I spoke at a webinar some weeks ago titled “Rethinking Your Business Amidst Uncertainties” hosted by The Resource Space.
All the speakers were business owners in a range of sectors from jewellery to crafts and education. They shared their experiences in keeping their businesses afloat at this time when people are mostly buying essential items like food and medicine.
And then there was me speaking about what it’s like to run a nonprofit organisation during a pandemic and a serious economic downturn.
Our host, Ikwo Oka was inspired to invite me, after reading a post I made 2 weeks ago on how being resilient has helped me stay growing and thriving in what is unarguably a difficult sector.
The main points I shared for ensuring that your nonprofit organisation survives COVID-19 were:
1.) Keep Working: Some organisations shut down all activity totally, while some shifted to working from home. And how you approach this depends on the line of business you are in. Some fashion businesses started making face masks, protective gowns for medical workers and other essential kit.
For us, as a nonprofit, this meant moving some of our programmes online. Not every programme is suited for this transition, as some of our target beneficiaries don’t have the digital access to make this possible. However, while we figure this out, we are working with those who are able to go online.
2.) Document Your Activities: Very simply put, take photos, share stories and write-ups and videos about your ongoing activities, so that people get to see that you are still being productive.
3.) Enable Remote Working: At my organisation, the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre — W.TEC, we have been able to almost seamlessly move our work online. Yes, we do have that advantage of being a technology-focused organisation already, but any kind of transition (in our case from being in the office everyday to working from our homes) is bound to have some challenges.
We made sure that we provided allowances for our staff to cover the phone and Internet expenses that they would now incur.
4.) Use Technology Effectively: Remote working requires using some form of technology. However select the tools to use carefully. Don’t jump on Zoom just because everyone is using it. If Zoom does not work for your team for whatever reason, then find something else that will work.
Having said that, for people who did not regularly use many digital tools pre-COVID-19, there will be a learning curve and you might be tempted to give up, thinking “This is too hard for me.” Hang in there. I was able to teach my mother to use Zoom over the phone, by guiding her through the steps. So I know that you can do it too.
5.) Carry Your Stakeholders Along: This should go without saying, but it’s amazing how often we forget to let people know what we are doing.
For nonprofits, your first stakeholders are not your funders, but your staff. Without your team, you would accomplish very little. And if you do, you must be keeling over from the exhaustion of doing everything by yourself. Speak to your staff, discuss the ongoing situation and ask for their thoughts on how to move forward in these times.
As leaders, this is a major failing on many of our parts. We issue directives and get frustrated when it appears that our staff seem to show initiative. Your staff are your key partners in fulfilling your organisations’ mission, so you need to give them the opportunity to share their suggestions for implementing your programmes and other aspects of your work.
Many are also worried about job security, because many organisations are laying off staff or asking them to go on unpaid leave. So have frank conversations with them on what the organisation can do for them. This might be a pay reduction for everyone or some people opting to go on unpaid leave. As a leader, if any pay cut has to happen, it needs to start with you first.
Next, reach out to your funders, partners, beneficiaries and other key stakeholders about your plans for carrying on your work during this period. So, for instance, W.TEC has had conversations with our funders letting them know how our programmes will continue at this time, what aspects will have to change and what kind of support we might need to make this happen. We have also engaged our alumnae even more to see what kind of support we can offer them to help them better use digital tools to support their ongoing learning.
6.) Manage Financial Resources Prudently: I hope this should go without saying, but if not, THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO START WORK ON THAT NEW OFFICE BUILDING. Conserve your funds as best as you can. Focus on the absolutely essential services such as staff salaries and the cost of running the programmes that you are able to still implement. It is uncertain how long the pandemic will last.
Although the lockdown is being eased in parts of Nigeria and the world and many businesses are gradually re-opening, the COVID-19 disease is far from gone and the economic uncertainties remain. You want to make sure that you don’t burn through all the cash you have. Be prudent with your funds.
7.) Keep Fundraising: Yes, it appears to be all doom and gloom out there, but funding is still available. Much of it is for COVID related relief efforts, but not all of it is. If you think that your organisation is able to design and implement a COVID-related relief programme, the go for it. The need is great. However, I think you should ensure that there is some correlation with your mission.
8.) Do the Quadrant 2 Activities: In Steven Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he describes Quadrant 2 activities as those activities which are important but not urgent. This means that completing them will certainly move your organisation forward, however because they are not urgent you never get round to doing them. This could include clarifying your mission and vision statements or revising the protocols or guidelines for your Board. You probably have the most amount of free time that you have had in a long time, so use it effectively to get some of these critical Quadrant 2 activities done.
These were the points I shared, but there is so much more to say on this topic. As always reach out to me via the comments if you have questions or are interested in learning more on this topic.
This pandemic does not have to be a death sentence for the nonprofit, NGO or social enterprise that you run. The situation requires you to be thoughtful, realistic about your circumstances yet optimistic about your future. The work we do in the social and civic sector is too important to let die off.