How will the COVID-19 pandemic change our nonprofit world? Answering that question requires that we first acknowledge some difficult truths. At the time of writing, we don't know the full extent to which COVID-19 will cause some nonprofits to close, merge, or permanently alter their strategic direction and operations. The most vulnerable organizations, particularly the ones already seeing changing demographics, declines in demand, and shifts in cultural tastes, will be the hardest hit and will face the biggest challenges.
As revenues decline and costs increase, organizations must evaluate the allocation of resources. Among the many lessons taken from the great recession is that relying on layoffs for short-term budget relief results in long-term organizational damage by killing innovation, risk-taking, and morale. The one certainty is that life for all of us will be different after this pandemic. Organizations able to recalibrate will thrive.
We have reached out to nonprofit leaders to learn their thoughts.
Tania Castroverde Moskalenko, executive director at the Miami City Ballet, Florida’s largest performing arts organization, has it right. “We are a resilient organization with an agile and resourceful team that leans on each other as we prioritize and execute. By April of 2021 I think that many nonprofits, specifically arts and cultural organizations, will have disappeared as a result of this global pandemic. Many of these institutions were already in precarious financial positions and the current crisis will only exacerbate the difficulties. I don’t know of any nonprofit organization that was prepared for an unprecedented disruptive global crisis like COVID-19.”
Lisa Watson, principal with the Watson Consulting Group and former CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, shared, “Nonprofits have been in some ways the equalizer of our country, being the voice of the people and filling gaps for needs not met by government. In down economies, the arts find it most difficult to raise funds in contrast to human services, which can see dramatically increased demand for essentials like housing and food. Yet all sectors are valued in terms of quality of life. I perceive there will be a real need for concerted effort to maintain the many benefits that nonprofits make possible in the lives of people in all walks of life. Our hope and mission should be that the important work across all nonprofit sectors be valued not only in the eyes of the people but also in the funding streams upon which nonprofits must depend.”
“As times change, actual new needs will emerge. My hope is that those who have the skill, training, and financial backing will collaborate to create solutions,” offered Carol Horvitz, another long-time CEO, formerly affiliated with the Ronald McDonald House and the Children’s Burn Foundation in Los Angeles.
Trey Devey, president of the world-renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, offered, “I hope that this experience will help organizations think boldly about the range of possibilities to best serve our stakeholders in the future in a more sustainable way. This might involve new delivery systems, the expansion of partnerships, and the development of new workforce skills to name a few possibilities. I think that too many of our nonprofits are fragile and there is room for consolidation so that the nonprofits can operate at an efficient scale for the benefit of the people we serve. This should come with less overhead and greater institutional resilience.”
“I have always believed that good leadership requires honesty and transparency. This seems especially true now. I don’t have all the answers…none of us do in these unprecedented times. As I approach issues and decisions that impact our entire workforce, I choose to do so inclusively. The buck stops with me, and I’ll make final decisions as needed, but I hire smart people and their input and perspectives are invaluable. This also ensures buy-in from the entire team,” shared Jeremy Sidell, executive director of the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.
Leaders in higher education had equally compelling views about the future.
Deborah Obalil, president and executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, stated, “I think the higher education sector will look different in April 2021. Those institutions that were financially struggling will experience the COVID-19 crisis as something from which they can't recover. As more colleges and universities have faculty prepared to use online tools and students become comfortable with them, we’ll probably see more use of them. Not every discipline and course can easily engage with online tools, but those that can will see it as more normal to utilize them. As such, we'll see more institutions investing in having more instructional designers and other support staff needed to best utilize these tools. It might even lead to more access for students to courses and faculty across institutions.”
“The service delivery model in higher education will be changed permanently. In fundraising, it's amazing what can be accomplished with a telephone call or a handwritten note. I believe the trend towards larger and larger online gifts will accelerate,” noted Mark Cole, president of the Miami-Dade College Foundation.
Rachel Schreiber, executive dean at the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York, shared yet another inspiring set of thoughts. “Perhaps you are familiar with the saying that strong leaders absorb chaos, radiate calm, inspire hope. I have been following that mantra, in that order. It is worth noting that, as leaders, we have to take some time to take care of ourselves. I remind myself to take the time to thank people, expressing gratitude for their commitment to the institution.”
“Abiding by the best advice I ever got, 'Act, but don't overreact,' I am able to keep calm while those around me want to panic, thereby keeping those around me consuming information, weighing facts, and making good decisions in thoughtful and measured steps,” noted Jill Barry, executive director of the Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton, New Jersey.
With hope and promise, grounded in social action, we asked our respondents what they hope their communities will say about them after the pandemic passes.
Amy Turk, the newly appointed CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, commented, “As we move forward, I hope that the community will have seen us demonstrating leadership: promoting equity, community, sustainability, and respect.”
Doug Evans, executive director of the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach, believes his community will say, “They had a plan, they persevered, they stayed in contact, and made sure we were treated as a member of the family.”
Never before has the way we live been more challenged or our independence more threatened; but, amidst all of this, we have an opportunity to establish models for the future. Like the leaders featured in this article, we need to think collaboratively, prioritize people, drive change, and reflect on the future with hope.
Christopher Clinton Conway is a globally-engaged nonprofit leader and legal advisor serving iconic nonprofit institutions and high-net-worth individuals in pursuit of meaningful impact and lasting change. Mr. Conway is the founder and principal of Philanthropic Counsel, LLC, with offices in Los Angeles and Paris, France.
Shelli Herman is the President and Founder of Shelli Herman and Associates, Inc., a retained executive search firm based in Los Angeles with a specialty practice in the higher education and nonprofit sectors. With more than two decades of executive recruitment experience, Ms. Herman has a proven track record of successful searches and building upper-management teams, identifying leaders who strengthen their organizations.