by Josh Jacobson

The state of our community right now is heartbreaking. Across the board, people who entered the pandemic in poverty have been most adversely affected. I’ve heard it said that “nonprofits are a lagging indicator,” and if we think it will take 3-5 years for the rest of society to get back to normal, it may be more like a decade for nonprofit organizations.

I write this sitting on the deck of my home. It is early spring, the flowers are starting to bloom, and I feel rejuvenated following a Sunday walk through my neighborhood. On our walk this morning, my wife and I reflected on “how good we have it,” this following a complaint-filled conversation about how limited our lives feel during the pandemic. Woe is us.

Elsewhere in the Charlotte community, families are struggling for their lives. Beyond the challenges of making rent and ensuring access to food are the social and emotional impacts of the pandemic. If my wife and I are feeling that stress, what must it be for families on the cusp of losing it all? How has the last year permanently impacted children? The family unit? How do we come back from this as a community?

These were questions I started asking almost immediately as the stay-at-home order was announced. Even if it had only lasted a few months, it was sure to cause disruption to so many lives. I thought of Freedom School Partners, and how essential their services would be that summer as learning loss would begin months early. I thought about Charlotte Family Housing and the impact of such increased need as rent went unpaid. I thought of Safe Alliance and how domestic abuse would spike as families hunkered down together to ride it out. These were the thoughts with a three-month horizon in mind, much less more than a year of life in isolation.

The work of these organizations and so many more this year has been nothing short of heroic. They have supported countless families with already limited resources, extending hours and services because of acute community need. And for many of them, the work is far from over. Not only will nonprofits continue meeting ever-expanding near-term needs, they must also think about how to adapt to a world that has already changed rapidly.

A Challenge of Capacity

In late summer 2020, another Charlotte-area consultant and I designed a workshop series for the leaders of health and human service agencies focused on “what comes next” once the pandemic got under control. With so much focus on adjusting to “the new normal,” we worried that organizations would be flat-footed to deal with the impact of so much disruption. We sent it to some funder types and got back a largely blasé response. One noted, “I have not found an appetite from agency CEOs for considering these strategic questions just yet.”

While this was not a surprising response, it was (and remains) demoralizing. Organizations essentially had to drop everything to focus on triaging the crisis of the pandemic. Philanthropy realigned to funding near-term needs. Many boards set fire to their strategic plans and adopted a conservative approach to programming and operations. When faced with a crisis of significant community challenges, many nonprofit boards scale back more strategic efforts in favor of immediate triaging of needs.

This is not the fault of nonprofit leadership. To be effective, nonprofits must have nearly ideal conditions including sufficient funding, suitable facilities, a consistent staff with needed expertise, a board that is bought-in, stable access to the audience served… and even then, it is a battle to achieve the desired impact. If these conditions are disrupted significantly, most nonprofits are not constructed sufficiently to get back on that horse quickly and effectively.

Building Nonprofit Resiliency

Our community needs nonprofits built for greater resiliency to combat the changes to the status quo that are bound to happen, and increased nimbleness to not only react to change but be proactive in assuming change as a constant. This takes nothing away from the amazing work of nonprofits in our community but does speak to a need to be able to work on multiple levels – both tactical and strategic – even as the world is upside down.

They are attributes on full display in another section of my house, where my wife is working to support decision-making for a midsize corporation based in the Charlotte region. Due to our proximity as co-workers, I have been ringside in watching how quickly the private sector brings new data forward. My wife Adara works for a company that is essential in nature, manufacturing widgets and system-a-bobs (ok, my words) that are used in keeping systems running. Adjusting to the realities of a pandemic was a full-court press and within the first 90 days included planning for 2021 and beyond. Profit as a motive is funny that way.

Nonprofits were overwhelmed to process the pandemic because they are built to have to justify their staffing. When life throws a curveball, nonprofits are not well positioned to accommodate that new information. Whereas my wife’s company had the working capital and will of leadership to address near-term and long-term planning simultaneously, nonprofits are intentionally under-resourced. Community crisis leads to a “crisis mentality,” putting off until later an examination of what comes next.

What might solve this?

  1. Unrestricted Funding. Increased availability of unrestricted financial resources would be a good start. During the crisis, an outpouring of support made much more unrestricted revenue available to nonprofits to put out fires, but as a rule, nonprofits are not trusted to “do what they think is needed” with unrestricted revenue. Building a more resilient nonprofit sector means investing in infrastructure before the crisis arrives on the doorstep.
  2. Intentional Capacity-Building. The pandemic must serve as a wake-up call to the leadership of local organizations about the need to build change management into operations. The key isn’t to pull back on ambitious goal-setting during a crisis but instead to let new data sets inform the pathway forward, realizing new opportunities to advance mission and vision. That is a hard message for an industry led by volunteer boards who have day jobs, I know. But when the going gets tough, nonprofits need increased capacity to focus on the both/and proposition of crisis response and on-the-fly systemic redesign.

In short, Next Stage believes the pandemic has revealed the need for significant investment in sector strengthening – in quite literally every way imaginable. Community-based organizations and other nonprofits experienced incredible stress that impacted their clients, staff and the organizations themselves. Investment in infrastructure is the only way to ensure that our community is prepared with strong, nimble organizations that are prepared for the next crisis.

We need to take a great big learning from this pandemic and let it inform how we build a better, more nimble and resilient nonprofit sector. Or else we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re largely unprepared the next time nature overtakes nurture.