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Keys to nonprofit success in complex times

Throughout times of challenge and emerging social trends, charitable organizations are called upon to adapt in order to provide much-needed support, including innovations in health care, access to basic needs, and advancing racial justice with compassion and courage.

Unrelenting focus on mission, dedication to serving communities, and adaptive planning can help leaders prepare for unknown future disruptions, as well as enhancing their ability to advance their missions even in complex times.

Be Tactical: Image of a GPS location pointer indicating a point in a paper map.

If your organization is in a position to help, you may see an increase in demand even while experiencing operational disruption and a drop in fundraising. Focus on what you can do right now with the resources you have.

Communicate & Take care: Image of a dialog box against an abstract field.

It’s critical to keep everyone informed. You may need to use different formats and language to speak to diverse constituents, including staff, board, donors and the population served by your organizations.

Use Technology: Image of a computer with a video button on the screen and soundwaves coming out from the side.

Meetings, conferences and fundraising events can be held remotely with technology platforms – and can even allow you to expand the guest list beyond people who might have attended in-person events. Digital platforms also can deepen and strengthen operational models.

Stay Nimble: Image of an arrow in 3D going over an obstacle and continuing on its path.

Be prepared to adjust expenses, your fundraising model and the focus of your mission – and keep in mind that as you weather the crisis, your needs of your organization and community will continue to evolve and change.

The learnings and best practices below have been gleaned from organizations who have thrived amidst crises, with a focus on operations, communications, fundraising, finances, and leadership.

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Each nonprofit needs to assess its unique operational challenges on a number of factors that include service model, staff composition and geographic location. In addition to thinking through operational contingencies, leaders should identify effective ways to disseminate accurate information to staff, board, donors and populations served by the organization.1 Best practices for operations and communications in uncertain times include:

  • Remain in close communication with all staff members to express concern for them and inform them as new information emerges.
  • Implement long-term operational contingencies such as ongoing remote work options, split operations and shifts where feasible.
  • Find and leverage technology platforms for remote access or virtual meetings.
  • Review key contracts to understand your risks, rights and obligations.
  • Make a checklist of key stakeholders, then communicate how important they are to you, how their well-being is top of mind, and what preparations you’re making.
  • Understand how your organization’s programs might respond to reduced staff scenarios, quarantines or other operationally disruptive situations.
  • Find adjacent allies in the community and/or within the government and communicate your constituents’ evolving needs.
  • Strive to be clear about the communities you reach out to and the languages in which you speak, in order to understand where gaps might exist2
  • Be present on social media with a clear, aligned message.


Nonprofit organizations experience greater success in challenging times when they are able to think creatively about ways to fill revenue gaps, allowing them to sustain their operating models and respond to new needs. The Bank of America Study of Philanthropy3 suggests that affluent donors in particular may be willing to give more during unexpected challenges. Following are fundraising strategies to consider in difficult times:

  • Reach out to all donors to express concern for their well-being and share how your organization is impacted by and responding to the current situation4
  • Analyze short- and long-term funding needs for the organization that can be addressed by fundraising, and build a compelling, donor-centric case to support these needs.
  • Assign a senior leader to speak with each major donor to express appreciation for their past generosity and listen for cues about their willingness to provide additional support (including prepaying existing pledges), keeping in mind how factors like personal or family needs and market volatility might influence their actual or perceived capacity to give now.
  • Crowd-funding and online fundraising campaigns can be effective. Consider leveraging technology to fill the gap from postponed or canceled in-person events, galas and walks. Here are a few examples:
    • Create a virtual conference, charge per workshop view and increase marketing efforts to expand beyond the people who might have traditionally attended an in-person event.
    • Use peer-to-peer fundraising in social media channels. With many donors working from home and using cellphones, deploy text-to-give offers. Building a campaign online now could yield higher results in the future.
    • Silent online auctions can also be highly effective and bring elements from a gala to the forefront of your donors’ minds.
  • Organizations that rely on ticket sales can encourage supporters to consider it a donation instead of asking for a refund.
  • As always, thank all of your donors for their generosity.


In times of volatility, boards, CEOs and investment committees are better equipped to respond to challenges when they regularly review an organization’s spending policy and endowment management practices and carefully consider its full financial position. A few specific suggestions below:

  • Understand and model different potential financial and programmatic scenarios for your organization. Ask for ideas from the board, key finance team and development staff.
  • Determine where there is flexibility in your current spending policy.
  • Have your organization’s board or investment committee meet with the financial and (if appropriate) fundraising staff to determine where additional sources of liquidity might be found.
  • Consider options for emergency cash flow, including board-designated funds and/or lines of credit.


A strong board can make all the difference to the survival of a nonprofit – especially during challenging times.

  • Board leaders should consider making a “resilience gift,” if feasible, to set an example and encourage other donors.5
  • Your board should stay connected to the evolving needs of the organization.
  • Board chairs and executive committees should step up communication with and support for the organization’s CEO—with contingency planning, for example—while maintaining timely communication with the full board.
  • Board and professional leaders should review the organization’s financial situation and the tools available for supporting staff, such as leveraging board-designated funds, reducing expenses and communicating with donors.


Times of uncertainty are unnerving, but organizations with existing plans in place are better positioned to weather them. Nimbleness is important, but equally so is acting in a measured, thoughtful way. Making extreme changes to organizational structure, your endowment model or your staffing can result in potentially unnecessary or unintended future consequences. Organizations caught off-guard by a disruption can take immediate steps to adjust, reduce expenses, leverage partnerships and continue fundraising efforts. Thinking carefully and leveraging your board’s and financial advisor’s expertise can provide continuity in a complex time.

Contact your advisor to learn more.

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