Nonprofit Leaders Respond to COVID-19 | Part 1


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We are in a moment of unprecedented tumult and change. Every day, nonprofit leaders are challenged to think and respond in new ways, and in a constantly shifting social, political and economic context that leaves even seasoned leaders reeling and grasping for answers.

Yet there are signs of hope. Every day I talk with organizational leaders and hear about the unprecedented efforts of those who are fighting to rapidly adjust their organizations to remain responsive to the needs of their communities during this crisis, in ways they had never envisioned just a month ago.

Over the past month, I’ve spoken and worked with close to 100 organizations in NYC, and I’ve seen this agility and creativity and profound responsiveness play out in real-time. And through this work, I’ve begun to see trends in the ways organizations are responding to and weathering this storm.

This series of brief articles is my attempt to capture and share these lessons from the field. Specifically, I will reflect on three topics:

  1. What I’m hearing/ observing through my conversations with close to 100 NYC-based nonprofits: The common trends, themes, questions, and challenges, as well as strategies that organizations are trying;
  2. The questions that organizational leaders are, and should be, considering in order to ensure their ability to rebuild and remain stable post-COVID; and
  3. The types of support that organizations will need in order to thrive in the post-COVID world.


Trends & Themes | Challenges & Questions | Strategies Organizations Are Trying


These themes and trends are in no particular order. They are a compilation and combination of the questions, notes, conversations and insights shared with me over the past month.

Questions About Implication For The Sector
  • Organizations are talking about this as a “Phoenix Moment.” They have a heightened awareness of — and are talking more explicitly with funders, donors and peers about — what this period of time means for the ways in which philanthropy needs to shift to meet drastically shifting — and forever changed — needs of the sector.
  • This crisis has illuminated fissures in our sector that have been there but gone largely unseen. Organizational leaders, and many foundations, are grappling with fundamental questions about the relationship between funders and grantees.

See Lisa Cowan’s incredible article about this topic, as well as a great interview with Vu Le about the true meaning of “organizational sustainability.”

COVID-19 Highlights Organizational/Structural Vulnerabilities
  • This crisis is serving as a “forcing function” for some organizations, requiring them to restructure in ways that may be painful or unexpected now, but that will be healthier in the long run. This has meant that organizations are doing things like streamlining functional decision-making; reducing staff size and layers; redefining roles to actually align with work that needs to get done, rather than being organized around title; and restructuring program models to be more efficient and responsive to community need.
  • This period is highlighting vulnerabilities in internal organizational structures, systems, and roles that may have traditionally gone unquestioned, as well as roles that have not been revisited or redefined in a long time.

For example: Who has been able to fade into the background and is now invisible outside of the boundaries of a physical office? Who are the de facto — as opposed to the articulated — decision-makers and holders of work? Are the systems in place that honor the realities of people’s lives?

Another example: Staff’s ability to be agile and serve as co-strategists depends on whether they feel they have/ or they have been given the autonomy/authority to be decision-makers, and on whether they have the knowledge/skill to truly own a body of work. needs to be agile. Staff’s ability/willingness to step up irrespective of “title” or “role” is an important determinant of the leaders’ emotional stamina and the organization’s overall ability to be nimble.

Fundraising & Finances
  • Organizations that track and understand their donors — who they are, what they pledged, how much they can give, and how to reach them, etc., — have been more effective at scenario planning and at stabilizing revenue in the short term.
  • Most organizations have had to cancel or postpone their planned in-person fundraising event. The organizations that have been most effective at closing the funding gap created by the cancelation/ postponement have been those that are able to let go of the notion that whatever they do will be perfectly branded and pristine in the same way their gala or even would have been. The most effective responses have been by organizations that are nimble, earnest, and willing to step outside of their norms.
  • This crisis has highlighted the critical importance not just of diverse funding, but of a balanced amount of funding across all sources. It has also shown how powerful non-institutional funding can be as a source of general operating support in times of crisis. Many organizations are navigating grappling with an over-reliance on one type of funding.
  • Having a financial runway is an important source of stability and relief, but it’s not the full story. Some organizations have been able to secure funding to meet the budget for their current fiscal year, but they are looking ahead to a cliff; Contracts canceled/ not being renewed; foundations pivoting away from support; lack of support for rebuilding — systems, time for planning, restructuring staff, etc.
Managing A Remote Team
  • One thing that leaders are reflecting on is how much energy it takes to lead a remote team. “Being asked to be a constant stabilizing force for your team is tough. And just because work is remote, people think, ‘Oh, I’m sitting on my couch, so that’s easier.’” People are finding it to be more depleting in many ways because being on video and phone all day requires you to show up in a really different way. There is also much less differentiation between “on time” and downtime. Being really clear about that differentiation, naming it and then holding people to that.
Scenario v. Strategic Planning
  • Scenario planning is not the same thing as strategic planning. It doesn’t serve the same purpose and cannot provide the same level of clarity or certainty, yet leaders are being looked to for clarity and certainty.
Opportunities For New Thought Leadership
  • Donors are looking for organizations to provide a connection to, and insight into, what’s happening on the ground. This has been an opportunity for thought leadership by the frontline organizations that have always been on the ground, and whose expertise and connection to/ ability to be responsive to impacted people is now being newly illuminated and sought after.
Challenges/ Questions Play Out Differently For Different Organizations

The nature of questions and challenges that organizations are experiencing is similar across all organizations but may play out differently in different types of organizations, depending on their size, structure and internal systems. The common themes that have arisen in my conversations are organized around: (1) Organizations that are emerging/ smaller/ grassroots v. larger and more established; and (2) Organizations with different staffing structures.

  • Smaller organizations often have shorter runways and less financial stability in the short-term, but have also tended to be more nimble and have thus been able to reimagine programming and infrastructure more quickly.
  • Many organizations are grappling with challenges that have to do with staff structure and differentiation of roles. These include questions about whose pay can/should get cut and in what order; How to weigh a relative commitment to paying FT versus PT versus nontraditional staff; Who is being looked to for answers/ to carry more weight between staff vs. management/ leadership. Organizations are also navigating questions of internal pay equity — there is a recognized unevenness in what people on staff can absorb financially at the same time that leaders recognize that it can be dangerous to assume that an ED/ member of the Management Team can better absorb and pay cut.
Board Engagement/ Activation
  • Executive Directors are turning to their boards to tap their networks in new ways that have implications for long-term fundraising and board engagement. They are taking the “fundraising hat” off for a moment and inviting their board members to reach out to their networks to simply explore what’s going on in the world right now. They are giving them the tools that they need to have virtual conversations or phone calls with their friends and their networks to ask: “What are you seeing? How is this impacting your sector?” They are using this information as a way to learn about the organization’s extended networks, while also educating new people about the organization, building connections and it keeping their board connected.


These questions and challenges are the ones that have come up most frequently in my strategy calls, conversations, and seminars over the past month. I share them, not because I have answers to most, but because it may be helpful to some of you to see the types of questions and challenges that others are navigating. This can both illuminate potential blind spots, as well as (and perhaps more importantly) reassure that you are not alone in your questioning/ struggling.


Canceling/ Postponing Fundraising Event:

  • How to throw an effective virtual event?
  • How to navigate the fiscal/ accounting implications of moving a fundraising event to a new fiscal year has fiscal implications.
  • Messaging:
  • How to think about fundraising in this climate? Is it insensitive to be making an ask?
  • How to confirm donations and pledges with current funders, foundations, corporations, etc.?
  • How to have conversations with funders and donors about what the next year is going to look like? How much to communicate? How transparent to be? What to ask for?

Cultivation/ New Donors:

  • At some point, organizations are going to need new donors and funders. How to do effective donor/ funder cultivation remotely?
Scenario Planning
  • What is the appropriate time horizon? How far out to plan?
  • How many scenarios are too many/ too few?
  • Who to involve in the planning, and at what stage?
  • Which assumptions to hold steady when everything is in flux?
  • What should drive the articulation of scenarios: comprehensive revenue exercise to understand what is guaranteed and what is less secure? Prioritization of expenses to identify which to cut first?
Leadership & Management of Remote Teams


  • How to balance being transparent with not having answers?
  • How much transparency is too much for the staff? How much transparency will create more anxiety than it will resolve?

Leadership Responsibilities

  • How to balance supporting staff with the enormous amount of work, energy, stress, time, etc. required to steward the organization as a whole — e.g., to make phone calls, raise funds, create scenario plans, work with the board, etc.?
  • How to manage a team in a way that keeps them motivated, connected and stable? How to help manage their anxiety and keep them moving forward as individuals and as a team?
  • How to address the fact that the line is now blurred between home and work. How to make sure people take the time they need?
Financial Management/ Planning
  • How to craft a budget for the next fiscal year when revenue projections are unclear and constantly shifting?
  • How to think strategically about payroll — when/ whether to furlough or do layoffs. How to support the staff in understanding and navigating the expanded Unemployment options?
Work Policies and Practices
  • How to think about PTO — no one is taking vacation; how to craft policies that recognize and support people with sick family members
  • How to re-integrate/ adjust to working in a physical office — which parts of our current reality will we bring with us? How much of the old way to let go of versus re-adopt?
  • How to address the needs of staff who are sick and/or staff who’s must care for sick relatives when we’re back to work. How to do this both in real-time and from a benefits policy perspective? Do we need to adjust our leave policies?
Board Engagement
  • Board members are also navigating crisis and chaos in their own worlds. How to get them to show up during this moment.


I have pulled together a brief list of the fundraising strategies that have been mentioned during the weekly strategy calls. Where possible, I’ve lifted direct quotes from call transcriptions.

  • Canceling/ postponing and shifting to a targeted, time-bound online campaign;
  • Canceling/ postponing and throwing a virtual event/ gala/online party;
  • Canceling and doing something else online, like a storytelling event
  • Postpone and rebrand
  • We are trying to be thoughtful as we create a full messaging plan for all supporters and stakeholders. We’re being very upfront with what we need.
  • Identifying deeper points of alignment between donors and the needs of our clients/ constituents. This pandemic is highlighting fissures in our society that have always been there, but that are becoming clearer to more people with each passing day. Certain groups and people in our communities are being hit harder and will recover more slowly, and this is becoming much more obvious to everyone. And we’re going to donors, funders, and even corporations and saying: “You see now what we have always seen, what our mission has been working on for 5 years, for 10 years, for 15 years. Now is a great opportunity to fight this fight together.” Using this as a “better angels of our nature” moment to message around.
  • “We’ve been trying to use real data to support some of the reasons that we’re asking for what we’re asking about. One thing we’re thinking about right now is trying to identify the amount of money that New Yorkers spend on eating out at restaurants and then asking people to think about the money they might be saving by not doing that as much. This is a way to get some of those funds back directly into the pockets of both businesses and the young people that we’re working with.” We’re thinking about the sectors we’re in and how to use concrete budgeting information to help individuals recognize that they might be saving funds in one area/ space and that those funds can be donated instead to those in need.
Engaging Donors and Funders
  • “We’ve done individual tailored calls with every single one of our corporate partners, foundations and donors. Tailoring the messaging to each supporter is important for securing support this year, and in laying the foundation for next year.”
  • Organizations have been getting on the phone with donors and funders and being honest and specific about the increased need. They’ve been doubling-down on existing relationships.
  • Some organizations have been asking donors and funders for double pledges.
  • Increasing ease of making a donation: “We set up a Venmo account just as a way to make it as easy as possible for someone at home to send however much money they want to our organization.”
  • Use this period as a time to ask advice and build relationships — build a foundation for future fundraising.
  • This is a great time for video storytelling because it’s the way people are going to be getting information.
What Orgs Are Asking For From Funders
  • General operating funding + flexibility around the use of funding to allow for responsiveness and innovation.
  • Advances on funding from the next cycle/ fiscal year.
  • Guaranteed renewal at the same level for the coming fiscal year.
  • Confirmation that basic operations will be covered — rent, health insurance, etc.