In times of change: The nonprofit shift from response to recovery

MARCH 31 / Mike Grogan


Folks, we are a lagging indicator. If you think it’s bad now, just wait for 2-4 months to see how all this will catch up to us. As an industry we’ll emerge stronger than before, but not until there’s a winnowing. The weakest kids are going to get thrown off the merry-go-round.” (Baker, 2020)

The past weeks have been a whirlwind for nonprofits. In a matter of days, the pandemic changed both the ways we work and the environment we work within. These are changes that few of us saw coming or had plans for. The pandemic was like a wave that seemed slow moving when we watched it from afar, but when it landed, it hit hard, and it hit fast.

And so, we did what either training, experience or nature taught us to do – we responded. We adapted, sometimes on the fly, sometimes with forethought. In a matter of days, we shifted the work of the sector from offices, studios, gyms and churches to a remote, decentralized model. We embraced the response and kept as many programs going as possible and flexed into new areas to meet emerging needs. Some made hard choices to cancel events and programs and the even more difficult decision to reduce staffing. Organizations, funders and governments responded quickly and substantively with an array of resources and increased flexibility.

It is a trait in working in the response phase of an emergency to become very reactive. That is good. As leaders we respond quickly to keep programs running, redeploy staff, communicate with our audiences. We make decisions quickly, oftentimes with imperfect information. But in any disaster or wide-scale public emergency, there will be a period when organizations and the community as a whole move from response to recovery. The shift will not be clearly defined and will not happen evenly, but it will occur. In the case of this pandemic, it is difficult to envision when that transition will even start. But it will start, and when it does, the way we make decisions will need to change as well.

As the environment settles somewhat, we can raise our sights from the immediacy of day-to-day changes to questions of long-term sustainability. We move from tactics to strategy. We move from decisions that will inform the days ahead to those that will determine the viability of our organizations for the years to come.

As we build through the stages of response to recovery, it is important to know that recovery does not always mean restoration. While it is unclear what tomorrow holds for the sector, it is safe to assume that the future will not look the same as the past. The “normal” of the past will not be the “normal” of the future. A generational disaster will lead to fundamental change in the environment for nonprofits. Funding patterns, government supports, and the types and levels of services needed will be dramatically altered by these events. So too will our organizations.

Making decisions without clarity is hard. Waiting for clarity in this situation is impossible. It is easy to be paralyzed either by waiting too long for clear signs or by keeping our eyes focused only on the immediacy of the day-to-day.

There are, however, things we can do to get ourselves started.

1. Talk to your people. Your board, staff, funders and volunteers. There are challenging conversations to be had. Some of them will be private in nature but the issues are not. The best thoughts and insights rarely come from the narrowest range of perspectives. If you have been telling your staff, volunteers and stakeholders that you are all in this together during the crisis of response, do not retrench to just your trusted few in recovery. Speak with your community about what decisions you need to start making today to give your organization the best chance of weathering this storm. 

2. Do a rapid reassessment and refinement of your strategy. The well thought out strategic plans that we all made over the past few years may be limited in value as the world we work within has changed. Take a hard and honest look at not just the current environment, but what you can expect to see in the months and years ahead. If returning your organization to its pre-crisis state is your goal, test the viability of such a goal. Ask yourself what you can expect for funding support from donors, foundations and governments once the wave of response ebbs. Ask yourself about what the needs for services, old and new, might be and if your existing modes of working will be effective moving forward. Articulate, even crudely if need be, a picture of what a realistic future looks like moving forward for your organization. Your strategies may be rough and emergent, but they will be needed to provide, at the very least, initial direction on the route ahead.

3. Learn from those who have gone before. There is no map that will show us every step to take along this journey, but there are lessons from similar situations that we can draw on. Craig Deardon-Phillips, in writing of the economic meltdown a few years ago, lays out the case for asking a number of challenging questions in a piece entitled The Year Ahead: Adapt or Die.

    • Are you willing to specialize and jettison the things you do that are of lower value?

    • Are you prepared to hold on to only your organization’s best and brightest and let large numbers of your less capable staff go?

    • Are you prepared to be taken over if that helps the cause you serve?

    • Are you prepared to become far more commercial in the way you deliver your mission?

    • Are you up for this?

One of the side benefits of such a strong and poignant response phase as governments, funders and organizations rally to meet immediate community need, is that it buys us a window of time to talk, think and plan. As leaders of nonprofits, both governors and managers, the last question on the list above is perhaps the most important. This is not the boom and bust roller coaster that we have ridden out over the years in Alberta. We are in uncharted territory. It will be a long recovery. My encouragement to us all the weeks and months ahead is that we act as boldly and decisively in our recovery as we did in our response to this crisis.

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Eric Hoffer

Stay well.

Mike Grogan is the Executive Director of IntegralOrg. Mike has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 25 years and is recognized for his ability to create effective and adaptive solutions to organizational and community issues. His skills and experience stem from a diverse background that encompasses building organizations from the ground up to developing leading-edge nonprofit collaborative, public policy, and capacity building initiatives.