Learning from the Past – Forging A Path Forward

This week’s topic has been dancing around my head for weeks until the April 28, 2020 Harvard Business

This week’s topic has been dancing around my head for weeks until the April 28, 2020 Harvard Business Review Management Tip of the Day entitled: “Leaders, Don’t Just Respond to the Moment, Plan for the Future”, everything became clear. The tip was adapted by the article “Are You Leading Through the Crisis … of Managing the Response?” by Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus.

The day’s tip reads:

When you’re in the midst of a crisis, it can be hard to think past your short-term response. But, as a leader, your primary focus needs to be on the long term. After all, it’s your job to lead your people into the best possible future. To be able to do that, you need to delegate. Trust your people to handle the immediate response, and provide them with support and guidance to make tough decisions. Your time should be dedicated to planning for the future. You need to anticipate the obstacles that will arise in the next weeks, months, and even years, and set a course for your organization accordingly. If you can focus on what lies ahead, rather than what’s happening now, you’re more likely to emerge from the crisis stronger than before.

As the full article states, crises are most often over-managed and under-led and that leading through a crisis requires taking the long view, as opposed to managing the present.

It got me thinking about how leaders in the nonprofit sector have been managing crises. As a young fundraiser, the first fundraising crisis I was involved with was the 2004 Tsunami. No one had a rapid response plan and none was designed after the crisis passed.

There have been more …

Since then, we have been through SARS, H1N1, the Haiti earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, countless hurricanes and natural disasters, the Great Recession, and many minor regional crises around the world. Perhaps what resembles more to the current situation, from an economic standpoint, is the 2009 Global Recession where nonprofits felt the pinch as donors, foundations and governments exponentially scaled back their giving. The worst hit were those organizations that heavily depended on events, sponsorships, and grants. Some didn’t recover and sadly folded.

So what have nonprofits learned? How have they adapted to “crisis-proof” their fundraising programs?

For the past 2 months, we have seen countless blogs, webinars, and virtual conferences aimed at helping nonprofits pivot their fundraising programs. I’ve participated in and have delivered several webinars and it’s been very rewarding to connect with fundraisers from around the globe. It is also wonderful to see how quick and responsive many have been to volunteer to help other fundraisers with short deadlines and no expectation of any remuneration.

A few observations …

What has been the biggest eye opener is how many nonprofits are:

  1. still very reliant on funding sources considered short-term such as events, or raffles;
  2. focused on one fundraising channel; and/or
  3. not adopting a strong, donor-centric approach to fundraising and communications.

It still boggles the mind that nonprofits still operate in this way. We have a problem here folks and it isn’t going to get any easier if we don’t address the elephant in the room! While this may seem like I am blaming fundraisers out there; no, that is not the case. I have been in your shoes more times than I can count… I actually still am in those shoes!

It. Starts. With. Leadership.

Leadership must have a vision. What the nonprofit sector needs is what McNulty and Marcus call “meta-leadership – taking a broad, holistic view of both challenges and opportunities”. By looking at the challenges and opportunities, leadership can set in motion a plan to move forward post-COVID and prepare their organization for future success.

That starts with ensuring that:

  • Funding sources and fundraising channels are diversified,
  • They foster a philanthropic culture centered on donors, and
  • Staff are given the resources to conduct effective fundraising and to respond in crises.

Admitting my own bias … 

I wholeheartedly believe that nonprofits can no longer ignore the power of a strong legacy program. When one considers that an average legacy gift is approximately $37,000 USD, how can any organization afford to leave this money on the table?

For instance, let’s imagine the leader of an organization without a legacy program during the 2009 Great Recession had decided that it would invest in launching a program. By now, and assuming that they continued investing in legacy marketing over the years, they would have a pretty robust pipeline with many pledges and most likely, numerous gifts in the books. 

This could make the difference between struggling to survive and being able to get by during this pandemic.

So how do we move forward?

First and foremost: don’t keep this to yourself. Share it with your leadership. This serves very little purpose if our organizations’ leadership don’t heed the call.

Second: when the moment is right, engage in an organization-wide conversation about what long-range planning looks like in your nonprofit. Collect learnings from this crisis and devise a contingency plan that includes diversifying funding sources and a donor-centric philanthropic culture.

Lastly: expect more, push for more, demand for better. Let’s keep talking about the elephants in the room – heaven knows, there are many!

As for a last call to action to you, my dear reader, what actions is your leadership taking to crisis-proof the organization? What have you seen done that has made a huge impact? Share your perspectives in the comments section below.

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