The World is in Crisis — Now is the Time for Your Nonprofit to Act

Learn how your nonprofit can create greater impact by embracing the following tactics during the coronavirus crisis. A possible silver lining to this pandemic?

June 3rd Articles 6 min read
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By Eric Ressler

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages global healthcare systems and economies, the entire planet is watching to see what kind of world COVID-19 will leave in its wake. One thing is certain: Things won’t be the same as they were before. History shows that pandemics almost always trigger rapid, radical societal changes — changes that persist long after a pandemic fades away.

That’s a fact that should have special resonance for those of us in the social impact space. Our present pandemic represents a two-sided coin. On one side, the pandemic is shedding stark new light on many of the world’s greatest structural ills, from the ever-widening wealth gap to the lack of universal healthcare to systemic racism. This crisis is uncovering the intractably deep roots of the many problems nonprofits work so diligently to address. And it’s demonstrating how fragile our broken systems really are.

On the other side, the massive wave of disruption caused by the pandemic is itself a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity. Every major system — from the federal government and healthcare to education— is currently scrambling to find a new equilibrium. As the tectonic plates of these interconnected systems grind and buckle against each other, wholly new structures will form. A decade’s worth of change will take effect in a blink of an eye.

With so much in flux, savvy nonprofits are in a unique position to effect deeper, lasting social and environmental change. That means moving from relief to reform — and all the way to revolution. As Rahm Emanuel so aptly put it, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste … it's an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before."

Paralysis Isn’t an Option: Nonprofits Must Mobilize to Create Long-Lasting Change

The coronavirus pandemic is heartbreaking on so many levels. It is demonstrating the ways in which our broken system fails the most vulnerable people — especially in times of crisis. As millions lose their jobs, as underpaid service-industry workers risk their lives to keep grocery shelves stocked, and as people of color die in disproportionate numbers, the structural inequities that have long haunted our society are laid bare.

The pandemic is putting the world under a magnifying glass. And in many ways, the view it is offering is dispiriting.

It would be all too easy to be blinded by the carnage of the crisis. Or to feel helpless in the face of the deep injustices that are baked into our present-day systems. Or simply to feel tired of all the bad news and dark projections.

But now is not the time for paralysis. If the pandemic can be said to have a silver lining, it’s this: The cultural norms, barriers, and structures that made up the pre-COVID-19 world are now in a state of rapid flux. At the same time, many people are waking up to the societal inequities that nonprofits have long been working to shed light on.

In this time of rapid change and increased attention, your leadership is needed more than ever before. When it comes to effecting deep and lasting changes, you may never again have an opportunity quite like this.

Just the thought of taking on more than you are already dealing with might seem overwhelming. You're already feeling the pressure. You may be working with a shoestring budget and reduced staff and volunteers. The message isn’t that you must work harder or become superhuman. But you should recognize that the work you do has the potential to be more impactful than ever — if you play your cards right.

It’s up to all of us to ensure that the rapid change taking place works for those who need it most, both in the short and long terms. As Frank Snowden said, "the ideas in people’s heads make an enormous difference. Just because we have these vulnerabilities in a globalized world doesn’t mean we have to succumb to them.”

How Your Nonprofit Can Drive Impact in a Time of Upheaval

Consider embracing the following tactics if you want to effect deeper changes during these turbulent times.

  • Think big. The world is in flux. The constraints you previously took for granted may no longer apply. Put yesterday's assumptions behind you and ask yourself: What change would you want to create if you had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually make it happen?
  • Develop or update your theory of change. Has your organization developed a rock-solid theory of change to communicate your organization’s unique approach? If not, now is the time to do so. On the other hand, if you do already have a finalized theory of change, reassess it based on your new reality. Make sure that If you broaden your goals or adjust your approach, those changes are reflected in your theory of change.
  • Build consensus to amplify change. The biggest societal changes never happen in isolation. Instead, they are built on coalitions of like-minded groups and individuals working in partnership to achieve the same lofty goals. It’s probably unrealistic to expect that your organization can do it all alone. Instead, find ways to link up with synergistic partners in the nonprofit, activist, and business sectors. By building consensus around shared goals, you can begin to weave together a broader network that has the collective strength to achieve the impossible.
  • Leverage digital platforms to mobilize your base. Whether your community is sheltering in place or slowly working up to a phased reopening, the current mandate to socially distance means more people than ever are engaging primarily through digital channels. Shift all of your available resources into digital and leverage those channels to mobilize your base. Whether you want to raise awareness, spark action, or raise funds, you must develop engaging, relevant content with clear calls to action. Develop engaging content that includes clear calls to action and promote it across all of your channels.
  • Embrace your inner policy wonk. No matter what your nonprofit organization does, the issue you are committed to has deep systemic roots. Your own work may not involve government policy. But many of the biggest societal changes necessarily include a legislative component. Now is the time to tap into your issue’s larger systemic origins and help move the needle. That doesn’t mean your organization should suddenly spin up its own political advocacy arm (though you shouldn’t automatically assume that’s off the table, either). Instead, consider partnering up with a like-minded organization that already has strong policy expertise and capabilities. Find ways to help each other maximize impact and create the systemic change you wish you to see in the world.
  • Hold politicians and elected representatives accountable. Be strong in holding politicians and elected representatives accountable for their actions. Use grassroots mobilization and civic engagement to organize around the issues that are core to your mission and vision.
  • Motivate your base with inspiration, not fear. The pandemic and the havoc it is wreaking are overtaking our news feeds and psyches. People are anxious and overwhelmed — they are looking for crumbs of hope to hang onto. And you have their attention. Show your supporters that you have a vision for a better future and activate them with inspiration rather than fear. Don’t whitewash the truth, even if the truth is frightening. But do lead with a message of hope by showing people that they have the power to contribute to a brighter future.

The coronavirus pandemic is a generation-defining moment in history. Your organization has the wherewithal to endure this crisis. And the power to leverage this uniquely awful moment and use it to transform the world into a better place for generations to come.

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