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Change is coming: four steps for nonprofit leaders

After four years and two months in the wilderness, Americans have elected a new slate of leaders. A path out of the devastating worldwide public health crisis is emerging with the development of vaccines. The promise of substantial change is in the air.

For those of us who work in nonprofits to make the world to make it a better place; this is our time!

There will be tremendous opportunities to shape a new world.

Increasing federal spending is likely to be one of the first actions of the new Administration. Even Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve Chief who has long warned about the nation’s debt load, has said that this is a reasonable time to spend money. (NYTimes, Jan. 2, 2021). Economists believe deficit spending is the only path out of a tanking economy and the horrendous impact it is having on low wage workers. There is even talk of returning to earmarks for special projects.

Fresh ideas will be sought in Washington and beyond. Looking at recent Biden appointments, it is obvious that the new leaders bring a dramatically different set of lived experiences- of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability- to their jobs. The impact is that more people in power can envision alternative worlds.

Never have so many corporations, government agencies, foundations, and nonprofits declared that they are embarking on a racial justice journey. Is this mere talk or something more fundamental? What does this mean for building relationships with big businesses and foundations? What are the implications for partnering with government? Regardless, this is more than a third avenue for helping to shape a new world. It sets up the necessity of engaging in an internal and external racial justice journey

The pandemic forced a national experiment in coping with isolation. Businesses, health care and human service organizations, and foundations barely missed a moment in pivoting to find new ways to serve communities, clients, patients, and grantees.

Now, with a nationwide vaccination initiative underway, some dream of a swift, simple return to the pre-Covid days. Yet the good old days were not great for many Americans. Tired business practices blocked innovation. Systemic racism condemned many to a second-class status. This is a moment when our country can grow less racist and more just, less inefficient, and more equitable. Or slip back into the familiar.

There are a lot of moving parts right now in government, business, and philanthropy. Leaders who prepare now will be ready to go when those pieces fall into place.

Four steps for nonprofit leaders who want a seat at the tables shaping 2021 and beyond


1. Brag about your successes. This is the perfect time to promote your organization’s profile as an innovator and thought leader by promoting lessons learned on the ground in 2020 to build a better 2021 world.

Some of the stories are about new programs, protocols, and practices tested as nonprofits pivoted to keep their communities safe. Other insights point to systems change as the cracks in our public health and other government systems came into sharp relief during the pandemic and during the national reckoning with systemic racism.

For example, community health centers ramped up their telehealth, museums reached new and large audiences through virtual exhibits, homeless advocates demonstrated the ability to get vulnerable populations off the streets, and behavioral health programs used technology to reach their patients.

Non-profit’s capacity for thought leadership and innovation that has earned them a place at new tables – but only if they communicate what has been achieved.

2. Develop your agenda: The country will not be out of crisis mode for some time, but we can start to plan beyond survival. This is the time to think about the next phase, incorporate what you have learned in the last year and be able to articulate what is needed to thrive, not survive.

For example, refugee organizations must plan to restore the services that will be needed for a record number of new arrivals. Performing arts will need capital to adapt spaces to a world that will continue to have to plan for outbreaks of infectious disease. Housing advocates will need the resources to deal with the consequences of evictions.

Think bigger than your organization. What larger policy issues need work?

3. Have the data to back it up and the stories to make it real: Effective advocacy speaks to the head and the heart. Be prepared to show how many people you have served and will serve, what it takes to the work, what your outcomes have been, and the financial benefits of what you do. Bring the work to life with individual stories.

4. Brainstorm with potential allies and wise advisors. Debate with your staff about what they believe needs to change, both within the organization and outside. Set up a zoom meeting with someone from an outside organization or a community stakeholder who you think shares your perspective to see if there is a shared agenda. Confer with Board members and others whom you trust. It is not up to you to do all the visioning.

The times they are a-changing. These steps are just the beginning for leaders who want to shape the post-COVID, post-Trump, Black Lives Matters WOKE world. We write about steps 5-10 in our next blog. Hope you join us.

— Roberta Rakove and Suzanne Strassberger

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