How Nonprofits Got Smarter and What it Means for Donors

by | Jul 10, 2024

I turned the calendar page this morning and found this quote: “Starting over is not starting from scratch; it’s starting from experience.”

Career changes, family interruptions and losses, moving, education decisions, devastating weather events, and on and on, starting over always follows. There are so many ways we start over that it can be a matter of fact, a painful surprise, or an intentional experience.

That quote expresses an idea we forget. The value of starting over exists because there is no starting that doesn’t follow experience.

Starting Over Changes Us

As an Air Force kid, my brother and I started repeatedly. That’s a child’s life when the family moves often, no matter the reason. New schools, neighborhood friends, bedrooms, sports teams, doctors – if you can name it, it’s new when kids move. I managed to attend ten different schools, from kindergarten to high school.

When I share that fact about my growing up, I often hear the “Wow, that must have been tough” reply. My response has most often been that I got good at starting over.

After a few moves, most kids become quite experienced at how to start, where and when to hide out, jump in, and hang back. That experience stays with us into adulthood, often impacting education and career choices.

Soon after joining my dad in Germany, the family went to the local eatery for our first German meal. Mother and I decided to explore the menu for something different. But my nine-year-old brother spied a hamburger and resolved it was the best choice. When our meals arrived, catsup decorated the top of the hamburger bun. Now, how are you supposed to pick up a hamburger with catsup all over the top of the bun?

My brother was unhappy and did not want to consider eating a burger with a fork and knife. But he was a quick study, and not long after that event, he launched headlong into making friends in the village neighborhood and picking up the language quickly.

On the other hand, I was slow to connect, cautiously joining games with neighborhood kids and repeating the same German phrase repeatedly, “tut mir leid.” Sorry.

We handled change differently, but each time we moved to a new place, our experiences fed the courage to start over.

Learning from Experience Makes Smarter Changes

Change has become common to nonprofit organizations over the last few years. During the Covid crisis, most nonprofits reacted quickly, finding creative ways to deliver services. Many applied for and received stimulus packages that allowed them to survive the donor losses at the time. With government money gone and donors again supporting nonprofits, many organizations are starting over quickly.

They are not starting from scratch but using their crisis experience to revise programs and sometimes deliver them differently. A new study from The Independent Sector, “A Shock to the Status Quo: Characteristics of Nonprofits that Make Strategic Decisions During a Crisis,” identified resilience and adaptation as the defining characteristics.

According to the study, 66 percent of nonprofits have engaged in strategic planning since 2020, and 44 percent now have online programs where none existed before the pandemic. Changes in the post-pandemic workforce and programs cut to the bare bones fueled experience that gave meaning to starting again, but not from scratch.

Donor Basics

So, what should donors watch for with so much change?

  • Trusted leadership
  • Transparency about program and budget changes
  • Reasonable timelines and projections for changes
  • Fundraising programs, events and communications that convey confidence in the way forward
  • All with a continued focus on the organization’s mission

Historically, many nonprofits have grappled with funding losses from donors or government sources. But nothing has compared to what they’ve experienced in the last three years. Most are in a better place than ever before because they got smarter. They got smart fast.

Partnerships have formed between organizations where none existed before; some have merged, and some services are delivered differently.

Proactive planning and adaptable leadership set the path toward sustainability and impact. For me, these are indicators of organizations getting smart fast. That matters to me when I make decisions about where to donate.

What do you use to make a smart giving decision?

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