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COVID-19: Questions Nonprofit Leaders Should Be Asking Right Now

Naomi Korb Weiss, Senior Consultant

Amitis Oskoui, Consultant

Erin Britton, Consultant & Product Manager, Nonprofit Effectiveness

In times of crisis, taking the time to carefully assess and clarify core strategies can help your organization respond nimbly and effectively.

Download TCC Group’s discussion guide to accompany this post and start the conversation at your organization.

Seemingly overnight, the world has changed radically as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak—and it continues to change by the day. Nonprofits are suddenly faced with a complex new reality: constituents’ needs have changed drastically, the ability to deliver services is challenged, and many nonprofits’ financial viability (and very existence) is threatened.

Escalating community pressures and ongoing uncertainty make it challenging to think strategically about your nonprofit’s future; it’s more tempting to focus solely on filling the immediate needs of your clients (we’ve seen nonprofits act with remarkable adaptivity over the past few weeks). Short-term responses that aren’t aligned with your organization’s core strategy, however, may end up straining organizational resources. “Strategic thinking” can anchor an organization in its core priorities, unleashing high-impact, short-term responses as well as longer-term strategic pivots.

This simple “Strategic Thinking” Framework can guide your organization in identifying its core priorities by considering three equally important factors: mission and vision; the external environment; and organizational capacity. A nonprofit’s most strategic opportunities reside at the intersection of these three areas. Considering and clarifying each will help you determine how to best position the organization most effectively in the short term, and whether it needs to shift gears (including, as a last resort, closing your doors) in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

CLARIFY VISION AND MISSION

Start with where your organization is going and the role it will play in getting there. While it’s instinctive to focus first on the dramatic and disruptive changes in your external environment, any assessment of the environment must be anchored in a clear appreciation of your organization’s identity, and what it uniquely has to offer. Your nonprofit’s vision, mission, and values should guide your direction and choices. Together, these form a ‘north star’—the guiding light that shapes the change your organization hopes to affect and on whose part. Regardless of whether your board and staff leadership have already articulated vision and mission statements, now is a great time to get crystal clear on what your organization is—and what it isn’t. Not only will this help you prioritize how to effectively allocate scarce resources, but it can also help steer your organization toward other social sector partners who share your societal vision.

Guiding questions for nonprofit leaders (staff and board) when clarifying vision and mission:

Vision:

  • What change do we want to see in our world (or community) in 30 or 40 years as a result of our work? What vision are we unrelentingly working toward over the long term?
  • Who else shares this vision? (Consider other nonprofits, funders, individuals, businesses, government, others…)

Mission:

  • Why does our organization exist?
  • How do we uniquely contribute to the achievement of our societal vision?
  • What unique assets and value do we provide and for whom?

ASSESS THE EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENT

The external environment—the context in which your organization exists—dictates your constituents’ needs. The external environment refers to an organization’s immediate geographic environment or sector, and sometimes to the world at large. The current environment—both locally, nationally and globally—has shifted radically, and the needs and realities of your constituents have likely been altered within a matter of days or weeks. It may be that some of your organization’s programs and services are no longer relevant or able to be delivered; alternatively, the demand for your organization’s services may have grown exponentially.

Guiding questions for nonprofit leaders (staff and board) to appreciate the implications of the changing environment on organizational priorities and direction:

  • How are our constituents most affected by the current situation (e.g. health-related impact, financial/socio-economic hardship, or other)? Will they be adversely affected over the long term differently than they are now?
  • Are our core services still relevant to our constituents? Are there new audiences or groups for whom our services may be relevant right now?
  • Are there additional services we can offer that better meet the changing needs of our target audience?
  • Cross-check your responses with your vision and mission work:
    • Would a shift in our target beneficiaries or services still support our organization’s vision and mission?
    • How would this shift leverage our unique assets?
    • Are there community or sector partners better equipped to lead this work with these constituents or in these service areas? If so, how can we contribute to their efforts?

GAUGE YOUR ORGANIZATION’S CAPACITY

An organization’s operational and programmatic capacity is the set of resources and skills it employs to deliver its programs and services and to function effectively. An organization’s capacity refers not only to funding, staffing, and infrastructure, but to leadership, board governance, communications, and other functions. (An organizational capacity assessment, like TCC Group’s Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT) or the Ford Foundation’s Organizational Mapping Tool (OMT), can be a time- and cost-efficient way to accurately prioritize those capacity areas you need to build immediately.)

Environmental shifts directly influence the available resources—anything from changes in the labor force to fluctuations in short- or long-term funding streams. Nonprofit staff and Board members may find themselves with additional time on their hands if they are sheltering in place or temporarily prohibited from delivering in-person programs.

A “What I Have/What I Need” exercise can help your nonprofit stay ahead of the curve in rapidly changing circumstances. As environmental conditions begin to swing away from the status quo, prompting potential pivots in your program and service offerings, your nonprofit will need to gauge how it can leverage organizational strengths, while simultaneously acquiring the resources and capacities to fill gaps and address institutional challenges.

Guiding questions for nonprofit leaders to consider when assessing organizational capacity:

  • How have our organization’s operational and programmatic capacities been impacted by the changing environment? Which areas have been stretched? Strengthened? Unaffected?
    • Consider staffing/HR, board governance and engagement, fundraising, technology, communications (internal and external), facilities, resource sustainability (cash flow, grants, loans, etc.) and evaluation
  • Which capacity areas are directly linked to accomplishing the mission-aligned changes we are making? (Having a mission-based justification for support strengthens requests for support from funders.)
  • Where do we have additional assets, resources, or capacity that we can contribute to the efforts of partners in our community?
  • Which financial/in-kind resources can we access to augment our capacity in key areas?

As a nonprofit leader, your goal is to remain true to your vision and mission, understand the needs and realities of your constituents, and consider your organization’s current and potential capacity. Gaining clarity with your leadership team (staff and board) in these three areas will empower you to make critical decisions about your organization’s strategic direction for the short-term, and as the world continues to evolve, you can return to this framework to build strategies for the long-term.

Download TCC Group’s strategic thinking discussion guide to start the conversation at your organization.

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