Driving Sustainability in Uncertain Times

By: Lauren Maddox, Due East Co-Founder

Was your organization able to quickly pivot in response to the pandemic? Did you miss some opportunities because you didn’t have a solid framework for decision-making during these uncertain times?

Two years ago, I wrote about the holy grail for nonprofits: sustainability. Due East has spent over a decade studying the characteristics of nonprofits that survived and thrived through tough times—and those that didn’t. We came up with 5 Drivers of Growth and Sustainability to help mission-driven organizations maintain, and in many cases expand, their operations during times of planned change (i.e. leadership transitions) as well as unexpected disruption such as during an economic recession or say, a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

The 5 Drivers include:

Vision: The clear, compelling picture of the change your organization will create.

Leadership: The credible, capable volunteers and staff who are driving your Vision forward.

Visibility: Strong brand with positive buzz for your organization and its impact.

Constituency: The people who care about your mission and vision or who have a reason to care.

Organization: The capacity, infrastructure, staffing and governance to deliver your mission.

So what about culture? Management guru Peter Drucker said it best: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  It can also subsume any or all of the 5 Drivers.  In the graphic, culture is represented by the gray rings or halo, showing the central role culture plays in accelerating or impeding growth.

Over the past year we’ve been asking: How do the 5 Drivers serve us during a pandemic and a period of racial reckoning? Are organizations that are strong in these five areas able to move forward more confidently than those that aren’t? Who is succeeding, and who is getting left behind?

The short answer to the first two questions is a resounding yes. Time will tell on the third, but the picture is getting clearer.  The organizations that are thriving have a clear vision guided by a concise and nimble strategic plan. They are using their plan like an organizational GPS—navigating changes and finding detours because they know where they are ultimately headed. They have leadership who agrees on the vision, amplified by a strong organizational culture, and are able to make quick, strategic pivots.

These organizations built brand awareness in good times, and now, they are using their media relationships and platforms to rise above the crowd and get their messages out. Their constituents know exactly what the organization is offering, how they can benefit and are frequently asked for both input and feedback. Using their established lines of communications, their key supporters are up-to-date and aware of the organization’s changing needs and priorities. With current technology in place, they were able to quickly and seamlessly shift to remote work and programs without interrupting vital services.

As we look back over a year of constant disruption, organizations with strong Drivers have barely missed a beat, let alone paused. In some cases, they are fulfilling their missions more effectively than before.

On the flip side, organizations without clarity of mission are fumbling. We saw some take a “wait and see” stance, sitting on the sidelines, hoping the pandemic would just pass and they could return to normal operations. Many of these “sideliners” may not survive the pandemic or, if they’re lucky enough to weather this storm, they will likely struggle to attract the level of investment they’ll need to fully recover. And with constant flow of adaptation and innovation we’ve seen this last year, “returning to normal” is no longer a viable or sustainable vision for the future.

If you are feeling stuck, ask yourself: How is our vision relevant in these times? What’s different (schools closed, no in-person services, etc.), and how might that present new opportunities? What needs are we uniquely positioned to meet? What do we stand for, and how can we demonstrate that in our daily work?

In times of high change, culture is an essential tool but one that can be tricky to harness. Culture can provide a sense of connectedness to the mission and among the team.  During periods of flux and anxiety, which, we could argue is our new normal for a while, we need to communicate early and often. Staff are looking to their leaders for assurance and direction. Constituents need the same. Find the time for regular two-way conversation with staff, partners, and constituents to ask how they are doing and share your latest thinking. Remember, the pandemic and racial violence are affecting people of color disproportionately—take extra care with your organization’s staff, Board, donors, and constituents who are directly impacted by systemic racism on top of the many other struggles we’ve discussed so far.

Now for a few quick stories to illustrate these points.  The Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA) finished a strategic plan with Due East just as the pandemic was beginning. In alignment with the 5 Drivers, they engaged a diverse group of constituents at every turn—plan input, testing, and rollout.

WSA’s Executive Director Suzanne Etgen shared with us, “When it was time to implement the plan, so many of our constituents raised their hands to get involved. Now we’re getting ready to create a plan to guide our diversity work. Having our constituents engaged already has shown them that we are serious about change and ready for our DEIJ work.”

Moving from a White-dominant organization to one that is truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable is one of the great growth opportunities this period of change has brought to light for many of us.  As Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate, wrote so poignantly, “For there is always light, if we’re only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Strategic planning is an ideal opportunity for leaders to take a hard look at your organization’s culture and approaches and re-center your work in equity, engaging people with lived and living experience to guide the way.

Planning can also spark a “reset,” igniting the 5 Drivers to attract needed resources and making the work of fundraising much easier and more successful.  The Wilderness Society approved their strategic plan just weeks before the World Health Organization upgraded the COVID-19 outbreak to a global pandemic.  Recently, Teresa Lane, TWS’ Vice President of Development, updated us about the enthusiastic response she was receiving from her team and members of the Governing Council for a potential new fundraising initiative.  The strategic planning process “truly engaged our staff and Council in the hard work around visioning and framing our plan, and their enthusiasm for fundraising is a direct result of them feeling vested and confident in our path ahead.”

As the saying goes, don’t let a crisis go to waste. Use this time to assess your organization’s challenges and opportunities and refresh your direction. At the risk of committing nonprofit heresy, disruption can be positive if you take the time to prune what no longer serves your mission and boldly innovate. You may even find some services or programs work better virtually and opt to make a long-term pivot to reduce costs.  Being vision-centered and strategically employing all 5 Drivers allows you to make the right choices to sustain a healthy, mission-driven organization. If you can do these five things well, you’ll achieve lasting sustainability, on your own terms. Learn more here.