photo by Mohamed Nohassi

2021: Ten Trends for Significant Nonprofit Survival

Written by James V. Toscano and Dania Toscano Miwa

2021 will be a year of transition for nonprofit organizations as well as for the rest of society. Transition does not mean heading back to the business as usual of 2019, but movement toward a blending of what was, what has been learned, what has changed and what is needed for a more equitable and just society.

The Pandemic taught us many things and reminded us of things we knew, but were easy to push to the back burner.  It changed patterns of thought, behavior and action. Our culture, society, economy, technology and all other aspects responded. We hear of the new normal; rather it will be many new normal structures and practices that affect various segments of society differently.

Nonprofits overall are not in great shape, yet their promise remains. Most focused on near-term survival in 2020. Some areas, healthcare, social service and education responded brilliantly to virus and lockdown and are largely exhausted. Others, the arts especially, have been placed on hold. The sector has survived shock and reversal and is now poised for renewal and growth. Still, many are poised to make radical and meaningful change in this new period.

Government programs, with the SBA’s PPP in the lead, have provided some relief, although a number of nonprofits will not open their doors in 2021. This is especially true of the smaller groups, those where new ideas often flourish, where special, localized needs are met and where new processes and solutions are often operationalized.

2020 stands out as a year where our sector also responded to increased need, where new learning and adaption took place and where new visions of future action enlivened us. Now, in 2021, it is the time to rebuild, re-employ those who lost positions and fulfil an expanded mission of the nonprofit for society benefit.

There is a very bright future in the long run for the nonprofit sector, especially by reimagining our work and adapting to the many new needs, preferences, processes, technologies and behaviors of the last year. Of the many, many of these, we suggest consideration of the following ten:

  1. Our Constituencies Have Changed

The individuals and groups we serve have been altered by the pandemic experience, in some ways permanently. There is more need, there is different need, there are different players, there are new ways to work and there are new expectations. The successful nonprofit will communicate with its existing and potential constituencies in depth to learn what is important, what is expected and what is needed before making program decisions. For example, an increasingly diverse constituency now expects better, coordinated service, more rapid turnaround and even more rapid delivery of service, directly and digitally.

  1. The Economy’s Experience With Both Boom and Bust in 2020 Will Tell the Tale

The irony of record mass unemployment at the same time of record stock market performance has profound implications for the nonprofit. Our constituencies – clients, patients, donors, media, government and public – are in very different places with very different agendas. With both stock prices and savings up, there is actually a larger pool of funds that may be available, especially from major donors and foundations. Well planned, realistic annual and capital drives will do well. With an activist government coming into power, there will be opportunities for partnerships with public entities to serve those in society disadvantaged by what has evolved.

  1. Management Will Have a New Job Description

The requirement of those providing leadership to our sector for efficiency, accountability, impact and positive results will necessitate new management focus, new organizing of work and a massive dose of worker engagement. Chain of command and span of control will have very different meanings in flatter, more engaged, networked and resilient teams of workers. Silos, non-communication, non-networking are a thing of the past. Physical spaces and the need for them have also been altered – many organizations may choose to stay mostly or all remote, where mission allows.

  1. Equity Will Mean Action

Beyond qualified diversity training, which is only a minimal first step, successful organizations will need to act at the system change level. Examples range from actively recruiting and promoting individuals with diverse backgrounds, ethnicity, race and abilities.  It is important to form these agile, resilient teams, both ad hoc and standing, with decentralized authority and accountability to perform at all levels in an organization.

White workers must understand equity is their issue to resolve favorably for a more successful future for themselves, their colleagues and the benefit of the full organization. This future means where talent will be prioritized over tenure or the tenets of “we’ve always done it this way”.  Such diversity will also remake many of the external functions of a nonprofit, especially in focus, constituency and philanthropy. Work must continue to be done between donors, organizations and communities – one cannot dominate the others.

  1. Increased Reliance on Digital Methodology Will Be the Way

The pandemic made digital communication a more important tool for many aspects of life. The successful nonprofit will expand and accelerate this digital transformation for client, donor, employee and public engagement. Communication, surveys and interaction digitally will increase manyfold. The push of newsletters and the pull of websites will take on increased significance in this engagement. Relationships with donors, alumni, clients, patients and others digitally will expand the range of possibly ways to both serve them and to obtain the necessary resources to do so.  Automation, where possible, will enhance the capability to serve.  Noncontact delivery of services will be an increased component of a nonprofit’s work.

  1. Data Will Also Be the Way

As part of the Internet of Things, the collection, analysis, reporting and storing of digital data will revolutionize the ability of a nonprofit to benefit society. Combined with the Artificial Intelligence by-product of such analysis, nonprofits will understand in much great depth the needs of constituencies and will develop the tools and processes to better serve them. In development, for example, knowing lifetime value of donors will make fundraising a much-more efficient and effective process, when combined with increased stewardship based on the values and hopes of those providing the resources to make it all happen. This can also present an incredible opportunity to expand constituency beyond a physical location or region to those who can create a compelling and mission focused plan.

  1. Training and Upskilling as a Constant Will Mark the Successful Nonprofit

Such change will require investment and reinvestment in systems and people. Digital, data, analytics, websites, communication and related technologies alone will require continuing training and upskilling of work forces. They will also require capital investment in hardware and software. Given the constant upgrading of these modalities and invention of new and better ways to accomplish results, learning new skills will also become a permanent and relatively large budget expense as well as a major portion of time spent on the job.

  1. Partnership and Merger Will Emerge as Even More Viable Avenues

The above necessities for success will weigh heavily on smaller and middle-sized organizations, often unable to marshal necessary resources to remain viable. Innovative ways to achieve these necessary functions will be devised.  For example, joining together to share such back office functions as accounting, HR and purchasing makes sense, as may communications, perhaps even marketing and development. Above all, combining in larger groups, or relying on trade associations or state associations, training will become available and affordable, allowing the creativity of the smaller groups to continue. Clearly merger, especially among strong nonprofits with scalability potential, remains a viable and attractive option.

  1. Success through Co-operation with Existing and New Actors

Partnerships, co-operative arrangements, contracts and sub-contacts, as well as new modes of cooperation and coordination, will grow to new levels to create the critical mass needed in some of these new normals’ economics and sociology to optimize societal benefit. These arrangements will not only include other nonprofits, but foundations, businesses and government. Especially appealing will be the business B-Corps, social impact for-profits and related entities. 

  1. Solutions and Cures

The above work, especially with B-Corps’ and social impact for-profits’ innovative methodology, combined with nonprofit mission and expertise, will increase the focus of our joint ventures on actual solutions and cures for problems. Clearly, this will require an increase in GDP share, and will hold the prospect of actual elimination of some of the most distressing, disturbing yet solvable societal dysfunctions. Government will be an active financial and legislative partner in this, as will enlightened foundations and corporations.


  1. Excellent overview! Props!

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