NonProfitConnect’s spring nonprofit meet-and-greet event was scheduled for the same week New Jersey issued mandatory shut down orders. It looked like our recently graduated nonprofit board trainees would not have the opportunity to connect with nonprofits looking for energized new board members. It was the first of the many unprecedented challenges NonProfitConnect, and all other nonprofits, would face due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Buildings were shut down, staff worked remotely if possible, and nonprofits on the front lines of food insecurity and housing needs were stretched and challenged to serve while trying to keep people safe. The level of uncertainty was new, and in some situations it was debilitating.
How do you prepare your organization for extreme circumstances in an ever-changing environment? How do you meet future challenges as we move towards a constantly evolving future? As nonprofit leaders, we are all asking ourselves how we have handled recent crises as leaders of our organizations and how we can be prepared to continue to handle future crises.
At NonProfitConnect, we saw immediately that we would not be able to serve our nonprofit partners the way we had been. There would be no in-person training. There would be no conversations with executive directors or board chairs over coffee to learn how our organization could help them attract new board members or coach existing board members to be more effective. The nonprofit leaders we serve were scrambling to make lightning fast decisions for the very survival of their organizations – while experiencing fears of the pandemic and facing environmental factors that were changing daily. In some ways, there is no way to prepare for something as unknown as this pandemic has proven to be, but in making our organization adaptable and agile, we were able to figure out new ways to reach and serve.
Are you on the same page as stakeholders? Do you know what your constituents, funders and board care about? Have you developed a relationship where they will trust you and partner with you as you head into unchartered territories?
In what can only be described as fortuitous timing, the NonProfitConnect board had recently completed a year of assessment and planning to determine how we could be serving our community better. While we are well-known for our board training and executive leadership programming, the organization had historically been focused on skills-based volunteerism which is increasingly being serviced by online platforms. It was consuming a lot of our resources without analogous benefit to the nonprofit community we have always aimed to serve. In our review we heard from our stakeholders that nonprofits need: strong board members who know their roles and responsibilities, training to build the capacity of board and staff leaders and programs that advance diversity, equity and inclusion.
Are you clear on your mission? Who are you serving? What is your nonprofit’s purpose? Is your board on the same page as your Executive Director?
After careful consideration of our audience and our intended impact, we established a plan to lean into our strengths and focus on core programming. We changed our name from VolunteerConnect to NonProfitConnect, which was more reflective of our work that we do. We updated our mission to reflect our new direction. We also recreated our strategic plan and updated our marketing strategy. Our new strategic plan included two components that have proven crucial for us and for our audience in the months since the shut-down began: offering virtual training for wider accessibility and flexibility, and reinforcing our organization as experts and industry leaders on matters of board governance.
There was some trepidation when the impact of the lockdowns became apparent. We had to ask ourselves some hard questions. Should we continue with our strategic plan in light of the new environment? Should we jump back in with providing skilled volunteers or even traditional volunteers to support the nonprofits needing frontline assistance? Did we need to rethink our entire strategy?
Our incoming Board Chair reminded us of the basics of effective branding and messaging – stick to your mission. We had just spent a year thoughtfully deciding on our new direction. We needed to stay the course. And we did.
Do you have a flexible, clear strategy that is solidly based on your intended impact? How do you want to be perceived in your community? What are your priorities? Will you be able to identify and take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves?
We began creating and disbursing weekly news bulletins starting on March 23 (just two days after the stay-at-home orders were announced) providing immediately relevant and useful information to our nonprofit community. Recognizing the limited time and capacity of nonprofit leaders, NonProfitConnect addressed only one topic per news bulletin – covered by a 10-minute video and no more than three, easy-to-access curated articles. We distributed bulletins on strategic planning, finances, shared services, crisis communications, and equity. The response was overwhelming. The emails had a 27% open rate and we received dozens of grateful responses from nonprofit leaders thanking us for providing the resources they needed as they needed them. We had begun our campaign to build our brand as experts in nonprofit governance and leadership.
Are you willing to explore new ways of providing programs? Will you try new technology? Would you offer programs in new ways? What stakeholders or board members are available to support this transition? Are you clear on what you won’t do and how to avoid mission creep?
We heard from our nonprofit partners that they were interested in recruiting strong board members, now more than ever. And our recent trainees were anxious to contribute their skills and talents to the nonprofit community. We moved all our board training programming online – even the “Meet and Greet” speed dating board matching program. We gave ourselves a crash course in Zoom and quickly were able to use the platform’s features to offer our nonprofits a chance to meet with and recruit board members as they have always done in person. NonProfitConnect had demonstrated that we continue to be a source for board member recruitment and had already checked off the strategic plan goal of expanding into virtual training. We would have typically planned and tested and perfected and promoted in advance of offering something new. Pressed into action, we demonstrated agility we did not know we had.
Our board and Executive Director colleagues were looking for connection and support. We began offering peer circles virtually. This was another program on our strategic plan that we were able to implement rapidly.
When we rolled out our new name and mission in July the changes truly resonated with the community because it matched the work we had been doing for the last four months. The transition seemed obvious and we had positive feedback and no expressions of confusion. One stakeholder remarked “These changes certainly reflect the amazing evolution that the organization has undergone under your leadership.” Yes, we successfully rolled out our new name during a pandemic.
There are many reasons why were able to move in the direction that we did: We had done our homework on community needs, our board and staff had worked effectively together to move the organization in the direction we had committed to moving it, our community stakeholders including funders had contributed to this move and were bought in to the move, and having a plan (that underpinned our mission) in hand made it much easier to take the direction that made us successful.
The time of our transition was stressful. We were making changes during a pandemic. But the thoughtful strategy that we had created in advance allowed us to quickly move our organization forward as planned, smoothly and with grace.