5 ways nonprofits can stay agile

Jun 06, 2022

Key takeaways

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The first step toward agility is budgeting for risk.

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Once organizations know their risks, they should build their reserves.

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Having technology in place to have a good data stream is essential to agility.

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Outsourcing can help nonprofits avoid unexpected challenges related to turnover and recruiting.


What areas should nonprofits examine to enhance their ability to adapt to change?

Two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, RSM US LLP helped a midsized nonprofit become more agile by optimizing and consolidating its technology and streamlining operations, which ultimately helped the organization lessen the blow of the health crisis.

The nonprofit’s technology faced several operational challenges, which ultimately led to a poor experience for users. For example, the organization used multiple customer relationship management systems, with data also spread out across Excel spreadsheets. Erroneous emails were often sent, asking members and board members alike to renew their memberships.

The nonprofit wanted to fix the mess, so RSM helped the organization consolidate its data into a single system. This allowed the organization to have better management of its membership. The faulty emails quickly stopped, and the organization saw positive returns from its efforts.

Then came the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The organization, scheduled to host its annual event, was in a much better position to pivot its approach, based on newly imposed restrictions. The nonprofit alerted its 75,000 attendees that it was moving to a virtual environment. The organization staged a virtual event, facilitated successful sessions and ended up receiving outstanding feedback from its members.

This nonprofit was fortunate in its timing, but other organizations suffered greatly during the pandemic. COVID-19 has been a major, disruptive event, one that should serve as a wake-up call to nonprofits: It’s time to become agile.

Of course, the motivation for organizations to become more agile is not solely based on the pandemic. Another factor is the high rate of inflation, which affects every industry, including the nonprofit sector. Inflation has increased pressure on nonprofits to reduce costs without compromising their core missions.

For improved agility, focus on these five areas: 

1. Budgeting and forecasting

The first step toward agility is budgeting for risk. Indeed, the worst-case scenarios—like pandemics—chew through budgets.

Too many strategic plans don't consider risk. Nonprofits need to be prepared for the unknown and have a model in place.

Once organizations forecast their risks—brainstorming sessions can be helpful, with multiple people considering risks and opportunities—they should quantify the potential budgetary impact of each risk.

For example, how much would another pandemic cost? Or an economic downturn? A natural disaster? These are painful questions, but nonprofits must address them. 

2. Reserves planning

Once organizations know their risks, they should build their reserves. The organizations that planned for a pandemic-sized disruption, for example, had deep reserves. The challenge that most organizations face is finding the right balance. What is the right reserve to satisfy risk, CRA compliance and stakeholder expectations? In addition to risks, an organization can plan the reserves it needs by examining its environment, asking questions about what external factors could affect the organization and whether the organization would be able to tighten its belt in lean times. During the planning process, executives should be as objective as possible, researching what similar organizations have planned for their reserves. There are likely hints for how to best handle reserve management in the stories of other organizations.

Amid the pandemic, organizations that built their reserves weren’t nearly as worried that they’d be dealt a fatal blow financially. Those that didn’t build their reserves did a lot of scrambling.

3. Technology and data

Having technology in place to have a good data stream is essential to agility, whether amid a pandemic recovery or during normal times. Often a positive outcome or driver for new technology efforts, improving data is also the starting point for more effective execution.

Better data to make good decisions is a constantly moving target. What is going to happen this summer is very different from what's going to happen in the fall, which is going to be completely different from next summer. The No. 1 way to be accurate—to stay on top of things that are changing faster than they've ever changed before—is to use data to make decisions.

Because the pandemic recovery is an unprecedented event, a good data stream will help organizations make informed decisions. Nonprofits will need access to organizational data, such as donations and memberships, but also public information on the economy and the financial markets.

Surveys, statistics and financial metrics will become vital. And the more granularly that nonprofits collect that data, the more value is added to their analysis so that they can do better predictive analytics. Instead of looking backwards, nonprofits want to be looking forward.

It’s especially important to have a “source of truth” for data to ensure that organizational data is accurate and that all staff members are working from the same information. Having a single source of truth means having a consolidated repository of key information rather than trying to maintain it on multiple systems or, worse yet, Excel files. 

4. Focus on talent

The pandemic forced nonprofits to focus on maintaining efficiency, effectiveness and relevancy in their operations.

Working at home and off-site was particularly challenging in maintaining efficient workflows, as data and information sharing can be much more siloed. However, this also presented an opportunity for nonprofits to look at existing processes, accountabilities and redundancies. This often involved organizational structure changes or outsourcing.

Key employees who perform meaningful work are more engaged and easier to retain. Nonprofits should therefore evaluate their talent resources and develop strategies for the attraction and retention of a team that will focus on attaining the organization’s mission. A consideration in the talent strategy is the assessment of what work could be outsourced.

Outsourcing work—especially in information technology management, finance and accounting—can be a great way to save time and money, while providing security and consistency. Outsourcing can help nonprofits build sustainable technology and business processes. It can also help organizations avoid unexpected challenges related to turnover and recruiting, as well as provide flexibility to scale staff as organizational needs change.

For nonprofits, outsourcing can be a key differentiator, setting them apart from competitors.

While setting up an outsourcing solution may appear arduous, it has never been easier. Nonprofits can hire a consultant to help integrate outsourcing solutions, which could allow nonprofits to save money, work more efficiently and have timely data.

5. Virtual and other delivery models for programs and fundraising

Virtual events don’t feel quite the same as in-person events, but they have helped many nonprofits survive.

Many nonprofits, even the technological laggards, have caught up on technology during the pandemic. A big reason is that cutting-edge technology has become more inexpensive and easily accessible. Now, unlike five or 10 years ago, there are push-button solutions that allow nonprofits to communicate with far-flung employees and members. These solutions include environments for virtual conferences, meetings and fundraisers.

Organizations with good data streams will navigate this new hybrid virtual and in-person world the best. Comparing numbers between in-person, virtual and mixed events will become essential for success.

If an organization uses data to determine that a virtual event doesn’t add value, then it can just go back to in-person events. And it might not be one-size-fits-all. There are many organizations, particularly networking organizations, where physical presence is highly preferred. Then there are others, which are just strictly charitable, that don't need to actually have that annual picnic—they may still get everybody’s $100 if they just send an email.

Agility is the key to long-term survival

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that nonprofit leaders need to be prepared for almost anything, and that agility is key to long-term survival. Organizations that can quickly switch directions, adopt new standards and accommodate changes in demand will be in the best position to respond to the next disruption. Those who fail to make the right investments in their processes and technologies to be more agile will only fall farther behind.

This article was originally published in April 2021 and has been updated.

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