The Reinvention of the Nonprofit

The Reinvention of the Nonprofit

Like many of you, I've learned new ways of doing things over the last month and half. For instance, I have:

  • participated in a virtual board meeting with a nonprofit that, pre-pandemic, would not allow board members to call in to board meetings — a significant obstacle to participation for me and many of my fellow board members;
  • attended a virtual event for a nonprofit I support;
  • toured a museum gallery (virtually, of course); and
  • designed a new movement strategy with a tech team for an organization seeking to move in-person engagements to a virtual model. 

Some of these innovations had been on the back burner for some time at the organizations in question. But they hadn't been operationalized because nothing at the organization or in its operating environment was forcing a change in the organizational mindset. Even when pitched by bright, forward-thinking staff, innovative ideas were often shelved in favor of more pressing  programmatic needs and strategies. 

Then COVID-19 happened, and, like that, everything changed. Ideas that sounded good but didn't seem necessary a year or two ago were suddenly thrust to the forefront. Almost overnight, the attitude of nonprofits shifted from "Let's not rock the boat" to "What can we do to keep ourselves afloat and/or make a difference, and how fast can we do it?"  

While there is never a bright side to a pandemic, it's true what many pundit-types have said: crises tend to accelerate trends that were already in place, and things that seem new and innovative today are likely to be widely embraced and taken for granted before you know it. 

That said, let me add a note of caution: nonprofits' embrace of innovation and technology should not merely be focused on substitution — Zoom events for in-person events, for instance — but should aim instead to develop entirely new experiences. They should expand the engagement we already have with our constituents and supporters, giving them more ways to be a part of our work and to keep that work relevant and impactful for even more people. 

I was reminded of that recently by three conversations I had with funders about a virtual conference I created ten years ago. MCON, the Millennial Impact Conference, was a day-long virtual event sponsored by the Case Foundation to bring together individuals in the nonprofit sector who were starting to focus their engagement efforts on the huge, rising millennial cohort. The convening was the signature event of a larger initiative, the Millennial Impact Project, a decade-long research effort designed to help nonprofits, causes, and companies engage what was then America's largest and youngest adult generation.

People signed on to that first event in 2010 not really knowing what to expect — and neither did we. As it turned out, some twenty-five hundred people attended (virtually), an astonishing number as far as we were concerned, having no benchmarks against which to measure. And when it was over, we heard from dozens, if not hundreds, of attendees who, while they might have had a hard time articulating why, simply loved it. "I don't know…you just had to experience it," was a common refrain. In the years that followed, attendance at MCON continued to build, peaking at twenty thousand for the 2018 event, at which point we sunsetted the initiative and the event.

What the three funders I spoke to wanted to know was how we managed to create a virtual conference before people really knew what a virtual conference was. And my answer was simple: when we created MCON, we didn't try to replicate something that already existed. We came up with a model for what we hoped to achieve, and then refined it. It was never intended to replace an in-person gathering; instead, we created a standalone experience through which guest speakers from across the country and many different industries and disciplines could share their research and knowledge and, crucially, interact with attendees in new and different ways. 

Virtual events shouldn't be about forcing grantees, constituents, or supporters to make a choice between engaging virtually or in-person. They should be about creating something new. In my experience, that means they should be shorter and move more quickly, be peppered with stimulating visuals, and feature plenty of opportunities to engage with both presenters and other attendees in short bursts. Don't expect see a lot of backroom networking, as you would at an offline event. And don't worry, that's okay! Use the opportunity to ask the most creative members on your staff to create something special that serves not as a replacement for the event that would've been but as a unique complement to your usual communications/fundraising/marketing efforts. 

Of course, every cause and nonprofit will have to decide for itself how to do that. That  said, here are some things for you to keep in mind as you look to innovate and start to plan to bring back your in-person events/programs:

  • A virtual event is just a new way to move constituents and supporters from point A to point B.
  • Your event should focus on new and different opportunities for constituents and supporters to engage with your organization or cause.
  • Adopt a digital perspective focused on delivering experiences and helping attendees learn things, in real time, that wouldn't be possible in an offline setting.
  • Think "small," and use the tools at your disposal to let your virtual attendees drive the bus. 
  • Create small breakout groups for each main content block to make it easier for attendees to compare notes, share ideas, and meet new people.

I urge causes and nonprofits to refrain from returning to business as usual after this crisis is over (and who knows when that might be). What you are learning and doing today to reach constituents and supporters absolutely must inform your future communications/fundraising/marketing efforts. As a wise person once said, never let a crisis go to waste. Good luck and stay safe!

Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.

The sustainable nonprofit

May 18, 2020