3 Unexpected Lessons Nonprofits Learned from the Pandemic
Nonprofits have radically needed to change their business models in light of the pandemic. In the early days, some nonprofits found themselves scrambling and struggling to adapt.
Two years later, as we compare the situation today against the backdrop of the challenges brought by the pandemic, we’ve been talking to nonprofit leaders in North America, Europe, and Australia. While many nonprofits remain on a curve of continual learning and adaptation, there have been some unanticipated lessons learned throughout this tumultuous time.
1. Hybrid Work Emerged as a Staff Retention and Development Tool
Research by Gallup shows that in 2022, 39% of workers are continuing to work from home and 42% are working hybridly. It’s no secret that workers want these work arrangements to stay. As more and more people are vaccinated and we emerge from the throes of the pandemic, nonprofits have decided to maintain most of their staff working hybridly.
One executive director in the U.S. we spoke to said that workers “Really transitioned well to working from home. I think that has actually been something that they quite enjoy, and I think that has really made a difference in terms of them sticking around.” Another American nonprofit leader told us that hybrid work arrangements serve as a benefit, compensating for the lack of higher wages in the cash-strapped sector: “We can’t increase the pay as much as we’d like to but we don’t have the resources; this is an extra benefit that we can offer.”
Hybrid working arrangements have also acted as a way to allow staff to explore new opportunities within the field while staying engaged, have a semblance of work/life balance, and to stretch themselves and take assignments that they might not otherwise. One Dutch nonprofit leader told us that they had “Been able to move national staff upwards in the ranks and make them more responsible for positions that were previously held by international staff.”
Additionally, hybrid work has led to newly-found appreciation for the time teams do spend together, allowing them to prioritize face-to-face interactions for fulfilling meaningful human needs: collaboration, brainstorming, and bonding. One U.K. CEO shared how his team uses their compulsory office day. “You can see the dynamics have changed,” this CEO says, adding that “People are working much more closely than when we were working remotely. The fostering of relationships is much better.”
2. Circumstances Led to Innovations in Fundraising & Retaining Donors
“One of the real drivers of the pandemic,” a vice president in Canada says, is that “It made us much more creative and looking for creative solutions is something that you might not have that pressure but for the pandemic.” Some of the biggest ideas borne out of necessity revolved around fundraising and donor retention.
Two years later, nonprofits report that digital fundraising, in some cases, actually led to better results. While it might have been harder to find donors, technology made it easier to retain and engage these new donors. At one Australian nonprofit, going digital has meant that donors “Have more willingness or more direct connection to the cause for which they donate. The acquisition is harder, much harder, but retention becomes better.”
Now is the time to accelerate the link between technology and fundraising, employing emerging technology as a way to diversify their funding bases and funding sources. And since digital tools enable nonprofits to demonstrate the value of work being done, and bring donors as close as possible to the front lines, now is the time to capitalize on the increases in private sector funding and volunteering. “There are so many things happening in the field,” one German nonprofit director tells us, adding that technology has allowed their nonprofit to “bring more people to the field than we would have been able to do physically.”
3. Shifting Towards a More Agile Approach to Nonprofit Work
Necessity initially led to adaptation, and respondents say the impact it has caused thus far is an exciting reason to continue. An American nonprofit leader said that it was the staff that helped to drive some changes, saying, “They were more agile. That really helped with morale because they weren’t stuck in the mud. They were open to a fresh approach, new ideas, so they really just threw themselves into it.”
Leaders say that planned growth for this post-pandemic period includes being more open to collaboration with other nonprofits and private industry, and leaning into their skill set — knowing what they are best at and going after niches. In the U.K., one nonprofit is looking at how they can use their reputations, their knowledge, and their skills to “Enter into partnerships with another industry expert to create stronger social enterprises that can benefit both the private sector and the charity sector.”
We also expect to see leaders pulling in help from the private sector, particularly for advice on new tech, or legal issues; and for them to lean on the people in the know e.g., banking partners, or board directors from the business world who have experiences they lack. In the U.S., one nonprofit is leveraging one of its volunteers to assist with highly specialized needs. “I have an attorney, he’s been with me for 10 years as a volunteer,” the CEO says, adding that this volunteer helps him sort through any new rules and regulations as they become available. “He gives me the dummy down cheat sheet,” he concludes.
Looking for more insights into nonprofit trends?
About the Authors
Manager of Research Content
Senior Director of Nonprofit Insights at Salesforce.org
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