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Seven steps for non-profit leaders to take by January 1, 2021

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

2020 is the year that the COVID pandemic upended everything. Nonprofit organizations who usually take months to make decisions were nimble. Within days of sheltering-in-place orders, remote work systems were set up for staff. Telehealth and Zoom became the new normal.

Fear of getting sick from a mysterious virus spread across the world. People were afraid to go to stores, hug their friends, use public transportation, and send their children to school. If only Contagion, a 2011 thriller, were true. At least in the movie, there was an efficient United States public health system and a vaccine identified in months.

A nation began calling out systemic racism. During the month of June, a stunning 10% of Americans took part in a protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This was the largest protest ever on American soil.

Millions of people out of work and families are hurting. Their misery is in sharp contrast to news of soaring stocks; the best August posting in more than 30 years. The wealth gap continues to grow. State and city governments face record deficits because revenues, which are heavily dependent on income and sales taxes, are tanking. Federal debt nearly equals the size of the entire economy, the first time since World War II. Deep budget cuts and government staff layoffs ahead. Who knows what will happen in November? But no matter what, it is time to move beyond reacting to the new reality to planning the future.



1. Rejoice in your organization’s amazing accomplishments.

Time for a reset. Host an organization-wide celebration of the successes over the past six months. Use this moment to reflect as a group. Ask questions. Celebrate lessons learned. Say thank you. Tough times are ahead. Now is a time to feel good.

2. Make changes to your line-up.

The President makes changes to his Cabinet every term and often more frequently. Not true for nonprofit leaders. This is a time to break the pattern. What fault lines were revealed during the organizational response to the crisis? Who- Leadership team, Board, staff- were huge assets in making it happen? Who helped frame and implement decisions quickly, reliably? Who was articulate in laying out the metrics of success to celebrate progress so that Board and staff were not frustrated by the fits and starts of an unknown world? Who can be trusted to speak for you at Board meetings and in staff groups? Who needs to be brought along? Who needs to move on?

3. Anoint a staff member to be laser focused on the outside world. THEN, listen.

Change is coming quickly. What do the shifts- in the economy, public health safety protocols, political leaders and public policies, the workforce, community and client needs- mean for the work of your organization? Emerging or shrinking revenue streams? New workplace policies around public health measures, unions, and the minimum wage? Other innovations to use as a model?

4. Project a vision for organizational change.

Skilled fire fighters put out fires; they also clear paths so fires will not jump. What paths do you need to clear? Look to lessons learned over the past nine months and emerging trends. What programs need to be added or dropped? What organizational capacities need investments or are now a luxury?

5. “Be at the table, not on the menu.” Grow external influence.

Younger voices are moving into power. Most of these newly elected leaders attribute their success to organizing, not to traditional power structures. Knowing that they will be held accountable by their constituents, they are not willing to wait their turn in line to move up into leadership. Senior politicians may lose power.

Map out the power relationships of your Board, your donors, your staff, your leadership team, your stakeholders, and most of all you. Where do you need to build?

Craft a policy agenda based on the mission of your organization and the interests of your community. Where are the most promising, the most needed opportunities to shape the public policy debate over priorities, program development, and funding?

6. Choose the best communication tools to make your message stand out.

People are exhausted by Zoom meetings and Gmail. Yet they are constantly reading their phones. What pops?

What pops depends on the target market with whom you wish to connect. The best choice could be a podcast, TWITTER, Instagram, a webinar, public speaking engagement, letter to the editor, or magazine profile. Might be a brilliant presentation to a Board and staff. Or a creative show on YOUTUBE. Photos, icons, and charts grab attention.

Sometimes best is a personal phone call.

7. Figure out how your organization will address systemic racism.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality. His career was sidelined. Four years later, the NBA and other sports teams conducted a one-day strike. No athlete was punished. Attitudes are shifting rapidly.

Private and public funders, philanthropic donors and talented staff are asking hard questions about internal systemic racism. Already, the New York City government is rating museums on their diversity plans.

And then there is the moral implication of sitting on the sideline. “Save a person, save a world.”

There are plenty of places to start the work. Listen to Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous staff members, clients, and other stakeholders. Talk to your colleagues.

If the first nine months of 2020 are any predictor, the speed of emerging opportunities, technologies, and dangers will continue to accelerate in the new year, particularly if there is a change in national leadership. Are you ready?

— Rakove & Strassberger

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