Kathy Ridge, Founder and CEO, LevRidge Resources, LLC
We now know a single vaccine will not instantly obliterate the COVID virus. Instead, we must depend on personal behaviors, along with contact tracing and vaccines, to decrease infection rates. As organizations face an unknown future, how do we plan, prepare, and organize for the ‘lost horizon’ that is 2021 and the post-virus world?
You don’t need a new strategic plan – you need a short-term business plan based on what you do know to get through the next 18 months and develop more resiliency.
David La Piana says, “A good business plan tests the proposition that a particular undertaking – program, partnership, new venture, growth strategy, or the entity as a whole – is economically and operationally viable.” And that means being viable under circumstances such as now.
We start with an ‘environmental scan’ – what we know for sure – and private sector research and publications informing expectations can also apply to nonprofits:
- Virtual environments for work will continue, at least as options (e.g., contactless payments, virtual board and committee meetings, conferences, interviews, and networking)
- Social distancing will continue and large group events will be re-designed
- Access to technology will increase as devices and hot spots become available to families and students for remote learning
- Racial equity is an urgent priority and requires ongoing attention, leadership, and change
- Distribution locations and centralized drive-thrus could replace in-person ‘shopping’ facilities (e.g., drive-thru grocery shopping)
- Testing and health safety measures will continue and increase beyond the current COVID outbreak
- Federal and local COVID-related directives and funding will be confusing, imprecise, contradictory, and sometimes reversed
- Another recession is highly likely due to rising national debt, unemployment, trade wars, upcoming elections, and related market shifts
- There will be unintended consequences of “reopening” of America
Realizing there is no date for a ‘grand reopening’, we must get on with planning our way to the unseen ‘other side’. A starting point for your short-term business plan could be a version of this basic objective:
“Providing core mission-critical services and programs to those in most chronic need in a financially viable way while operating an equitable environment and adapting rapidly and frequently to service delivery conditions over the next 18 months.”
The essential elements plucked from this objective are:
- Mission-critical services and programs
- To those in most chronic need
- In financially viable ways
- Operating equitably
- Adapting rapidly and frequently
A short-term planning process and work plan can be tackled answering questions, referring back to your origin as a nonprofit, the current condition of the community’s need, and your relevant experience of the past five months. You might not be able to plan your way out of this but you can plan your way through it.
Analyze Mission and Core Values
It’s productive for your team to retrace your steps back to the startup of your nonprofit. What were the community needs and gaps in service your organization was created to address? Before COVID, the environment may have shifted these needs, so it’s useful to analyze how the original purpose has changed and what remains as your central mission and guiding principles. This is critical to prioritizing what’s next.
If the mission statement you’ve been operating with doesn’t fit today’s circumstances, that must be acknowledged. Looking at organizations that have entered the market and provide similar services to similar clients is important to determine if your niche (if you had one) has changed. Convene the other credible providers of these services in your community, and talk about collaborating in any number of ways: delivery, linking together a services continuum (no duplicates), or considering more viable changes to your business structures.
Retract and Narrow Services and Programs
Since we know a recession is highly probable during the next 18 months, you should plan for contingencies and reductions in revenues. We can’t print money so what do we do? Cut back any service that is not essential. The fewer fixed expenses you have, the more nimble you can be. When you are too embedded with your own organization to be objective, it can be helpful to ask others external to your organization for objective, expert advice.
Because facilities and personnel are the largest percent of nonprofit budgets, you’ll need to address what programs and services can be delivered without renting, re-opening, or expanding facilities. You’ll need to address how you might use contract personnel to reduce full time employees. Contract personnel are often an option for expanding and contracting your workforce suddenly (ongoing flexibility).
Look at how to pull back, reduce, and precisely target services to your core purpose. Avoid waiting until the economy ‘hits bottom’ to realize the financial benefits of reducing your operations and services. That’s too late.
Financial forecasts and scenario modeling are essential planning methods to get prepared. Ask:
- What if we do this now? How much would that save?
- What if we do this before year end?
- How will this impact our state and county funding?
- If we don’t get another PPP loan, when do we need to pull back?
Because of conflicting indicators for the near term, it’s wise to address current plans in progress for enhanced programs, expansion of services, adding staff and facilities. How could those be delayed without jeopardizing the future?
Change Delivery Systems and Operations
We often overlook collaboration as delivery and programming alternatives to our present offerings. We can investigate linking to other nonprofits and build a transformative process to ‘pass the baton’ between our organizations for our shared clients.
Financial scenario planning, mentioned above, can uncover efficiencies through modifying delivery processes and operating support. Remote access, virtual meetings, and contactless delivery will be constants going forward.
Wherever your nonprofit is on its journey to become more equitable, the next year will continue challenging circumstances. Business plans need to be scrutinized and revisited for groups that are being disadvantaged, perhaps unconsciously, by your decisions on new policies, programs, and delivery. You’ll need to take time for frequent, deep discussion and reviews of the racial and inclusive impact, intentional or not, of where you’re headed and how you’ll operate. This cannot be pushed aside for ‘when things are better.’ This is when we show our truth of what really matters.
If it weren’t obvious by now, the need to continue to inform and stay visible to clients, stakeholders, and team members depends on vibrant and more frequent communications. Developing new key messages that are crisp, interesting, and repeated are the new relationship management. Sharing your objective, plan, and evidence of a plan will be important to keep the faith in your organization and your leadership.
You need to develop and expand speaking and writing skills, as well as master virtual technical options. Your online broadcasts don’t have to look like the network news, but you can enhance skills by referring to online posts about best web practices. To continue stewarding key relationships, divide up a contact list, agree on how and who will be staying in touch, and how you’ll share information about these contacts. These key tactics help you stay relevant and informed.
Most of us would rather hunker down on the couch watching Netflix until this passes, but we must reckon with obstacles that cause us to procrastinate and face any lingering reticence and disbelief (This can’t really be happening! Surely this will be over very soon!) We’ve been business warriors before, and our experiences over the last five months are the best precedent for what’s likely over the next year. Let’s get on with creating new plans that are innovative, nimble, viable, and perhaps smaller, and leading through it.
If you need some counsel and external expertise to help with this planning process, find or hire a trusted resource or colleague outside your organization who can bring a different perspective.
We can plan for unpredictability and gain focus. Focus can bring us clarity and direction. Just like following the yellow center line, driving at night in pea soup, we can’t see what’s ahead but we know we’re still on the road.
Kathy Ridge is the founder and CEO of LevRidge Resources, LLC based in Charlotte, NC. LevRidge Resources has been in business serving nonprofits for almost 10 years, specializing in assessing nonprofit business models, business contingency planning, providing interim executive services, and consulting on transitions.