While many areas took hits over the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit sector saw not only a huge increase in demand for services but a decline in donations due to fundraising event cancellations and loss of donors and corporate partners.
As the economy transitions out of the pandemic slowdown, how can nonprofits leaders put their agencies in the best possible position for recovery? A Daily Record webinar Wednesday featured four experts who offered their insights: Franklyn Baker, CEO and president of United Way of Central Maryland; Heather Iliff, president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits; Carim Khouzami, CEO of BGE; and Dr. Gabriela Lemus, executive director of Maryland Latinos Unidos. (To watch the webinar, go here.)
Panel moderator and Daily Record Editor Tom Baden asked Iliff if nonprofits should consider doing a wholesale reassessment to include looking at their goals, structure and staffing.
“I think in a crisis time you need to prioritize. My day is so brutally prioritized for every minute,” she said. “… I have to focus just on the very, very, very top priorities every day and every single nonprofit leader is the same. The idea of a top to bottom audit or restructuring or a big process right now I think that is one more thin mint than we can handle.”
Iliff noted that nonprofits need to be cognizant of what is coming, including a booming economy post-COVID that will most likely lead to a scramble for top talent. Nonprofit leaders need to ensure their teams are strong and get consultants under contract soon. “This fall it is going to be RFP (Request For Proposal) city,” she said.
Nonprofits also need to make sure they have the capacity to apply for RFPs and the ability to implement them. “If I were a nonprofit, I would be wanting to make sure I had decent financials,” Iliff said. “I am really paying attention to my talent game, and I am dusting off all those big visions and strategies that you’ve written over the past five years that you didn’t have funding for. Get them out, dust them off and rejigger them for the COVID environment and think big.”
Lemus was asked about the most important leadership lessons she’s learned from the pandemic. “I think the biggest one I came away with was the importance of empathy,” she said. “The importance of understanding where people are as we seek to provide information, services, education, whatever it is.”
The pandemic also reinforced some leadership beliefs she has held for years. A holistic approach goes a long way in terms of looking at what the challenges are to fulfilling a nonprofit’s mission. She also found herself reconsidering questions she asks as a leader and rediscovering the importance of an optimistic outlook, one that celebrates victories.
“I think we are always looking for that next challenge that we are after and we are always like, ‘Let’s go after that’ especially when you are a smaller nonprofit, that is part of your challenge,” she said. “You’ve got this done but you don’t ever really get to celebrate the good things you have accomplished. The many people that you may have fed who may have gone without anything. Those people that you helped out with their rent. For me, the nonprofit sector is not about charity. It is part of the system of how we live anymore and it is critical to all of our well-being. Not just one or two people or the people we are serving. It is for everyone.”
Baker added, “It’s just a tough time and I think leaders have to make sure they are not thinking about themselves as much as they are thinking about the people that work with them and the communities they serve. It is less about us and it’s more about the people we work with and the people we are supporting, serving out in the network, in the neighborhoods, the residents, the folks who value our partnership.”
Lemus’ nonprofit was launched during the pandemic inside Maryland Nonprofits. “If it hadn’t been for that infrastructure, I don’t think I would be talking to you right now as calmly and relaxed as I am feeling,” she said. “It has been quite an interesting challenge because the philanthropy space has had to step in and really figure out how to help out the nonprofits so we could help communities and to start up a nonprofit in the middle of chaos — some would say we were crazy. The reality is the chaos demanded it.”
Khouzami noted that BGE’s nonprofit partners remain important to them as the company aims to lift the communities they serve. “That is not possible without strong collaboration with our nonprofit community,” he said. “Because we already had strong relationships with many nonprofits, once COVID-19 hit, we were able to reach out and simply ask — what can we do to help? The impact of COVID 19 for BGE as it relates to our nonprofit support was really about just being able to shift gears quickly and help in ways we had never thought of in the past.”
This included providing desks and computers to Baltimore city students in need, books to children in underserved communities who may have been negatively impacted by remote learning and working with an area food bank on making sure they had a large stock in their pantry to assist supporting families who were reaching out for assistance.
Baker said United Way of Central Maryland does both grant-making to nonprofits and offers a variety of services directly to the community. During pandemic, it was critical to remain flexible and nimbly respond swiftly to new and increasing needs.
The nonprofit, he noted, has served the greater Baltimore area for nearly 100 years, including providing critical needs during times of crisis. Baker said that during trying times, nonprofit leaders also need to focus on supporting their staff. “Everyone is working harder during this pandemic,” he said. “We are also dealing with an unprecedented time. United Way prioritizes the health and well-being of its key asset. If our staff can’t do their jobs effectively, we can’t meet the growing need in our communities.”