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How can nonprofit leaders battle through tough times? Put your employees first.

By Liz Schroeder
A stressful 2020 likely will get even more challenging for many nonprofits in the coming year. Amid the COVID-19 recession and high unemployment, charitable giving continues to fall. The fallout has been deep, with cuts to groups and vulnerable Americans who rely on charitable organizations for support, services and care. 

According to Giving USA’s annual report on philanthropy, donations to U.S. charities totaled nearly $450 billion in 2019. But looking ahead, charitable organizations predict that donations will continue to take a hit and could fall by at least 20 percent in the coming year according to the Charities Aid Foundation of America

And a new nationwide poll of Americans earlier this month found that 35 percent of Americans expect to donate less money or no money to charitable causes in the coming year. Moreover, the giving landscape is shifting by demographics. Younger Americans (18-34) are more likely to direct their giving to racial justice, education, and health-related causes while older Americans (55 and older) are more inclined to give to religious organizations.

The nonprofit workforce toll also has been painful thanks to a decline in giving. An estimated 1.6 million nonprofit workers have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, and may not regain those jobs anytime soon according to the Center for Civil Society Studies (CCSS) at Johns Hopkins University. More broadly, the nonprofit sector is the third-largest private employer in the U.S., with more than one million nonprofits employing about 10 percent of the total private sector workforce.

Nonprofits hit by decline in support

35% of Americans expect to donate less money or no money to charitable causes in the coming year.

This double whammy—cutting services and staff—is threatening the impact and viability of many nonprofits. And similar to private sector corporations, nonprofits that are able to innovate, change, and pivot are best positioned to survive and emerge even stronger in a post-pandemic world.  

And what is central to the innovative strategic thinking and actions that nonprofits must take in the face of the COVID-19 crisis?  Employees. 

But like all workers, nonprofit employees are under stress, coping with fewer resources and higher demands, and perhaps lacking the support, training, technology, and tools they need to re-calibrate. But there are actions nonprofit leaders take now that will empower its workforce to quickly map out a strategic path forward.

Address employee burnout.

Across the board, employees were burned out before the pandemic, and it’s getting progressively worse as the crisis lingers. A majority of U.S employees (58 percent) are burnt out, up from 45 percent in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. And more than one-third (36%) of employees say their organization is not taking action to combat employee burnout. 

Don’t be that nonprofit. Burnt out employees are hanging on by a thread and can’t deliver innovative thinking and quick action that will make or break a nonprofit. The first step is to take a burnout pulse across the employee base—and be specific. Poll employees on how they are feeling, understand the causes, and find out what changes will alleviate their stress. It may mean making small or big changes—from adjusting workloads to allowing more job flexibility to strengthening wellness programs. And be sure this isn’t just a one-off survey—make it an ongoing effort so you can measure progress and adjust your efforts along the way.  

Rethink how technology can help employees. 

Most nonprofits aren’t taking advantage of the vast array of technologies that can empower employees to do their jobs better and more efficiently. For example, nonprofits often have an overabundance of data, but aren’t harnessing the power of the information. Nonprofits may have technologies already in place, while CRM software, cybersecurity platforms, and engagement tools are increasingly accessible and affordable. Yet the nonprofit sector lags when it comes to using technologies. According to the NetChange survey of technology use by nonprofits, only 11 percent view their organizations’ approaches to technology as highly effective. That means “nonprofits are leaving significant impact on the table.”

Don’t be that nonprofit. Now is the time for nonprofits to examine and rethink their overall technology and digital strategies. This means taking a big picture look at what technologies are already in place that can help the organization better and more efficiently deliver on its mission—or find cost-efficient new technologies. The key, however, is to include employees in these conversations and decisions—don’t just leave it to leadership and the IT department. That’s a mistake many organizations make—just 19 percent of U.S. employees say their company invests in the right technologies to help employees do their job. Or employees aren’t trained to use technologies that already are in place. Ultimately, a strategic and robust re-thinking of technology can not only help nonprofits survive in the short-term, it can better position them for success over the long-term. 

Upskill your employees.

Nonprofits are asking a lot of beleaguered employees right now. Increased workloads to compensate for layoffs, responding to donors’ changing needs, coping with fewer volunteers, or figuring out how to use new technologies in a work from home environment. But asking employees to innovate under pressure absent providing the requisite learning and training is a recipe for disaster. 

Don’t be that nonprofit. Employees learning not only improves performance, it boosts morale. Employees are getting the skills they need to deliver and they feel valued when their employers invests in their professional development. Nonprofits must re-examine their training program (or establish a program) and assess what skill sets are needed to stabilize your nonprofit today and strengthen it in the years to come. For example, deploying new technology likely is central to the business strategy of many nonprofits, but employees who can’t use these tools won’t be successful. Likewise, more personalized and donor-centric communications and engagement will be essential to a nonprofit’s success. It takes skill building and focused engagement with colleagues to develop fresh, effective approaches to internal and external communications.

For certain, 2020 is a year we all want in our rearview mirror. But rather than lament the havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked, nonprofits can leverage the crisis as an accelerator to organizational changes that likely have been long overdue.