Pivot. I imagine you’ve heard or used this word to describe your nonprofit’s activities in the past year. With the devastating impact of COVID-19 on our economy and public health, nonprofits have indeed had to shift quickly to answer the call of their communities. But, as a sector, do we need to pivot? Or do we need to consider something bigger and more intentional – such as a “reset?” To answer this question, a team of cross-disciplinary nonprofit experts (Kim Bulger of AtigroJohn Gillespie of CRCFO and Susan Kelly of Kelly Strategies) and I conducted a survey of nonprofits in January 2021 to better understand the challenges facing the social sector and gather their top priorities. We also conducted a follow-up webinar yesterday to share these top priorities and tailored, action-oriented advice on next steps for both nonprofits and funders. The presentation was followed by a robust discussion on capital campaigns, dashboards and upcoming Google changes. The following is a quick synopsis as you plan forward in 2021:

Strategy & Innovation/Impact 

I began the presentation by sharing my theme for 2021 – “RESET.” Everything from your mission to your culture has evolved as a result of 2020 macrotrends, so all aspects of the organization need to be recalibrated in 2021. I challenged nonprofits and funders to recognize that the rules of the game have changed. Because of this, there is an opportunity to “leapfrog” – leave behind old ways and adopt new and more innovative approaches to your mission, your operations and your culture. 
 
Key Trends
  • Right-sizing planning for 2021 around “battle plans” instead of strategic plans – recognizing change will continue
  • Understanding that growth is both a wide (e.g., geography) and a deep (e.g., increased impact with existing population) function
  • Moving beyond program delivery for mission – includes full range of social change, including policymovementscollaborations & system change 
  • Investing in impact management – beyond just programs – as a driver in continuous improvement and as a cultural trend
  • Advancing equity as a core value 
 
Key Actions for Nonprofits & Funders
 
For Nonprofits
    • Focus on foundational strategies (e.g., technology, finances, impact) in 2021 “battleplan” to come out stronger 
    • Conduct a needs assessment with paired measures (i.e., quantitative, qualitative) to understand what your customers really need now to achieve your mission
    • Upgrade board roster to focus on areas of weakness and engage in active governance
    • Focus on culture as a key differentiator in attracting and retaining talent
 
For Funders
    • Offer capacity-building funding and/or unrestricted funding to support upgrades
    • Consider community-shift toward data-driven decision-making coupled with action-oriented data collection as well as trainings, coaching and technical assistance
    • Provide joint board-staff trainings on equity
    • Provide streamlined board recruitment, student internship and skills-based volunteer recruitment opportunities specific to nonprofit sector
 

Fundraising & Development 

Susan Kelly, Principal of Kelly Strategies, offered “AMPLIFY” as her theme of 2021 with “a focus on retaining donors in this competitive climate by personalizing interactions and exploring new grant and prospect partnerships.” She also shared that major donors are primed, and, for some, it is time to have “early conversations and test the feasibility of your [future] plans.”
 

Key Trends

  • Allowing for frequent assessments and updated strategies in annual development plans
  • Focusing on donor retention and truly excellent stewardship
  • Re-examining donor types and activities to prioritize potential
  • Building increasingly personalized strategies based on your donor pyramid

 

Key Actions for Nonprofits & Funders

For Nonprofits

    • Infrastructure: Ensure your development infrastructure – donation functions, prospect tracking, reporting – are functional and intuitive
    • Case: Generate a refreshed, timely Case for Support that justifies the need for increased giving
    • Leadership: Encourage your leadership to take an active role in organizational visioning, donor stewardship and prospect introductions
    • Donors: Engage your key donors and stakeholders in your ambitious plans, including starting or revisiting a campaign effort

 

For Funders

    • Integrate “trust-based philanthropy” into your grants strategy
    • Consider add-on grants to your annual recipients for donor challenges, capital improvements and near-term programmatic enhancements
    • Support capacity-building funding for consultant expertise, technology updates and other critical nonprofits gaps
    • Encourage and guide donor-advised fund holders to unlock additional funds for general operating and programmatic purposes

 

Finance & Accounting

John Gillespie, CFO and Nonprofit Practice Leader for Charles River CFO, stressed the need for “ACCURACY” in 2021 by “improving the accuracy and timing of financial statement preparation, providing proactive oversight of your organizations’ finances and shifting to more flexible budgeting processes.”

Key Trends

  • Completing profitability reviews of each program, event or revenue department will be common as a part of the standard monthly financial reporting package
  • Focusing on “less is more” with many nonprofits concentrating on what they do best instead of returning to all pre-COVID activities
  • Pivoting of business models to both scale impact and to create financial sustainability

 

Key Actions for Nonprofits & Funders

For Nonprofits

    • Consider coaching for CEOs/Executive Directors to improve their financial acumen
    • Conduct Financial & Accounting Assessment to evaluate your staff, technology and processes to map out a plan to strengthen your financial statement preparation and financial reporting
    • Focus on improving systems efficiency in all areas of the business to streamline operations and to reduce operating expenses

 

For Funders

    • Offer financial coaching and/or classes to help nonprofit CEOs and executive teams understand their financials and better predict future scenarios
    • Consider shared services arrangements for smaller nonprofits to share bookkeepers, CPAs and CFOs with nonprofit expertise

 

Digital Engagement & Visibility 

Kim Bulger, CMO of Atigro, believes that technology  is now a horizontal and impacts every aspect of the social sector. She encouraged participants to “INVEST” to amplify digital engagement, relevancy and connection. She believes shifts in Google’s algorithm makes your website the “central hub for engagement, connection and revenue generation serving your funders, donors, clients and communities.”

Key Trends

  • Embracing “digital first” for program delivery and audience engagement
  • Personalizing digital engagement tailored to subgroups of supporters
  • Prioritizing audiences with high mission alignment and ROI potential
  • Investing in a “mobile first” website, storytelling and online donations

 

Key Actions for Nonprofits & Funders

For Nonprofits

    • Update messaging to deliver value relevant to new needs and reflect urgency
    • Show more impact through storytelling, videos, key metrics and outcomes
    • Audit your website for mobile-first, search-optimized, fast load and conversion
    • Embrace peer-to-peer fundraising and engagement in online communities

 

For Funders

    • Provide capacity-building funding for digital and data technology investments
    • Offer webinars and coaching to help nonprofit management teams and boards understand the latest trends to be successful in social media and online engagement
    • Assist nonprofits in finding board members with technology, data and digital marketing expertise
 
According to the survey, while many nonprofits were focused on “survival” in 2020, nonprofits are embracing an optimistic growth outlook, with 70% expecting growth in 2021. But, each organization’s experience was unique. Some faced drastic revenue declines and related staff reductions, while others experienced a surge in need, increased complexity and revenue. Beneath those challenges is an opportunity for the social sector to rise to the occasion collectively. We want to thank the hundreds of social sector leaders who took the survey and joined us for the webinar. We’d love to hear your thoughts. And, we hope the survey results as well as action-oriented ideas help you RESET your game plan for 2021.  
 
 
Kim Bulger is the CMO at Atigro. She is an outsourced CMO advising nonprofits on digital marketing, content marketing, engaging websites and online engagement of customers, members and donors.
 
John Gillespie leads the nonprofit and social enterprise practice at CRCFO. He works as an outsourced CFO advising nonprofits on financial operations, P&L analysis, budgeting, reporting and more.
 
Susan Kelly is the CEO of Kelly Strategies. She is a born fundraiser and strategist advising nonprofits on development planning, fundraising strategy, revenue forecasting, capital campaigns and more.
 
Suzanne Smith is the founder and CEO of Social Impact Architects. She is a strategy consultant to nonprofits on strategic planning, growth strategies, social innovation, earned income and more.

 

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