Fairmount Ventures has been reaching out to nonprofit leaders over the past few months to learn how they are responding to the COVID crisis in order to glean lessons learned to inform the sector. Here’s what we’ve found: leaders who were savvy and forward-thinking before the crisis are bringing that same idea-generation approach to the world they are navigating today. While every organization faces its own amalgam of internal circumstances and external challenges, our team has identified some useful approaches worthy of closer examination.
Here are the archetypes we are seeing:
- The Pivot. Tim Whitaker at Mighty Writers shifted writing classes online but found that many families of program participants have a desperate need for food, diapers, and basic goods. In response, the organization converted some of its teaching locations into temporary distribution sites that donors are generously supporting. Mighty Writers’ pivot was to serve its students and families in a way that they need the most right now, while continuing its core work with youth.
- The Accelerator. Mary Arthur’s Campaign for Working Families assists thousands of families each year with completing their tax returns and securing financial entitlements. The organization has long considered how it could expand its reach through virtual services, but hadn’t yet made the leap. COVID required a jump-start to this new digital platform, to great success, as the tax filing deadline was extended through the early months of the pandemic. Adversity has proven to be the mother of acceleration, with back-burner ideas advanced forward.
- The Re-negotiator. Betty Andl-Petkov at PATH and other behavioral healthcare providers have been discussing telemedicine for several years, but funders and public regulators created multiple roadblocks to include HIPAA compliance, technology standards, and billing requirements. Faced with the pressing need to continue to serve very vulnerable people, providers re-opened the issue to make a compelling case for a fresh look at an old topic. Post-COVID, this game-changing advocacy is positively transforming access to care in ways that can only begin to be measured.
- The Re-imaginer. Long before COVID, Josh Sevin realized that International House Philadelphia’s mission of making Philadelphia welcoming to the international community no longer requires a residential facility for students. The mission and benefits of being a global city, however, are greater than ever before. Rather than invest time and funds in needed capital improvements in the physical structure, International House set on a path of reimagining how it can redeploy its assets to advance the mission by launching new, unique programming that can be financed by selling the building.
- The Planner. There’s no sugar-coating it: Crystal’s Service Center* will experience painful budget cuts in public funding at a time when community needs have skyrocketed. Clients, staff, and the board are demoralized. While still needing to deal with the present, she began a forward-focused planning process so everyone can help define what the Center can look like and be doing in the future. Creating a shared aspiration motivates Crystal and her team to manage through the day-to-day, and provides the narrative she uses in seeking philanthropic support for both short-term needs and long-term goals.
*Maintaining anonymity since planning is still in progress
Each of these leaders follows the insights of Peter Drucker in his seminal article, The Theory of the Business. Namely, when the external environment changes, organizations must adjust their internal operations if they are going to continue to pursue the same mission. This may entail revisiting the mission to assure that it provides guidance regarding the organization’s big picture purpose and aspirations. It certainly requires thoughtful, clear-eyed planning.
At Fairmount Ventures, we don’t hold the conceit to have all the answers. Nor do we think everything is going to be just fine: lots of people and organizations are hurting now and others are still likely to do so. Our day-to-day motivation lies in helping nonprofit leaders think through their best options, develop strategic and actionable plans for the future, and then pursue the resources to realize them. In a time of incredible uncertainty, unrest, and injustice, our social impact mission is our guiding GPS. We can help recalibrate yours, too.
Let the Planning Begin
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