Our most memorable heroes are forged through crisis.
A half-finished Capitol dome marked the Washington skyline in 1861 as war began to tear the nation apart. Montgomery Meigs, head of the project, immediately halted the dome’s construction so that funding for the preservation of the Capitol could be redirected to the preservation of the very Union it represented.
But President Lincoln insisted on completing the Capitol dome as planned. “If people see the Capitol going on,” he said, “it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” In 1865, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address at the fully finished dome.
In his quest to reunify America, Lincoln started other projects as well. He authorized a transcontinental railroad, signed the Land Grant College Act, approved the founding of the National Academy of Sciences, and worked to preserve what would become Yosemite National Park.
Lincoln’s decisions as a leader presumed that the nation would survive and one day return to normal. He did not let the cataclysm of the Civil War stop him from investing in other important endeavors that would be beneficial for generations to come.
Lincoln’s steady leadership through crisis should serve as a model for us as the COVID-19 coronavirus ravages our nation’s public health, economy, and way of life.
Invest in Innovation Now
Just as Meigs’s first instinct was to halt construction, many leaders in the nonprofit world scale back investments and innovations during crises. It may be counterintuitive, but historically there’s no better time to fund programs you think have a promising return on investment.
Despite the Black Monday market crash in 1987, the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, 9/11, or the 2008 housing collapse, Americans’ donations to charity have consistently increased since (at least) 1975. The nonprofit executives who remain calm through crisis and lead in light of this reality have been the ones to come out of each pandemic all right.
The same is true in the business world.
A 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review chronicled the responses of 4,700 companies in economic downturns of 1980-2000. Guess what repeatedly set apart the 9 percent that flourished postrecession? Not swift, deep cuts in every category, but rather necessary cuts coupled with aggressive investments in research and development.
Nonprofits have a great deal to learn and apply to their equivalents of R&D—especially development and fundraising.
The disruptions of the COVID-19 crisis make judicial cutbacks inevitable for nonprofits. We’ll need to curtail some fun team activities, postpone or reimagine revenue-driving events, and suspend travel to meet donors face-to-face.
However, now is the perfect time for nonprofits to invest boldly in our people, programs, and philanthropic supporters.
"People Are Policy"
There’s an old Washington axiom: “People are policy.” The truth of that saying is timeless and shouldn’t diminish in the midst of a crisis.
During COVID-19, we must first look to invest in strengthening the bonds within our teams. Personal, individual check-in calls with each member of your team to ensure that they’re staying safe, healthy, and connected can go a long way. Your staff members want to know they’re a valued part of your team. When leaders prioritize making contact with frontline staff, it fosters the team unity that’s especially important in a pandemic.
Overcommunicate your decisions for adjusted goals and priorities. A high degree of clarity will allow you to be transparent, put people at ease, and keep everyone pursuing the same goals together. My organization has done this by implementing a regular all-staff call for our executives to share professional and personal updates.
Be as flexible as possible. The typical 9 to 5 isn’t going to work well these days. Allow your team the freedom to work around a spouse’s schedule, children’s newfound home-schooling needs, or care for vulnerable family members.
Empower people to explore new opportunities. I’ve been able to find enough training webinars to last a year of social distancing. Or maybe someone is eager to learn new skills by trying new responsibilities. Let them take advantage of extra free time and cross-train for another role.
Making these investments in your people will show them you care and engender increased loyalty. Your goal here should be to have your people saying, “My organization is the absolute best place to work!”
Our second investment as nonprofit leaders should be to experiment with reimagined pathways to achieve our yearly goals.
We can’t be on autopilot anymore. Look at your playbook from the start of the year and be willing to ignore sunk costs to re-evaluate what is best moving forward. And re-examine your decisions at a more regular interval, since new information is pouring in every day.
Increase your tolerance for risk. Forget “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s broke. Change can help.
In many ways, it’s impossible to carry out the same strategies that were in place before the coronavirus. So test your programs’ underlying assumptions, dive into that effort you’ve always wanted to try, or curtail something to see if it is actually necessary. After all, good leaders understand the importance of taking well-reasoned risks, and they understand that even if a new approach fails, the experience can produce valuable insights and information.
Set aside time for database hygiene and organization. It will have an immediate payoff by getting the right crisis communications to the right people in the right way. And a long-term payoff when supporters come back when we regain normalcy.
For fundraisers, invest in prospecting and membership. At Heritage, our biggest periods of direct-marketing growth have come during harder economic times. Constantly check your return on investment, but when others pull back from efforts to attract new donors, it’s wise for you to ramp it up. You may even have more sway right now with list-rental agencies that are looking for business.
Keep in Touch With Big Donors
Just as important, we should invest more than ever in keeping our philanthropic supporters near, dear, and clear.
Are you showing your donors that you care about them like family? Just as with your staff, treat donors like the human beings they are, not like walking ATMs. Now is a fantastic time to check in on your donors and their families. You’ll be surprised how even the most unreachable donors are suddenly open to engagement right now.
Donors want to know we care and that their gifts are making a real difference. Increase your stewardship efforts beyond the typical thank-you notes. Convey messages like “We’re grateful you gave so generously during these chaotic times.” Because it’s always easier to keep a donor than acquire a new one.
Are you telling compelling stories of how your organization’s programs are adapting to these circumstances? Our donors are investors who want to know we’re still doing valuable work that transcends a crisis. Taking a pause won’t fly with them, so be proactive to make your work stay relevant.
Overcommunicate with donors, too, even if it changes the communications schedule you set in January. At Heritage, we pulled a scheduled letter to send something more timely. Did the copy edits and extra 195,000 letters cost us unbudgeted money? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely.
We pivoted to a message that would resonate and provide pertinent information. Which, in a time when donors are scrutinizing how our organizations respond, has been immensely valuable. And being gracious about short-term losses now can lead to a long-term increase in lifetime donor value.
At some point, the COVID-19 pandemic will end, and we’ll return to normal. When it does, the institutions that come away flourishing will be those that continued to invest in their people, programs, and philanthropic supporters. Steady leadership through crisis can even result in leaving the crucible with renewed vision, priorities, and drive.
To co-opt the words of Lincoln, if people see our nonprofits going on, it is a sign we intend the nation shall go on. Let’s make what we can of this trying, unprecedented coronavirus era and emerge better than before.
This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy