2020 was something of an anomaly. Many businesses found their activity grinding to a halt as COVID lockdowns across the nation kept people home for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. 2020 was anything but ordinary, and companies had to change their tactics to survive.
In evaluating the impact on nonprofit organizations, we researched and spoke to various organizations for insight on how 2020 impacted their growth, volunteer base, and fundraising.
No matter how meaningless the phrase “unprecedented times” seems to have become through sheer repetition, it does bear repeating that this sort of economic environment isn’t something that we’ve experienced before. Even during the Great Recession, nonprofits were somewhat insulated from financial turmoil.
As Nonprofit Quarterly said, “Already it is clear to many in nonprofits and philanthropy that it is different this time… This, to put it mildly, did not happen in the Great Recession, when nonprofit employment actually acted as an economic stabilizer—with job numbers in nonprofits increasing even as private for-profit employment fell.”
For many nonprofits, in-person initiatives are the bread and butter of fundraising efforts. During this pandemic, those events have been put on hold. Nonprofits that rely on close contact, travel, or tourism, have been hit hardest.
Democracy Today, a human rights organization based in Yerevan, Armenia, has projects that rely on travel. Previously, young adults interested in political science could travel between Armenia and Georgia to discuss international relations. Unfortunately, that project was put on hold.
This doesn’t bode well for the future, either. Donors are less likely to sponsor travel expenses when online discussions seem to fill the gap, whether or not they’re genuinely an adequate substitute.
In fact, a study done last year found that nearly a third of nonprofits may be shuttered due to COVID.
As the pandemic continues, that number may well increase.
Despite the general economic downslide, there are some commonalities between organizations that have flourished during COVID, such as groups that can quickly and easily pivot to online work, engage with volunteers over Zoom, host events virtually, and use the opportunity to review business practices.
Transitioning to Zoom
One of these organizations is Love Letters for Literacy, a nonprofit that creates literacy packets for underserved families to teach children how to read.
Jordan Grabelle, the founder of Love Letters for Literacy, told me about this progress.
“We definitely saw unexpected exponential growth. It was a combination of two things: people looking for a meaningful way to give back while stuck at home and a concerted effort on our end to recruit volunteers since the need for literacy tools increased when schools closed due to the pandemic. While our growth dramatically increased when we launched our Instagram in 2019, the level of growth post-March of 2020 was unexpected.”
Volunteers can socialize over Zoom while creating packets, which has proved to be an essential aspect of engaging volunteers. Love Letters for Literacy increased the number of engaged volunteers by 300% and children impacted by the program by 480%.
Adding New Programs
Monique Boyd of the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF), based in Baltimore, told me how her nonprofit immediately added a new program when they realized the need for support.
“Some 60% of those incarcerated have not been convicted of a crime; rather, they are jailed because they can’t afford bail,” Boyd said. “This epidemic of mass incarceration coupled with the public health crisis is a toxic cocktail. That is why JOTF, in the middle of a pandemic, created a Community Bail Fund. This particular program seeks to dismantle poverty and race’s systemic criminalization by securing the release for low-income residents incarcerated due to unaffordable cash bail or costly home detention fees.
“We also provide intensive, customized case management to help the individuals we bail out to find the right services, from support to address housing and food insecurity to setting them on the path to realizing their educational and career dreams.”
JOTF’s ability to quickly add new offerings to their community has meant success for both the organization and their community members. The organization increased its operating budget by 25% and saw donations increase by 20% in 2021 compared to 2020.
Hosting Online Events
Chance for Life, a DC-based nonprofit that fundraises solely for pediatric cancer research, saw a similar opportunity. Before the pandemic, the largest fundraising event was a 2,000 person poker event. Since close contact was too risky for the organization, Chance for Life created a virtual poker platform to host their event and has expanded to make the platform, called Poker501, available to other nonprofits.
Some organizations have used COVID as a chance to revamp business practices, install new leadership, and concentrate on growth. One of these organizations was The Ocean Institute, which focuses on education through marine science and maritime history programs.
Vipe Desai, the chairman of the board, offered some insight into what the organization did to weather the storm of COVID: “The Ocean Institute in Dana Point, CA started 2020 off with some financial challenges, and I knew it would take 2-3 years to turn things around. But then the pandemic hit, and while we could have crossed our fingers and hoped for a speedy return to business, our team wasted no time making the changes to our operations to ensure that we would outlast the pandemic.
“I installed a new CEO right before the pandemic hit, and she was the right person at the right time. Our first order of business was to shore up funds, cut unnecessary spending, and put as much in the bank as possible to catch our breath and not have to stress about going month to month but give ourselves a 6-month runway to take our time and plan strategically.”
This 6-month runway gave the organization the necessary time to strategize, and they ended up in the strongest financial position they’ve been in over the last decade.
Desai contributes the success to “an engaged board, incredible leadership, dedicated donors, and an army of staff and volunteers.”
The Landscape Has Changed
The organizations that will survive the COVID crisis are the ones that are flexible and can adapt to changing circumstances quickly.
Some organizations will have this capability baked in; others will need to create it from scratch. Regardless of the size of an organization, whether nonprofit or for-profit, adaptability is essential to survival in 2021 and beyond.
Direct quotes may have been edited for clarity or brevity. Thank you to all the organizations who participated!