Coronavirus Disruptions: 5 Things Your Nonprofit Should Do Right Now


Photo Credit: Covid 19. Centers for Disease Control.


Covid-19 is changing everyday life in ways we could not have imagined a few months ago. In addition to the tragic toll on public health, the global pandemic will have a significant impact on philanthropy, delivery of mission-critical services, and on nonprofit employees. The economic fallout will hit the independent sector far beyond past recessions. Foundation grants, major donor portfolios, and corporate philanthropy budgets will shrink. Layoffs are likely. Yet, the social issues that charities address are not going away. Instead, the mission of the nonprofit sector will only become more important as the world fights the pandemic and then ultimately recovers.


Given the scale of Coronavirus disruptions, here are 5 things your nonprofit organization should do right now:


1. Update and refine your emergency response and continuity of operations plan.


Most organizations have instituted emergency plans and moved to telework as much as possible. Be prepared to adjust the plan quickly as public health guidelines change to protect employees and clients. In addition to health and safety measures, the emergency response should include frequent communications to staff via email, text message, conference calls, and online meetings, if possible. Communicate with constituents regularly on plan updates to deliver the nonprofit mission. Take notes on lessons learned because this way of operating may become the "new normal." For templates and an overview of nonprofit emergency response and business continuity plans, check out this research paper from San Jose State University.


2. Pivot to online programming, fundraising, and events.


For many direct service providers like food banks and shelters, digital work is not realistic. On the other hand, virtual programming can become the focus of operations for the vast majority of nonprofit think thanks, educational organizations, and policy and advocacy groups. If the team has invested in developing its technological infrastructure and online presence, it should be well-positioned to pivot. If not, there are many "work-arounds" and free resources for online experiences. Remember that employees with cellphones can Facetime or Skype. Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Instagram TV, and Twitter are terrific platforms to showcase the nonprofit's ongoing work. Consider these programming and fundraising suggestions:


  • If the mission is education, launch low production online classes. A content expert can film these classes using a cellphone. Many communities are in dire need of digital programming for parents and children who are social distancing. This service can promote your mission and brand and support those quarantined at home. Artist Mo Willems Lunch Time Doodles art classes provide a great model.


  • If the mission is advocacy, consider Facebook Live policy briefings with supporters to update them on the latest developments. Make sure they know that despite the pandemic, advocacy on the nonprofit's central issue remains critical.


  • Ramp up online fundraising but be mindful of tone depending on the Coronavirus news cycle. Small dollar, unrestricted donation requests are best. Ask if a longstanding major donor will match your fundraising request. Tie the appeal to a special educational video or online "event." Encourage supporters to share why they support the organization's mission and enlist them in sharing the fundraising drive.


  • Consider asking the keynote speaker from a canceled event to connect with donors through a teletown hall. Hearing from the previously scheduled keynote speaker could lift donors spirits and remind them of the mission. If a musician was set to perform at the event, request a short, at home video of a "Tiny Desk Concert" to support the nonprofit. Perhaps a donor could pledge a donation for every view or video download.


  • If the mission is arts-related, consider inviting supporters to take a virtual tour of your art opening or watch "live" online as the cast performs a long-rehearsed show remotely in Reader's Theater style. Major donors may support the online versions of previously planned art productions and help expand the organization's online presence. Stephen Colbert's production from his bath tub reminds us that the show must go... online.


3. Talk to donors right now.


Work closely with the finance team, board finance chair, and finance committee for scenario planning. Call donors about the emergency response and continuity plan, the financial scenarios, and digital programming. Enter these conversations with acknowledging that donors are the nonprofit's partners and advisors to get through the crisis. Ask donors to give unrestricted support for operations. Talk to employees about the scenarios and the reality of the financial situation and uncertainties. For a full list of nonprofit resources to deal with the Coronavirus, check out this useful guide from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.


4. Partner, partner, and partner.


Resources are scarce but the need for connection, resilience, and community is ever increasing. Some potential collaborations to contemplate:


  • For educational nonprofits, consider approaching K-12 schools to partner with digital classes and Skype lectures to address gaps in digital learning.


  • For think tanks, hold online briefings for classrooms or supporters about the latest research on the organization's issue. Offer to teach an online class for the local college or university.


  • For direct service providers, work with local businesses and service groups to receive support for food or clothing drives. Ask these partners to help coordinate volunteer opportunities that comply with the public health guidance. For example, volunteers could drive groceries to vulnerable populations, support hospital staff with healthy meals like the restaurant SweetGreen is doing, or provide legal services for nonprofit clients in need. World Central Kitchen has activated chefs across the country to provide meals for passengers on quarantined cruise ships, school children, and at-risk communities.


5. Review the federal stimulus package closely.


The nonprofit community is often excluded from federal stimulus, but this legislation is especially important for direct service nonprofit providers that give care, shelter, and food to vulnerable populations, who may benefit from the bill. Examine what support is provided to constituents and to financial institutions. Approach the local bank to ask for assistance in meeting the organization's critical needs. If the nonprofit organization downsizes, help employees understand unemployment benefits or special stimulus opportunities available to them. If the $2,000 per person stimulus check becomes reality, consider asking wealthy individual donors to donate it to charity. The political landscape is changing quickly. The nonprofit Center on Budget Policy and Priorities is an excellent resource to learn more about what's in the final stimulus package.


The global pandemic will change how we work for a long time. Like many other sectors of the economy, nonprofits will be hit hard while the need for their missions will increase. The key is creativity, partnerships, and frequent communication. We are in this together.



Heather White is a nationally-recognized sustainability leader and nonprofit executive, and expert on conservation law and policy. She is the President & CEO of Heather White Strategies, LLC and former President and CEO of Yellowstone Forever, past Executive Director of EWG, and Senate staffer.



©2019 by Heather White Strategies, LLC.