The Way Forward for Non-Profits

Among all the anxiety that the Coronavirus pandemic has wrought across the United States, there is the added uncertainty about what we will return to when the all-clear signal is finally given.  The post-crisis world will look and feel much different than before, if only because so many people have lost their jobs and life savings.  Beyond the personal and professional costs, there is also a sense that this crisis has effected deeper changes across our society, including to America’s vibrant non-profit community.


Ranging from academic institutions to symphonies, from Broadway theatre to art museums, the country’s non-profits have long nurtured and showcased America’s talent, diversity and history.  As they think about the future, many of them will have some wrenching decisions to make.


For the past five years I served as President and CEO of the country’s largest living history museum, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia.  I was recruited by the Board in late 2014 to undertake fundamental change to a foundation that had been struggling for years to be financially stable and socially relevant.  Doing more of the same was untenable; we had to act urgently.


Because change has no natural constituency, the only way I had a fighting chance of success was to actively enlist my colleagues in the battle.  So the first thing we did was ask the employees for their suggestions on what we needed to eliminate, what we needed to preserve, and any new and creative ideas they had.  Because we prized candor and honesty – in our situation, there could be no sacred cows — we offered employees the option of weighing in anonymously.  Finally, we started a “Transformation Office” to collect all of the recommendations, sift through them and then identify the ones we should test in pilot programs.  We ended up adopting a number of new, customer-friendly programs that fueled our subsequent success.  (My personal favorite was a special lounge to honor our men and women in uniform, both active duty and retired.)  And it had the added benefit of signaling to the employees that their views were listened to and respected.


Because of these team efforts, and others, we boosted fund-raising four years running and increased our visitation, attracting much younger and more diverse visitors.  Our customer satisfaction ratings were in the top 10% and we were deemed one of the best places to work in the United States.  Last year we posted the best financial performance in foundation history.


While no two institutions are identical, there are some valuable lessons learned from this transformation that, I believe, are applicable to non-profits as they try to survive in this new environment.


First, you will need to steel yourself psychologically for tough decisions to come.  The coming year will likely be the most difficult in your professional career.  Already, many non-profits have laid off or furloughed employees; there is nothing harder to do.  Unfortunately, it is likely that more pain will be coming. The new math of the post-crisis non-profit world will leave many institutions with little choice: lost revenue, ongoing fixed costs, a crippled endowment and less donor support.  Decisions that previously seemed unthinkable will now appear inevitable.


Second, senior management and the board must be aligned.  This has always been best practice but has not always been followed.  We know that some members join non-profit boards so they can exert control over operations (not their job) or so they can gain social currency with friends without really contributing (also not their job).  Those days are over.  Senior management needs to take advantage of the board’s expertise, and together they must speak and act as one.


But if management and the board need to be joined up, around what, exactly, should they be aligned?  The third lesson is that little else matters except your core mission.  If your organization was unsure about the mission before Covid-19, it needs to get certainty fast.  Your mission statement cannot be a wish list; it must identify why you exist and why anyone should care.  A helpful hint: the mission statement should not be longer than 25 words.


Fourth, engage more with your customers, who are the best advocates for your brand.  During this crisis you should be reminding them what attracted them to your institution in the first place.  Think how you can involve them interactively: through online games, auctions, competitions, quizzes, chat rooms, anything to engage their time and interest.


We know that today’s customers use social media to share everything, via Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. They can highlight your value proposition to thousands, even tens of thousands of online friends, at no cost to your bottom line. Today more than ever, they are force multipliers and de facto members of your marketing team. Do not wait until you re-open your doors; they are literally a captive audience waiting for you.  Use them.


Fifth, our success at Colonial Williamsburg was built by the employees, specifically by empowering them to change the culture.  This wasn’t a radical idea; we all know the importance of workplace culture.  But even before the Covid-19 crisis, it is very difficult to get right.


According to a recent academic study by Duke and Columbia University professors, more than nine out of ten for-profit CEOs already understand that the workplace culture affects their bottom line.  CEOs know that a positive culture improves productivity, profitability, ethical behavior and the willingness to take risks.  Yet only 16% of these leaders are happy with their current culture. This dismal outcome may be because all organizations need to do more than adopt the standard forms of employee engagement.


Even more than your visitors, your employees are your brand ambassadors. They are especially crucial to your success when you are trying to transform the organization.  We gave our actor-interpreters the creative freedom to develop their own programs to entertain the visitors. We created a team of front-line employees, called the “Culture Compass Team,” who developed a set of core values for us to live by and a mission statement to serve as our North Star.  I met with them regularly for advice, in confidential, off-the-record discussions.  None of these policies cost a penny.

The goal was to take care of the employees so the employees could take care of the customers. As I often told them, “No one comes to Colonial Williamsburg to meet the CEO. They come to meet you.”


That is still the goal: to take care of your employees. Even if your workplace culture was exemplary before this crisis, it will not have survived intact when you reconvene.  Those employees who return are likely to be far more anxious — about their families and finances — than before; some may even have “survivor’s guilt” over why they still have a job while some colleagues do not.  Ensuring the mental health of your workforce – a topic that sometimes makes people uncomfortable to discuss – will be now #1 for you and your HR team. You need to address it head on.


Sixth, communications to your stakeholders are always important, but now are at a premium.  To ensure a consistent and clear message, the organization should designate a single person, whether it is a board member with relevant public relations experience or the president or director.  The non-profit should be in regular contact with its major donors, bankers or other lenders, employees, and local and community leaders.  More than usual, emphasis should be on transparency and truth-telling.  Resist the temptation to overpromise.  Your message needs to be totally credible and reliable.  You will need to draw upon the trust and goodwill you engender as you address the challenges ahead.


Finally, as best you can, you need to try to remain positive and hopeful.  In today’s uncertain environment, this is an absolutely essential element of leadership.  Your employees, board members, donors and community will all be looking to you to be strong, resolute and poised.  You need to reassure them that you have a plan to chart the way forward through this crisis.


It would be a serious mistake for non-profit leaders to think that they can return to the status quo ante once this crisis is passed; that world is gone. Sadly, some non-profits will not survive in any form.  But those that adopt these lessons, and do so urgently, will stand a much better chance of surviving.


*Mitchell B. Reiss was the President and CEO of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation from 2014 to 2019 and was the President of Washington College from 2010 to 2014.  He is currently an advisor to numerous domestic and international non-profit organizations.


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