Turning Adversity Into Opportunity: Adapt. Innovate. Collaborate.
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by Héctor Colón
The Washington Post reports as many as one-third of nonprofits could close or merge due to COVID-19 and the recession.
Like our counterparts when COVID-19 hit, Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan faced significant challenges, including diminished client referrals, restricted reimbursement for services and heightened safety concerns. Without access to forgivable loans, we were left with unprecedented obstacles.
Sound familiar? Our experiences may not be identical, nonetheless they can prove overwhelming
Adapt. Innovate. Collaborate.
Nonprofits nationally comprise the third-largest employment industry, ranking behind retail and food. With the pandemic, our "essential businesses" are needed now more than ever.
Unfortunately, many are barely surviving and in danger of leaving hundreds of thousands across the country without a lifeline.
Some experts have suggested that nonprofits should acknowledge they may have to operate at a decreased size for the long term.
For me, this crisis puts into focus that now is the time for us to adapt, innovate and collaborate.
LSS entered 2020 with a robust fundraising plan determined to exceed industry average with 55% annual donor retention and 70% of retained revenue from annual donors. A paired donor communications plan supported these goals.
When the coronavirus hit, LSS had to rethink plans and quickly adapt. We renegotiated reimbursement rates with county funders, initiated the LSS Response Fund for COVID-specific needs and identified new sources of revenue through corporate, community and private foundation partners.
We worried for the health and safety of donors and took seriously our responsibility for ensuring direct mail was safe, virtual conversations were accessible and giving could occur beyond cash, check and hand-delivered in-kind donations.
Applying a modified donor communications plan, we followed expert advice and moved forward with a spring donor appeal — sharing LSS hero stories and our need for critical protective personal equipment. For the first time, our appeal offered resources to help donors navigate their own job loss, heightened anxiety, food insecurity or housing issue.
COVID-19 also presented an opportunity for us to leverage media. We successfully placed print and digital stories about the ways in which LSS had to refocus and fund our frontline service delivery practices in order to remain open.
The LSS Response Fund quickly grew. Businesses and schools donated hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and food for our homeless and addiction recovery centers. Foundations proactively approved redirecting funds to the hardest hit areas of our organization and opened new lines of support for COVID-specific needs. In just three months, we strengthened key donor relationships and raised $300,000, about 20% of our annual private fundraising goal.
Stay-at-home orders limited direct contact and personal appointments. We are a people-centered business. Over 50% of LSS services are community based with staff providing in-person care for people of all ages and abilities
LSS is also a donor-centered ministry where funding is built on relationships, shared knowledge and proof of impact. Today, it is near impossible to tour a facility, host an interactive event or have a one-on-one coffee chat. We had to find innovative ways to connect with our donors.
To pivot, we purchased mobile giving software and introduced text-to-give options throughout all of our campaigns, including #GivingTuesdayNow.
We ran a number of week-long social media campaigns, expressing clients' increased needs and calls for action.
Through news media, we requested community support to help sew masks for staff and fund the purchase of food for our homeless day centers.
Finally, we purchased multiple Zoom licenses for virtual networking and donor events.
Our mid-year results show that LSS is nearly 35% ahead of 2019 in overall donor retention and is on track for reaching year-end goals.
COVID-19 has revealed how innovative partnerships can emerge in unexpected places.
For example, new mergers sprouted quickly including one with a peer nonprofit that also saw record need for homeless day services due to increased job loss, food insecurity and evictions. Along with a few smaller agencies, we formed a temporary collaboration serving the greater community out of an existing municipal ice arena.
A thriving nonprofit in all times is not only necessary, but possible. These crises give us a chance to look at things differently… not just what we need to do in a crisis… but what we are doing now that can be sustained for the long term.
Let us not choose to "wait it out" …holding our breath all the way to Dec. 31 or beyond. Instead, let's make the time to adapt, innovate and collaborate across our specialties to dismantle barriers and strengthen mission impact for individuals, families and communities for centuries to come.
We invite other nonprofit organizations to join this necessary conversation and share their strategies, tactics and innovations that will help each of us better serve our communities.
Together, we CAN do better because we MUST do better.