‘Resistance to change has just crumbled:’ Nonprofit leaders plan for a new digital normal

“The resistance to change has just crumbled.”

That sentiment, from the senior executive of a large professional society, captures one of the most striking ways in which life has changed for nonprofits since the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lock-down took affect over the past four weeks.

If there is one silver lining for nonprofits in this crisis, it’s that organizations suddenly possess not just the permission, but the mandate, to innovate. Never known for being exactly on the cutting edge, the nonprofit sector is now being forced to think about its work in new and different ways. We’re hearing stories of organizations now suddenly able to quickly roll out virtual courses and events, after years of taking it slowly due to member or staff reluctance to embrace new ways of working. Some nonprofits that in the past only reluctantly experimented with telework now suddenly find themselves working entirely remotely – and handling it better than they expected.

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 “The first tenet of change management is creating a sense of urgency,” a former senior executive for another trade association told us. “And there’s nothing like a pandemic to create a sense of urgency.”

We at dPrism have spent the past month speaking with leaders of nonprofit organizations – some who are clients, some not – to see how they’ve been coping with enormous human, social and economic costs of the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of the learnings we’ve gathered:

Workforce

Having a fully remote workforce is obviously the biggest change nonprofit leaders are managing.

Organizations that had already implemented successful telework options for employees before the crisis have found it easier to adjust to having a fully remote workforce during the lockdown. One client, a large professional society, was surprised at how easy it was to flip to 100-percent telework.

Relieving workers of their daily commute also is paying unexpected dividends, one nonprofit leader told us. Giving people a couple hours back in their day, she remarked, is the equivalent of Google letting employees devote 20-percent of their work week to free thinking and innovation.

Most nonprofit leaders we work with say they expect to see large upswings in people asking to work remotely two or three days per week, once the crisis is over. Working from home, it turns out, suits many employees just fine. That said, for some employees, the challenges of home isolation are wearing thin. As the isolation wears on, it will be increasingly important for managers to keep the mental health of their staff in mind.

Rebooting the office

That telework will increase long after the pandemic fades seems another obvious conclusion, but clients tell us the change also could have big repercussions on the office environment.

Assuming offices reopen before the pandemic dies away completely, employers will realize they need to make accommodations. One nonprofit leader said his organization is considering creating one-way corridors, so people won’t have to risk passing within six feet of each other. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration may need to issue new guidelines on how offices should protect workers during the pandemic.

Employers also will need to rethink their entire approach to human resources management. Resistance to video job interviews, by employers and employees alike, will quickly become a thing of the past. HR staff will need to come up with new protocols to virtually on-board new employees. It may no longer be possible to walk newbies around the office, introduce them to coworkers, then take them to lunch. And, of course, employers will need to learn new, respectful ways to lay off or terminate workers from afar.

Departments within organizations that once considered it impossible to carry out certain tasks except in a physical location are finding they must find virtual ways to do them. Finance personnel who once make a ritual of having senior executives sign a stack of checks, for example, are now learning they can handle the transactions remotely.

Longer term, organizations may discover they can save on rent by downsizing the amount of office space they need. As staff work fewer days on-site every week, they may be more willing to let go of their private offices and use touch-down cubicles when in the building.

The future of convening

Of all the lines of business for nonprofits, the future of in-person conferences and events is most in doubt, nonprofit leaders we’ve spoken with say. Even before the pandemic, conferences had been suffering from pressure from attendees to limit the carbon footprint of their community. Possibly pointing the way forward for some organizations is the March 24 decision by the American Astronomical Society to convert its annual meeting, originally scheduled from May 31-June 4 in Madison, Wisconsin, to a fully virtual conference.

On the positive side, travel expenses will go down. With more events and education programs moving online, employers won’t have to put employees up in hotel rooms and on airplanes. Even interactions long considered best done face to face, such as sales calls, will no longer seem inappropriate if handled virtually.

Nonprofits should, however, ensure that revenue streams remain intact while going digital. Examples from the news and music industries show the perils of making valuable products free, in hopes of luring a larger audience.

 “I obviously believe we are in a new era,” one CEO told us this week. “We need to make sure we’re using digital platforms and digital delivery long after this. This genie is not going back into the bottle.”

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