Paper boat leading the fleet
Leadership Published Date, 2021

Leading The Business Of Philanthropy: Meeting Crisis With Innovation

Created By: Stephen K. Orr
December 15, 2021

Orr Group’s “Leading the Business of Philanthropy” series explores what we’ve learned from collaborating with client organizations and their ambitious leaders. Managing Director Craig Shelley, CFRE kicked things off with a column on the five skills nonprofit leaders need to lead change. Here, Managing Partner Steve Orr weighs in on navigating COVID and other crises. We welcome your responses on Twitter and LinkedIn. Use the hashtag #LeadingPhilanthropy.

Nobody predicted the pandemic, but crises or catastrophes of one sort or another are inevitable. Those of us with long memories can recall assassinations, stock market collapses, superstorms, terrorist attacks, and financial disasters in our lifetimes. Does anyone really expect a crisis-free future?

With a nimble mindset, nonprofit leaders can prepare for the inevitable next crisis, whatever it is, and institute a culture of resilience so that systems remain functional during and beyond small and large unexpected events that the universe throws our way. Orr Group’s business of philanthropy orientation leads us to study how our for-profit counterparts handle—or, not infrequently, fumble—these situations.

Some businesses are learning to manage disaster by becoming more sophisticated about risk. McKinsey & Co. offers guidance on the practice of scenario planning, which involves evaluating and prioritizing trends while envisioning the rational and emotional dimensions of critical uncertainties. Along the same lines, Accenture’s Steve Culp recently wrote in Forbes, “What we learned in both the global financial crisis and the pandemic, is that in a highly connected world powered by ecosystems, partnerships, and interdependencies, failure in one place can have a dramatic and unforeseen impact on another operation anywhere in your business.” Culp’s recommendations include the appointment of chief resiliency officers who can get foster collaboration across a company and build processes into everyday operations. Nonprofit organizations may not have the budgets or bandwidth to devote extensive efforts to scenario planning or a full-time staff member to disaster management, but leaders should emulate these trends to a degree.

Orr Group’s client partners that navigated the first months of the pandemic most effectively have positioned themselves for future success. Here are the five crisis-management recommendations that will help organizations thrive in the face of disaster.

  1. Have a thesis. Nonprofit executives are already pulled in a lot of directions at once, with board members, staff, and run-of-the-mill emergencies claiming their time and attention. Confronted with a true crisis, leaders need to come up with a compelling argument for how the new circumstances affect the mission and how to respond sensibly. The thesis might not come from the top. Nonprofit leaders are adept at eliciting thoughtful suggestions from their teams and fostering a culture where new ideas arise—especially during an unexpected life-altering situation that freezes some people in their tracks.
  2. Harness the emotional attachment to your mission. The organization’s mission should always be the North Star. Whatever that mission is, the “now more than ever” message will often resonate during a crisis, and donors will respond enthusiastically because they already believe in the vision of change that you have always practiced. Caring is our advantage, and this is a resource leaders should tap into on a daily basis.
  3. Double down on communications. Should we go ahead with the launch of our capital campaign? Is this the time to solicit donors for a major gift? In the initial months of the pandemic, many of our client partners, including universities and hospitals, came to us with questions like these. For the most part, the answer was a resounding yes, but whether or not a strategic pause is in order, strong leaders reached out to staff, donors, and other stakeholders to reassure them and listen to their concerns. In the process, they picked up valuable information, because, of course, communication goes both ways.
  4. Innovate and experiment. A crisis can be an opportunity for reinvention. The pandemic afforded many organizations the opportunity to reevaluate their fundraising and program models and to shift attention to the business side of their work; Orr Group regularly consults on the how and why of thinking like a business. Historically, organizations that can do that are able to grow their impact. The results can be astonishing. I believe the nonprofit world doesn’t always get enough credit for its innovations and entrepreneurship in the face of limited resources. Businesses could learn something from the way grassroots organizations redirect their energies in the face of a crisis.
  5. Be transparent with your team. When the leader doesn’t give regular updates or fails to stay in touch with the staff (especially when we’re not all together), suspicions and rumors proliferate. Leaders who formerly counted on their ability to work a room had to learn how to work a Zoom, projecting confidence while speaking into a laptop from the couch and productively engaging with our teams while they dealt with their dogs and toddlers. Part of being transparent involves admitting to feelings of vulnerability—revealing all the things you don’t know—and having a sense of humor about yourself. Admitting you don’t have all the answers can feel risky, but there are benefits of having a culture where people feel listened to, and in this time of the so-called Great Resignation (which my colleague Shaby Rosales explored in a previous column), this quality can make a difference in attracting and retaining great staff.

Orr Group is here to help you and your colleagues think through crisis management, organizational culture, and related issues.

More in this series:

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the next essay in our “Leading the Business of Philanthropy” series via email!

Related Resources