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The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

Rising Out of Crisis


The nonprofit sector was struggling before COVID-19 struck a blow of unimaginable force. Executive Directors were already overwhelmed, with many questioning their ability to stay energized and continue to lead. Fundraising was a constant race with uncertain gains in a competitive and continually growing field of nonprofits. A culture of scarcity had many organizations stuck in a loop of doing more with less only to do even more with even less, and so on.

When COVID-19 arrived, the crisis forced immediate shifts in the way we work, rapid fire decision-making to ward off existential threats, resetting of priorities, testing of assumptions, caring for our teams, laying out contingency plans knowing nothing was known, and reimagining a future without any precedent as a guidepost. It was exhausting. And scary. And heart-wrenching. And exhausting.

Mere months into the global health crisis that threatened millions of lives, the turmoil was exacerbated by the emergence of a crisis that lay lurking in the shadows for too long – a lingering racist underbelly in our nation revealed in such stark imagery it could no longer be ignored. And nonprofits were called on once again to respond, to take a stand, to support, to lead. The pain was palpable and nearly unbearable. The daily onslaught of the political reaction was exhausting. And scary. And heart-wrenching. And exhausting.

The social, political, and economic strain of this collision of two crises (not to ignore the devastating climate crisis that is burning the west and flooding the south) has stretched the already stretched nonprofit sector; calling on many to exponentially ramp up services to feed the hungry, heal the ill, keep the near-homeless housed, provide childcare for the working poor, advocate for one another, fight for social justice, demand change, and much, much more. Other nonprofits have ground to a halt, postponing performances, canceling events, and shuttering doors until they are able to open once again.

Yet six months in to the world turning upside down and here we are. Many, many organizations innovated to use their assets and talents in a new way to answer the need, to serve more efficiently, to bring art and events to life in a new way. Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs around the country are using their spaces and their youth development expertise to provide safe virtual learning stations for kids who cannot go to school in person but need a place to learn with tools and support. Food banks are answering the call, ramping up their forces, resources, and distribution operations to feed millions more people as lines stretch to unimaginable lengths. Opera houses are bringing the beauty of their music to neighborhood streets to lift hearts and help neighbors endure stay-at-home orders.

Organizers have galvanized thousands together in protest for months with no pause. Advocates have stuck with the fight for justice unwilling to be deterred by their pain and exhaustion. Black Lives Matter has withstood a gargantuan onslaught of propaganda and hate to become a visible, enduring, and transformative driver of the anti-racist discourse emerging across our nation.

It’s been amazing to witness organizations rise and lead. The nonprofit sector has borne so much in these six months. And we still don’t know how long this will drag on. But we have learned several important things about ourselves as a sector:

  • Nonprofits are resilient and will always find a way to answer the need for our communities
  • The resources exist when the will exists: donors will step up when they are compelled to answer the call
  • Nonprofits are capable of incredible innovation, flexibility and rapid change
  • Leaders will make the tough choices needed when their existence is on the line
  • Organizations will come together and show the world what true collaboration looks like

These are things I was pondering prior to the crisis – was the nonprofit sector able to focus, pivot, innovate, secure the resources, collaborate, and lead the way with enough strength and fortitude to remain relevant and sustainable as a sector? The crisis has illuminated that the answer is a resounding YES! I’m exhilarated by that clear response.
My optimism is not intended to overlook the incredible sacrifices nonprofits have made. Nor the losses of jobs and entire organizations. According to the Monitor Institute by Deloitte, “Early estimates of contraction in the nonprofit sector range from 10 percent to as high as 40 percent.” And Yahoo! News recently cited that, “Already more than one million nonprofit employees have been laid off.” Staggering numbers.
The crisis has loomed larger than any other we have faced in generations. We will not come out unscathed. But from what I see, we will come out wielding the tools to thrive into the future.