It’s no secret that COVID-19 has changed everything. From the way we greet each other, to the way we organize our lives around new realities, to the way we gather – whether as a checkerboard of faces on our computer monitors or in a safely masked and socially distanced way. Work. School. Travel. Life. You name it, it’s changed.
Of course, the nonprofit sector isn’t immune to the transformational effects of this global pandemic. This realization is underscored for me in so many conversations I’ve had of late with folks who know how closely the Southwest Florida Community Foundation partners with the region’s nonprofits.
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In an area particularly reliant on seasonal gatherings for fundraising events that are vital to the financial well-being of so many of our nonprofit partners, I find myself being asked a wash-rinse-repeat series of questions during these unprecedented times. The conversations typically go something like this: How are you and your family? How are things at the Foundation? How are the nonprofits going to survive COVID? Based on recent data, the question is a valid one.
In order to assess regional needs as the pandemic hit, the Community Foundation helped conduct a poll that concluded on May 5 and was released later that month. It targeted the nonprofit community, which represented 97 percent of the respondents, while 3 percent were government agencies or schools.
Taken nearly four months ago now, 52 percent of respondents from 142 organizations reported having less than three months of operating reserves, and an additional 20 percent reported having between three and six months of operating reserves. It’s an imposing challenge that nearly three-fourths of the region’s nonprofits surveyed are currently facing daunting financial headwinds.
Here at the Community Foundation, the expansive impacts of COVID-19 have challenged us to re-examine our approach to our work and to re-think many past assumptions, given a fundamentally altered future; falling back on a pre-COVID playbook doesn’t make sense when the playing field has changed so dramatically.
There can be only so many government stimulus and emergency relief dollars. The question now is, what can we do about our long-term prospects for the success of our nonprofit community, which means so much to so many? How do we reduce the likelihood that we’ll face such economic peril again when the next major challenge hits?
Particularly in fundraising event-centric Southwest Florida, an understandable conclusion is drawn when we can no longer gather to support one another: no events = no dollars. And without those funds, the logical thinking goes, we begin to wonder if a host of nonprofits can survive.
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The road to a positive answer entails the convergence of two related paths: those of us in the nonprofit community reimagining how we collectively work, and philanthropists reweighing elements that comprise investment decisions in a way that will better sustain the nonprofit missions they care so deeply about – doing so will empower the nonprofit community to significantly reduce the chances of reliving the state of extreme financial distress many now face.
As in the past when our community has had to rally to meet a challenge, having conversations and sharing ideas is a sound beginning. Where do we start the discussions?
Corporate mergers in reaction to market pressures will often grab headlines, and so such a strategy for nonprofits can be one of the first thoughts that come to mind. But not so fast: while in some cases a merger might be the result of innovative thinking and lead to an optimal outcome, there are many reasons why that shouldn’t necessarily be the first go-to; there’s an entire spectrum of strategic options to consider first. For instance, imagine the possibilities of inventive strategic alliances or mutually beneficial partnerships among nonprofits as well as potential public-private partnerships that could realize both sustainable operating efficiencies and amplified collective impact.
Whatever organizational outcome is envisioned, sustainability is key – if an impassioned nonprofit helping to elevate lives and create a more thriving future for all of us is not sustainable, then the effort will ultimately be a lost opportunity.
The second path to the answers we seek is related to this key issue of sustainability and resiliency. It’s a matter that speaks to a long-held philanthropic success metric and the very definition of that metric: the age-old tenant that views the percentage of dollars spent on overhead vs. programming as a measure of organizational effectiveness.
While financial stewardship must, of course, remain a fundamental cornerstone, much thought in philanthropy has focused on the notion that if “organizational effectiveness” is the goal, then a conversation about measuring it as impact and outcomes instead of a race-to-the bottom ratio is a discussion worth having. A commitment to invest in the overall financial stability of nonprofits by considering overhead and operating reserves as mission-critical to organizational health could go a long way as a preventative measure against future economic shocks like the one we’re experiencing.
As COVID-19 has pressed a pause button in our lives and provided the time and opportunity to reassess options, I look forward to conversations that could lead to pathways we’ve yet to consider when it comes to our collective efforts to generate the most impact per dollar and how we as a community might support nonprofits in new and different ways to supplement event fundraisers.
Thanks to the innovative vision and commitment of our partners in the nonprofit and business communities, along with governmental leaders and generous donors, Collaboratory has been built for this moment when a coordinated response is essential. A moment in which our shared futures are focused on preserving a thriving Southwest Florida that is more resilient for having stood strong, together, through a 100-year storm of a different kind.
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