike anything anyone has experienced. We have lost someone we’ve known. We have built up new patterns to protect ourselves (e.g., standing 6 feet apart from each other in public, as well as careful cleaning and hand washing). We have battled many basic fears around safety and security. A social worker once used this equation with me: Fear + Uncertainty = Anxiety. This is what is happening in our brains as we go back to work. So it makes it even more important for leaders to directly tackle the fears and unknowns associated with reopening nonprofit workplaces. We must do everything possible to reduce ambiguity through regular communications and focused discussions on priorities. We hope this joint publication is a helpful tool for you during this process. If you have any questions, please send them to us for a future blog post.

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