By Sima Parekh
With the pandemic slowly receding, we are only just beginning to learn how its impact has permanently changed elements of everyday life. The past eighteen months undoubtedly exposed the tenuousness of many societal structures, from healthcare to business to our political system in the United States.
As the executive director of a nonprofit, I’ve also seen firsthand the devastating effects COVID-19 had on organizations like ours, and philanthropic efforts in general. Nonprofits by nature serve populations most in need, who in turn were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, whether it be in health, economic or labor terms. Recovering from our own internal setbacks while focusing on the acute needs of those we serve, my peers and I are now taking stock of lessons learned and re-examining how to move forward collectively.
Looking ahead and reimagining philanthropy in a predominantly digital post-COVID world, we need to ask questions that help us productively evaluate the last eighteen months. How did the pandemic impact the ability of nonprofits to mobilize when needed? How did it change the ways we market, interact with donors and facilitate charitable giving? What do all these facets look like in 2021 and beyond?
Goodbye, live events
There is no underestimating the significance of the live event lockdown in 2020. Understandably, gatherings of every size were quickly identified as dangerous, possible super-spreader scenarios. For nonprofits, this meant the elimination of fundraising events, galas, donor drives, group on-site projects and more, not to mention the volunteer and board meetings that bring all of those endeavours to fruition. It isn’t overstating to say that such a sudden change shook the very foundation of our working model.
But when your organization helps those in need, there is no time to lament. Like many industries and people in general, we in the nonprofit world upped our digital game quickly. The first imperative was to bring our folks together virtually, then to use those meetings to envision how we could fulfill our mission in this new reality. Charitable organizations need to be nimble by nature, as the ups and downs of fundraising often dictate what we can achieve. This agility came in handy as we shifted live events to virtual ones. The process was not without hiccups along the way, and the notion that any event can move online with the click of a zoom link was quickly proven to be the pipe dream we suspected it was.
Once we dove in, however, we found the resources we needed to steady the effort. For our team, the inspirational in-person element was sorely missing, but we chose to focus instead on making sure our technical infrastructure, platforms, talent and resources were solidly in place to make the digital shift.
Creative screen time
The double-edged sword, of course, is that as so many elements of our day-to-day lives moved online, we in the nonprofit world confronted a new set of challenges very quickly. Digital fatigue is real, which meant we needed to find new ways to engage with our donors, virtual event attendees, and those we supported. While a virtual wine tasting might have seemed fun and innovative in April, many of these stand-in activities ran their course as spring became summer and summer became fall.
In the case of our team, it became an opportunity to substitute entertainment with education. Where we would normally have been on-site at one of our signature events with breakout activities and live coverage, we opted for educational opportunities offered as value propositions to participating organizations. Opening ourselves up to this new mode of engagement allowed us to attract a broader group of speakers, both geographically and professionally. We also found that more people were willing to offer commentary or questions during digital roundtables, without the pressure of speaking up in a large room. Participation from home turned quickly into comfortable chatter. As a result, we learned that while digital engagement is often framed negatively, it’s really about what you’re offering when you have your audience online.
Embracing virtual engagement also illuminated another silver lining for those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic space — the potential for greater inclusivity. Diversity and inclusion are core tenets of nonprofit work; it takes a village to make a difference, and there are no limitations to the opportunities we will work toward when there is a need. By creating virtual space for those who want to volunteer time, make a donation, seek information on a topic, attend an event or get involved to any extent, nonprofits immediately had the ability to reach — and be reached — beyond any geographical limitations. This translated into the potential for a wider donor base, increased event attendance, new speakers and educators, more channels to share information and most of all, the ability to help more people in more places.
A hybrid future
Live events are beginning to make a comeback, and while those of us in the charitable giving space are looking forward to reconnecting with our peers and supporters, the truth is there’s still hesitancy from many volunteers, donors and staff about gathering in large crowds. Unlike what was thrust upon us in 2020, however, we’re prepared to navigate the new reality, having added valuable digital know-how to our toolbox along the way.
A recent report found that 23 percent of nonprofits surveyed are planning to hold hybrid events in 2021. By mixing both live and virtual programming components, hybrid events may soon be seen as the best of both worlds. Organizations can return to the all-important in-person activities that populate their fundraising calendars while creating virtual elements geared toward a newly minted database of remote attendees, sponsors and donors who may not have been on the radar before 2020. For both nonprofits and philanthropic organizations, this new connectivity has the potential to increase volunteerism and donations, a win for all.
The challenges brought on by the pandemic may have shaken the foundation for nonprofit organizations, but it did not break us. As a segment of the population accustomed to driving growth with grit and passion for a common purpose, we see 2020 as a time that tested our resilience, requiring us to adapt quickly, embrace new concepts and keep moving forward. In the process, we learned and grew in ways that will only help us forge new paths as we continue to support the communities we serve.
Sima Parekh supports organizations through transformation, execution, and growth. She is the director of operations, strategy and programs at IHG Hotels and Resorts and also serves as the executive director at 48in48 — a nonprofit organization that hosts hackathon-style events that create free websites for small nonprofits. Over the past six years, she has held various roles at 48in48 prior to taking over as the executive director. In the past year, she pivoted the organization from hosting onsite events to 100 percent virtual events. Her skills in strategy and execution have allowed her to help 48in48 continue to not only survive but also excel during the pandemic.