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Executive Summary

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing rapid and, at times, radical adaptation among mission-driven organizations. ParsonsTKO  ran a survey among our clients and the nonprofit community to gather more detailed insights into how organizations are impacted and responding, then combined these findings with our experience and advice.

Deep disruptions in internal processes, reduced staff availability, cancellation of critical sectoral events, and rapid unscheduled changes to portfolio of tools and tech, top the list of concerns.

Based on what we’ve heard, and our work supporting leaders in the nonprofit sector, we offer the following findings and recommendations. 

Manage internal shifts in day-to-day operations

  • Focus on how your team works as much as what it is that they work on. With the rapid transition to remote work amid a sea of personal distractions, they are learning a new way of working. They need help adjusting both practically, in terms of tools and processes, and emotionally, in terms of clarity of purpose.
  • Be prepared to make changes quickly, and to iterate on those changes as you learn more about what does and doesn’t work. For example, if a sudden shift to remote work requires a new approach to your team’s project management, focus on finding a solution that’s “good enough” now, knowing that upcoming weeks will give you valuable data to inform a longer-term solution.

Manage shifts in outward-facing tactics and strategies

  • Small group conversations still work, mass market communications still work, but the space in between—community gatherings and new relationship building—has been the hardest to replicate, requiring new tools, radical changes to planning, and significant effort to facilitate remotely.
  • Flexibility needs to be anchored in awareness. Listen to your staff and to your audience, using data and surveys to figure out what they need from you.

Background

Like all organizations in the mission-driven space, ParsonsTKO has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Our daily work with nonprofits, think tanks, and other public service organizations has given us a birds-eye view into how the rapidly unfolding crisis is changing our sector as a whole. We are watching many groups make major adjustments to their programming and communications to respond directly to the pandemic. Moreover, all organizations have had to transform how they do business internally (particularly with regard to remote work). 

These are huge shifts—and they have happened almost instantaneously. As such, our nonprofit partners are keenly interested in learning from their peers about how to steer through them more skillfully. They have also expressed a desire for informed guidance on how to strategically approach the many challenges that wait ahead.

Based on this feedback from our community, we organized an online survey of nonprofit leaders to learn about organizational responses to COVID-19. We shared a link to this survey with PTKO clients, as well as nonprofit professionals via our LinkedIn page, and listservs from PRSA, NTEN, and the Progressive Exchange.

This report contains insights from our conversations and the survey, which elicited feedback from professionals working for a varied group of local, national and international organizations serving the public good. Alongside these findings, this report includes our own recommendations on how to address key concerns related to the unprecedented change we are all living and working through.

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Internal disruptions in day-to-day operations

The whole world is still reeling from the pandemic and how quickly and dramatically it has changed how our society functions. Truly overnight, organizations have had to shift core aspects of how they work with each other and serve their audiences. The result has been significant personal and professional disruption. 

The level and nature of that disruption varies depending on what type of work you do and how quickly your team has been able to adopt new tactics and habits to keep moving forward.

Managing the organizational transition to remote work

The majority of nonprofit respondents have made a major shift to remote work as a result of COVID-19. However, the degree to which this has disrupted operations and processes has varied greatly. Even though three quarters of teams had significantly shifted to remote work by mid-March, only a third or fewer described “significant” disruption to either individual or team meetings. Many nonprofits already had existing remote-friendly work cultures, with relevant technology, policies and procedures largely in place. For these organizations, there wasn’t necessarily a sudden or fundamental shift in how they collaborate internally. 

Within those numbers, individual meetings have been slightly more disrupted than team meetings. It is common for many teams to have experience accommodating one or more staff who need to join internal conversations remotely due to illness, work travel, or personal considerations. Where they exist, these norms have been invaluable in positioning such teams to better adapt to self-isolation policies.

Meanwhile, other nonprofits are in the process of a much more dramatic disruption in how they do business. Some have needed to rapidly set up and configure remote collaboration tools and services, and train staff on new work processes and technology. Achieving rapid agreement on which technology platforms to rely upon is not an easy task, particularly without optimal time to test solutions and plan a careful rollout.  

How to adapt and make the most of the new work-from-home reality

Regardless of your team’s current level of comfort with remote work arrangements , there is a lot of expertise we can leverage from our years operating as a remote organization to help teams make the best of the current situation.

Quickly align on a standardized approach to project management

The transition to remote work puts particular strain on internal communications and can highlight the need for improvements in project management. Many nonprofits depend on staff proximity to manage their work—being able to look over a wall or walk down the hall to speak about a project to the person who runs it. This is an acute challenge now, but even in the best of times is a big vulnerability. 

Groups with imperfect project management practices should take advantage of this moment to identify and implement an improved system for organizing work streams, with single reference points or sources of truth for documentation and tasks. This will alleviate the concern of knowing what was done today and help coordinate across members of your team. The process of setting up a tool like this can help recover from the upheaval of moving to remote work so suddenly, focusing attention on keeping track of what needs to get organized. Moreover, once you have migrated all of your work into a shared project management tool, you’ll start to build a set of documentation that will likely prove useful long past the immediate crisis period.

If members of your team currently use multiple systems and tools, the important thing is to pick one and rally on standardizing for the moment. Understand that this may become a long-term operational state, but don’t pause to debate and find the perfect when “good enough” will get you moving. Start somewhere now and iterate, using what you learn in the next few weeks to develop more refined opinions about what type of project management approach your team will benefit from in the future.

You do not need to make this call alone—get feedback and input from your staff to help you steer, and make continuous and iterative improvements to your project management. This new environment of collaboration can lead to a new energy in sharing ideas and creative solutions which will not only serve your organization now but also when we all start to return to our offices. 

If you do not have a project management tool in place there are plenty of SaaS ones on the market with low cost per user, monthly agreements and non-profit discounts. There are likely some free tools that will do the trick as well. Ones we often encounter include a lightweight tool called Trello, and more feature-full platforms like Basecamp, and Teamwork. Whatever you choose, these tools require broad access and contributions from everyone on your team, reinforced by its use in meetings and someone in charge of ensuring participation and adoption.

Strengthen your asset and file management protocols

One common challenge we’ve heard in conversations with clients relates to finding and sharing work files. Most organizations have plenty of digital files, but they are often siloed in miscellaneous systems such as personal drives, email, physical hard drives, and shared systems such as Dropbox. This fragmentation of assets, coupled with a lack of clear governance and process, makes some teams lose hours of time hunting down files; rather than using that time to put them to their best strategic use. 

There are plenty of tools that can help with this, such as Digital Asset Management (DAM) platforms. However, you probably already have a lot of tools; adding another into the mix risks further complicating your ecosystem and increasing strain on your teams. So, we recommend approaching this with the mindset of finding the ‘right fit’ solution. This starts with understanding the people and processes that the technology will support and empower.

In terms of digital asset management, you want to start with questions such as:

  • Where are assets currently stored, and why?
  • Who needs to access and use assets, for what purposes?
  • How does collaboration happen with regards to your assets? What are the processes and tools that define and support that collaboration?
  • Who is (or should be) responsible for managing the system (and its users) to ensure that it is used correctly?

More logistically, you’ll want to get a handle on:

  • The volume of assets you have, as most platforms have tiered pricing depending on the amount of storage you use.
  • The types of assets you want to store, from images and video to Powerpoints and PDFs

Ultimately, you should aim to begin by implementing a minimal viable process for users to adopt a new platform (or better make use of an existing one). This could start with simply consolidating and documenting where commonly used files are in your current system, like Google Drive or Dropbox, assuming it supports remote access.

Use internal communications strategically

While project management tools, chat systems, and video conferencing all give you “places” to coordinate with your team, it’s just as important to set up the right habits around internal communications. Without the opportunity for chance encounters around the office, one must be intentional about checking in with staff (especially junior staff or departmental liaisons that might be more likely to fall out of the loop). At the same time, this needs to be balanced with protecting calendar time for deep work—it’s easy to overcompensate on a remote team and schedule a new meeting for everything. 

Remote Meetings

To strike the right balance of meetings across your team, establish norms that match meeting length to the desired objective(s). For example, schedule short team meetings (15-30 minutes) to build consensus and maintain awareness across the organization, and reserve longer one-on-one calls for in-depth or sensitive conversations where you “do the work” as much as talk about it. 

It’s equally essential to model (and make explicit) desired behavioral norms during meetings. For instance, unexpected interruptions during meetings will probably be unavoidable. However, working on five different projects at once during a meeting, just because you’re in front of the computer, is still not OK. 

We all worry about meeting fatigue—and the truth is, it will take time to find the right balance. In the meantime, tried-and-true meeting practices still work remotely: have an agenda with clear goals; confirm action items at the end of each call; delegate a note-taker. Also, remember that the mute button is a great tool! Meeting leaders can make sure to facilitate dialogue so that everyone has a turn to speak clearly and without background noises as a distraction. 

Team messaging tools

Many groups are turning to use tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams to help with remote communication. These tools allow colleagues to stay abreast of internal dialogue and updates across projects. While email and one-on-one chats still have their time and place, it can be beneficial to use team channels for constructive, project-related chats with individual colleagues too. The rest of your team need not engage, but it allows them to follow and track relevant conversations, and gives them the chance to surface related ideas. This helps reinforce a culture of openness that encourages people to ask questions and get the help they need, especially in this time of isolation.

We’ve also learned the hard way that, without clear boundaries, Slack can easily overwhelm more than it helps.  Here are a few tips to reap its benefits without this tool take over your day: 

  • Use channels to help focus conversations
  • Use threads for conversations to help keep thoughts organized on certain topics
  • If you want to call someone’s attention to an item, direct it to them using an @theirname (but don’t overuse @’s that will call a full channel or company to attention) 
  • Turn off alert pop-ups on your work computer (we recommend this for your mobile too)
  • Set out of office/do not disturb times for deep work. 

Focus on maintaining a positive work culture

The COVID-19 crisis is creating stress and lowering morale. It is absolutely crucial for a remote team to address these challenges head-on. 

This is why we keep our cameras on for video calls whenever possible, so we can share a smile. It’s not always possible to have cameras on, but the visual cue and ability to read a room is helpful for increasing connection and camaraderie.  We also suggest carving out space for small personal moments at the beginning of calls—an honest, caring “How are you?” goes a very long way in this moment.  

Our experience with remote work is that the tools matter far less than the people. If you have teammates or colleagues that are struggling with use of the new tools, offer to spend some one-on-one time with them to answer questions and get them more comfortable with the technology. We recommend doing this outside of the group to reduce embarrassment, being as patient and thoughtful as possible with those who are taking longer to adjust than others. 

Acknowledge the struggles with work-life balance

While many nonprofit professionals have at least some experience working from home, many are now doing it full-time, for the first time. And regardless, this is not remote work as usual; these are unprecedented times with a unique set of challenges. People are stressed by the dire headlines about the health crisis, and its implications for themselves and loved ones. And of course practically no parents expected to be homeschooling their children this spring, in addition to managing increasingly busy workloads. 

Many respondents are struggling to juggle these competing demands. This is influencing individuals’ focus and capacity. It is also having a substantial impact on organizational culture and productivity. 

One thing to watch out for is a perceived need “to see” your team to know they are working. Trust is essential for remote work. While an individual employee’s results will eventually show whether their remote arrangement is successful, setting achievable parameters for work is essential to making work from home during shelter-in-place sustainable. In particular, ensure there is a clear set of goals and desired outcomes, and co-develop timelines with milestones along the way. 

When working remotely you lose access to some non-verbal cues like body language to gauge how your team is doing. It is easy for staff to feel isolated, get lost in their work and start to struggle, but not want to bother a colleague or their boss. Check-ins at scheduled work milestones help both managers and staff ensure alignment and remove blockers towards progress.

For work that requires collaboration, plan for synchronous and asynchronous work times and let your team know when you are online and available (and when you are not). If you need some heads-down time, let your team know and inform them how they can reach you in an emergency. Then, turn off your notifications and take advantage of the ability to “get away from the office” to focus and boost your productivity.

If you were working remotely under normal circumstances (i.e., school is in session and people are in their home offices from 9-5) you would be expected to have taken steps to minimize potential disruptions. As we stated earlier, though, this is not a normal work-from-home scenario. As annoying as interruptions are, added stress from worrying about peers’ judgments can be even more distracting. When you start new meetings you can lead by example and normalize the situation by calling out potential disruptions (e.g. kid might run in, cat might jump up) and let everyone know you are still listening if they do happen. This openness and kindness goes a long way towards easing the team’s anxiety when intrusions do occur (though please make good use of your mute button too!).

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Shifts in tactics & strategies

The rapidly changing nature of the crisis has demanded immediate shifts in how nonprofits serve their constituents. These changes are playing out in real time, and very much remain a work in progress. Nevertheless, results from the survey showed a handful of shared challenges in planning and implementation.

Adapting existing priorities to a dramatically different context

Few organizations predicted a global pandemic when planning their 2020 programs. As such, nonprofits—particularly those that focus on policy advocacy as well as on health-related issues—are in the middle of an unexpected shift. The attention of policy makers and many funders is consumed with the COVID-19 crisis and the need for an immediate social, economic, and public health response. Organizations are having to make difficult choices about whether and how to engage in shaping this response, potentially at the expense of other critical priorities.

Impact on Programming

Unless your organization already works on an issue area that’s connected to the current COVID-19 crisis, we suggest resisting the impulse to dramatically shift the direction of your current programming. Your mission-driven brand is important, and earns you built-in credibility. Don’t spoil it, and water down your relevance by trying to extend too radically past what your organization does well. Instead, double down on doing what you already do best and make sure your organization is contributing this, remembering that there are already countless nonprofits supporting other dimensions of the crisis.  To the extent you do choose to engage in crisis-related programming, efforts should be hyper-focused on existing constituents. 

However your organization chooses to respond in its programming, make sure to be clear in how you communicate your decisions and the rationale behind them, both internally and externally. A degree of certainty of purpose is going to be vital for your own staff to keep working effectively. 

If your leadership is experiencing a gap in direction, at least you can ensure that all your team’s efforts are instrumented for easy reporting, with data that positions you well for securing additional budget resources. For some nonprofits the COVID-19 crisis will result in various lines not being able to be spent as forecasted (most obviously for in-person events and conferences). This money could be reallocated, but leadership will need to understand why the reallocation in favor of your team’s priorities is critical over other needs, and how you will track for ROI. 

Moreover, the coordination between programs, communications, and development/fundraising teams will be vital for sharing information about trends and contacts in the funding community. It will be even more important than normal to have unified communications to your grantmakers, who will also be feeling overwhelmed in this time. By closely tracking trends in the funding space, you can see where and how funding for your organization’s work is being rolled out. 

Impact on Communications

For most organizations, this is likely not the moment for audience expansion with direct outreach on new ideas. The world is focused on Coronavirus for the moment; it will be near impossible to break through with messaging not related to the immediacy of the current moment. However, this is an excellent time to double down on deepening the active engagement with your existing audiences. They want to hear from you! 

Listen closely to your most engaged audience members right now. What they are telling you through their direct feedback and their digital behaviors? Their feedback will ensure you are not falling into a COVID-19 echo chamber. This will require the right kind of data collection, and effort dedicated to analyzing that data, but then you can use it to find creative ways to steer your work and help you break through the communications noise in the midst of this crisis.

Transforming in-person meetings/conferences into virtual events

Nearly all survey respondents share that their scheduled in-person events have been significantly disrupted by the virus. This disruption has caused a sector-wide scramble to transition live events into online gatherings capable of achieving similar business objectives. 

While the vast majority of nonprofits are affected by this shift, organizations holding big conferences in 2020 are disproportionately impacted. Many of these events have already been cancelled, postponed, or have moved to an online format. Meanwhile, organizations with events in late 2020 are struggling with difficult decisions on how to proceed. These groups wrestle with the fact that promoting in-person event registration in a time of widespread “shelter-in-place” orders carries reputational risk, and that live events in 2020 are unlikely to meet attendance goals set before COVID-19.  Event decisions have major consequences on organizational revenue, staffing, fundraising, and resource allocation.

In some cases we see new organizations introducing digital convenings to fill the void of someone else’s cancelled in-person events, highlighting the disparity between organizations that are able to organize remote-enabled events and those that are not.

A key challenge in this move to digital convening is to determine what can and what cannot be reproduced in this format. One key benefit of conferences for most attendees is less about the programming itself and more about the opportunity to network, meet with peers, and feel a sense of community and shared purpose. When a 1,000-person event turns into a webinar, attendees have a similar chance to hear from the speakers on stage, but they lose the opportunity to walk up to the speaker afterwards, visit booths, and otherwise chat with attendees in the hallway. 

Different tools offer unique solutions to these problems. Videoconference tools have breakout session features, and group calls can lead to follow-up calls to facilitate introductions. Live-tweets, chat rooms, and collaborative notes allow attendees to share thoughts and virtually “meet” with one another. Whatever methods you choose, the key ingredients from your staff are time and attention to help guide audience interaction and facilitate engagement between attendees. 

Now is an excellent time to reach out to your most engaged audiences to ask for their input on how they would like to gather and learn together. You can also learn from other organizations with more experience running remote events. Regardless of how you proceed, though, recognize that you are doing something new for your team and new for your audiences. It won’t be perfect the first time, but each time you do it is an opportunity to learn what works and what can be improved. Plan to debrief extensively with your team.

It is equally important to consider how to deploy the budget and staff capacity that were allocated to in-person event set up and management. How much should you redirect to support online events, and how much should remain in reserve for your future in-person gatherings? Many organizations will find that online substitutes for cancelled convenings will take nearly as much human coordination and management as your in-person events. they can and should be deployed into building your online events and community. 

The choices you make about events now will heavily influence your future. While we strongly encourage moving quickly and making iterative improvements, also make sure there is a place where you are recording all the knowledge you are gaining in how to optimize for online events.

Publishing new content and coordinating impactful public education

Survey respondents came from across the nonprofit sector, working in areas as diverse as financial inclusion, youth education, health care, anti-poverty organizing, and social services. Organizations are responding to the crisis in diverse ways consistent with their mission and constituents’ needs—some locally, others globally. 

These responses vary between organizations, and at times even internally between departments within an organization. Communications and programmatic teams can play overlapping or mutually reinforcing roles in the current climate, but are not always aligned and taking the opportunity to do so.

Each pie chart above shows the proportion of nonprofit respondents whose communications teams (green) and program teams (orange) are responding to COVID-19 in the ways listed. In the center of each bar chart is the proportion of organizations that have responded in both ways (white). Overlaps are grouped by loosely correlated types of response.

A slight majority (52%) say that their program teams are publishing new content in response to the crisis. Many are also engaging in public education efforts, and monitoring public health trends to inform future shifts in direction.

Based on our initial survey, few organizations have had the time and resources to leap into new original research in response to the COVID-19 crisis, yet. However, this is likely to change as the situation plays out in the coming weeks and months.

The most common immediate response has been to create new content related to the outbreak, with slightly fewer organizations focusing on existing resources to help drive engagement and public education. In a rapidly changing landscape like this, each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. Resurfacing existing content can enable rapid responses, whereas creating new content can be time consuming and quickly become obsolete. On the other hand, the unprecedented nature of this crisis may demand a new tone and new audience needs that your existing content cannot satisfy. Consider whether you need to publish in a new format or change the way you use outreach channels such as email and social media, and make sure you’re collecting the data you need in order to assess whether these new tactics are effective.

Many organizations are actively monitoring trends—not just in the spread of COVID-19 itself, but in how the public talks about the pandemic and responds to the crisis. Watching the world is essential right now. Where are the conversations going, and where and how can you join in to support? On topics in which you’re well positioned, your organization should absolutely jump in, assist with facts and ideas, and advance critical conversations. 

In this effort, it is important to track these conversations not only from a health or economic perspective, but also a communications perspective. Indeed, strong coordination between program and communications teams will be crucial during the coming months. Each team has differing but complementary expertise and tool sets. Working together, they will help your organization to create, curate, and deliver information and outreach more quickly and effectively than if program and communications teams work in silos.

Creating online resources for members, constituents and impacted individuals

In the face of COVID-19, nonprofits are stepping up to the plate by creating online resources that meet the diverse needs of their members, stakeholders and constituents. In many cases these are web pages with information on how to cope with the pandemic and its various professional and personal implications. For example, one respondent reported on their organization’s work coordinating resources for members and stakeholders losing their jobs due to the health crisis.

Organizations will have an advantage in securing the attention of their existing audiences—members, subscribers, recipients of services, and so on. However, information overload is a real challenge since our knowledge about the virus changes on a daily and even hourly basis. Therefore, focus on curation in what you produce and what you deliver. Creative adaptation and reuse of existing materials — whether they are your own or otherwise publicly available — will help your audiences find the best of what’s available (and perhaps even familiar to them), while saving your staff capacity for the highest value work.

Provide just enough context around your consolidated materials to help your audiences understand what’s available, and how they should know what to do with what you provide. This can look like a custom landing page for your coronavirus response content with explanations about how your audience(s) should decide which of your resources are most appropriate for them.

In addition to creating new online resources, it is vital to put effort into promoting them. Many nonprofits are already seeing surges in attention and web traffic during the outbreak; however, you may still be missing out on critical audiences. The people you need to reach the most are often the ones who didn’t come looking for you, so consider what outreach channels you should activate to reach them. And even the people who have found your website on their own may be landing on one particular piece of content without recognizing the breadth of what you may have available. To this end, consider adding on-site promotions and calls-to-action to manage the flow of traffic within your website and drive people towards valuable content or next steps.

Maintaining partnerships with external organizations 

Regardless of how prepared their own organizations were for the crisis, nonprofits have experienced challenges working with external partners and peers in the sector, particularly those that have struggled to adapt to the new reality. How do you respond when outside organizations that are critical to your work are experiencing breakdowns in capabilities? Initially your options may seem limited. Yet often there are some steps you can take to move forward.

In extreme cases, disruptions at partner organizations may signal a need to consider developing new capabilities internally, especially if you rely on them for mission-critical aspects of your own work. Otherwise, your own organization may be able to lend expertise or capabilities to help crucial partners get back on their feet. That could mean staff capacity to help digitize previously-offline plans, or something as simple as advice on how your team coordinates internally in this context. People are uncommonly receptive to fresh ideas at this time. Half of the organizations we’ve heard from are open to forming new partnerships, so a little help now could be the start of a new chapter of a longer-term relationship.

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Conclusions

Our perspective is that the current crisis will result in one of the most lasting changes to the work of organizations. In particular, remote work allowances are likely to be forever altered – a potential bright spot in an otherwise tough moment. While some managers fear a future in which everything will turn virtual, we don’t believe this should be a primary concern: as social beings, most of us will prefer a physical, real-life connection with colleagues at least some of the time. Rather, with this remote transition we can seize the opportunity to increase our internal talent pools and extend our organizations into new geographies. 

We like to say that change is hard even when we expect it. And no one expected or was ready for this crisis. One result is that digital engagement and outreach is now front and center for every organization, from reaching the public to keeping staff engaged. Look for ways to help with budget and resource allocation to help support the current efforts. Most importantly though, look for the bright spots. This is scary and hard – yet, while it sometimes seems impossible, this moment will pass. 

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” We see great opportunities on the horizon in terms of the work you do and will continue to support you and share our ideas with the community so that we make great change together.

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