Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash
5 min Read
March 31, 2020

Managing through COVID-19 without losing sight of the bigger picture

Recent articles in the New York Times and other media outlets are just beginning to explore the impact of COVID-19 on nonprofits. But it’s been clear to those who work in the sector for some time now: this will hit us hard.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had numerous conversations with nonprofit leaders (and other consultants who serve them). I’ve tried to get a sense of what’s really happening out there, how organizations are managing, and find and share learnings. These are some of the takeaways from those discussions, and a few ideas for managing and leading through these confusing times. 

What nonprofits are experiencing and doing

Most organizations are still trying to get their bearings. 

Many have been focusing on the realities of Q2, like the in-person events and programs they’ve had to cancel, postpone, or move online. Others are still checking in with donors and navigating how to enable staff to work from home with as few technical difficulties as possible. Most are wondering how much they should adapt their fundraising, programs, and communications right now. As the crisis continues to deepen, most organizations are focused on the day-by-day and don’t yet have a sense of the bigger picture impact. 

The digitally fluent are innovating. 

We’ve seen organizations who have been able to act fast and adapt quickly to a fully digital context create impressive and inspiring programs, services, and fundraising efforts. These nonprofits are making in-person events virtual, creating new ways to connect with and support their communities online, launching new relief funds, and more. Their efforts are leading to innovations we suspect will prove valuable over time, not just in the short-term. 

Some—but not all—orgs are feeling the financial pain. 

Organizations with big spring galas or peer-to-peer events are anticipating and experiencing shortfalls for obvious reasons. Plus, it’s too early to say how new online fundraising events will perform. But other nonprofits, particularly those with missions that relate in some way to this moment or who have set up COVID-19-specific relief funds, are adapting fast and raising revenue. We’re also hearing from organizations whose fiscal year begins July 1 that planning and budgeting right now seem particularly challenging. 

A strategy to navigate the unknown

Most nonprofits are debating how dramatically they should change their plans—especially if they aren’t hurting financially. Some organizations are concerned that if they change too much too soon they will compromise their long-term mission, fundraising, or communications goals, or just add noise to an already noisy moment. They don’t want to ignore what’s happening, nor do they want to be totally derailed by it. The question is how to find the right balance. 

It’s clear that nonprofits are responding in many different ways—and that no one has all the answers. A strategy I’ve proposed to a few organizations that I’ve spoken to is to set up two internal teams: a Now Team, who meets weekly and focuses on short-term decision making, and a Tomorrow Team, who focuses on the long-term. These teams can exist at any level in your organization. They might, for instance, be composed of leadership who focus on Now and Tomorrow from a mission-delivery and programs point of view. They could also be teams that exist within a department like programs, fundraising, and communications. Ideally, they are cross-functional, with representation from different departments and levels in your organization so their work isn’t siloed. 

Your Now Team’s mission

The Now Team (or teams!) considers what’s happening in the very short-term and works in weekly iterations. Their weekly meeting might address:

  • What happened last week? (headlines, analytics, key changes)
  • What do we know is happening this week? (impact, anticipated challenges)
  • What is most important for our team to achieve, decide, or produce this week? (key actions, communications, shifts)

Your Now Team should have no more than eight people on it to keep it nimble. Make sure the roles and areas of accountability are clear and that the people on this team are empowered by leadership to act fast and independently. 

As you think about the team’s composition, consider these essential roles: Who makes decisions on the team? Are they empowered to proceed with their decision or is additional approval sometimes needed? Who is responsible for advancing what is decided? Who is responsible for updating others and liaising with other departments and teams? Who is responsible for logistics like sending out the Zoom meeting details or taking notes? 

Your Tomorrow Team’s mission

The Tomorrow Team (or teams!) stays focused on the future. Their mission is to strengthen the organization by working on projects that have longer-term benefits and can help you emerge from this moment stronger. They can be within departments or cross-functional. Their meetings will likely be less frequent and may explore questions such as:

  • One year from now, where should we be?
  • What projects or initiatives have we planned for the future that we should rethink or adjust to meet that one-year vision in our current reality? 
  • What projects can we advance today that will help set us up for greater strength in the future? 

The Tomorrow Team may oversee projects that specific departments can advance, such as redesigning programs to integrate online and digital tools, reshaping plans to reflect pandemic and post-pandemic realities, brand or website refinements, and beyond. 

How we’re helping 

Big Duck helps nonprofits advance their missions through smart communications. We’re helping organizations adapt their fundraising, communications, and strategic plans, refine their brand strategies and assets, and more. 

In the short term, we’re producing a lot of free content and offering a range of consultative services to meet the unique and emerging needs of nonprofits. On Monday April 6, we’re leading a free webinar on proactive vs. reactive communications during today’s crisis. If you’re navigating how to manage your communications right now, we encourage you to register.

If you feel you could use our help please drop us a line—we’d be happy to hear what’s happening at your organization and explore if we might be a good fit as you navigate now and tomorrow.