I think most of us are relieved to see 2020 finally come to an end. No one foresaw the chain of events that played out in 2020. The year started with so much promise but quickly turned to an unexpected movie-set nightmare. From the pain, sorrow and even fear we learned to pivot, change and be grateful. These are the silver linings that emerged from the disruption and anxiety.
Looking back on 2020 and the many challenging moments, I think it is best to reflect on some of the silver linings and what we learned to help us prepare for the future and the day when true recovery finally arrives.
We were all impacted by the immediacy of the call to action, a call to change and a call to be safe. All the rules of the game had changed. Especially the rules on how we share information, network, and learn from each other. For some, change was driven by survival tactics. For others, the change was viewed as an opportunity to a new world, new possibilities and to be more caring. This is where the silver linings emerged.
For me, the most powerful silver lining to emerge from 2020 was how quickly nonprofits learned to Pivot and Embrace Change. For so long nonprofits have struggled with change, and in some cases outright fought against rapid transformation. Legacy, tradition, and caution often ruled. Nonprofits that pivoted early in response to the pandemic became a beacon of light to other organizations, demonstrating through their operations the advantages of being nimble and abandoning hesitancy.
The next silver lining was an unexpected Leveling of the Playing Field. Operating in a mostly virtual world gave some smaller organizations an opportunity to compete and sometimes pivot faster than larger organizations. This was most dramatic in the new virtual program environment. With large in-person events gone for the foreseeable future, some smaller organizations were able to invade big organization turf with dynamic new virtual programs, compete for members, and offer services on an expanded regional and national basis. It also became easier for smaller nonprofits to advance their brand and voice. For example, access to important newsworthy virtual interviews on national media and with international heads of state, congressional leaders, etc. enabled small organizations to have a nationwide voice without the high cost of travel and demand on staff time.
The financial silver lining came from taking a Fresh Look at Operating Reserves and Burn-Rate. Nonprofits experienced unexpected changes to traditional sources of steady funding. This caused downward pressure on cash inflows. Operating deficits appeared quickly. Operating reserves were under assault. Leadership had to determine quickly how much operating reserves were going to be available for use now and how much to protect for the future. This forced organizations to take a fresh look at strategies for managing operating reserves. Savvy organizations moved towards a metering out approach to wean off their dependence on support from operating reserves to fund deficits. The need to control deficits and pivot to remote working also pressured leadership to reassess operational fixed cost burn-rate, which are driven mostly by labor and occupancy costs. In summary, 2020 compelled nonprofits to analyze their traditional burn-rate and begin to take active steps to control and reposition operating costs to eliminate deficits and position for recovery and the eventual new normal.
The pandemic caused a rapid shift to remote working. This is a new world with many challenges for both organizations and each of their employees, from senior management to interns. The silver lining here is that we are doing a better job of Being Grateful of staff’s efforts and communicating our appreciation of their hard work and struggles during these disruptive times.
Planning Tip – For 2021, make sure to keep empathy high on your organization’s culture list. The road ahead, although expected to improve, will be rocky and unpredictable. Related to the eventual return to in-person working, communicate to staff that their safety, health, and comfort levels are a high priority for your organization. Provide opportunities for two-way sharing of information with staff, check in often on how they are doing, and be sensitive that conditions can change quickly.
2020 was an extremely trying year. Stay focused on the positives gained from meeting challenges and commit to continuing to embrace change. Last but not least, make sure to stay grateful and recognize the individual efforts of staff as we all navigate forward through 2021 and beyond.