After the two+ years of exceptional circumstances challenging nonprofits, deciding how to move forward can be overwhelming. JBL Strategies invited David C. Smith, CEO of United Way for Greater Austin, to share his perspective on trends for nonprofit survival in 2022, highlighting people, leadership and uniting as key.
Asked to write about trends for nonprofit survival in 2022, I first acknowledge how much has shifted in the last two+ years. There are so many issues and challenges demanding our attention, it can often feel overwhelming: technology, infrastructure, cyber security, public funding, State and local recovery funds: ARPA, social media, and digital fundraising are just a few. Any of these alone could deservedly take up pages as trends worthy of our discussion.
As we come out of the worst of COVID, there is a lot on the plates of nonprofits in 2022. The lingering anxiety around COVID leads to fundamental questions for so many organizations:
• What will our work place look like and how do we build a culture when so many of us enjoy working from home?
• How will we continue to raise the funds we need with so much ongoing uncertainty and increased need?
• How do we attract the highest quality staff and Board members and make sure they represent the diverse fabric that makes our community so strong?
• What changes might we need to make to most efficiently provide the services and impact the community we serve?
Most of all, nonprofits are struggling because those we serve are struggling. During and post COVID, we have had a K shaped recovery: those already on the top increased their wealth, while those already on the bottom are struggling more than ever just to keep their heads above water. I believe it is the calling of our times that all of us speak out and work to create programs and policies that address this growing inequity.
As far as trends for nonprofit survival in 2022, there are three that stand out for me. Each matter in both the short and long term:
• People: Office/Remote/Hybrid/Culture/Workforce
• Leadership: Staff/Board/Diversity/Lived Experience
• Uniting: Collaborations. Uniting voices for advocacy, uniting for programs, uniting to serve (volunteering, getting to know each other)
First: People. I’m reminded daily that we are nothing without our talented teams who make all of the work happen. What is the trend? Investing in our teams beyond salary level, investing in the whole person, creating a work place where they grow as they serve.
We are stronger to solicit and listen to the voices of these dedicated champions of creating a better world, and to make changes that will allow them to both connect to their work, and reach peak productivity.
There are real challenges: salary inflation and a desire to work remotely while counting on the organization to create a vibrant, strong organizational culture. This is one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in 30 years of running nonprofits. We have done multiple surveys, deciding early on that the risk of over asking was worth keeping a solid pulse on how our people are.
What we’ve found is that they appreciate it. They want to share their voice, even need to share it. They have ideas, needs, and see this as a way to be connected and empowered when there is so much disconnection and disempowerment in the rest of their lives. These surveys have also increased transparency, which is the single most important path to building and keeping trust.
We’ve stumbled, some staff have created their own narrative if they felt out of the loop, but for the most part, we are finding our way, together, to create a flexible, hybrid working environment where everyone is reminded and understands their role in the larger organizational mission.
Next: Leadership. Organizational leadership reflects the priorities of an organization. What is the trend? Ensuring that your staff and Board truly reflect the community you serve.
This sounds obvious, and is something we were talking about 30 years ago. The fact that we are still needing to focus here is a reflection of how we are blinded by where power has been concentrated for so long. There is unlimited talent, brilliance, and a desire to serve in communities that have never historically been at the leadership table.
I believe true change here, having true diversity: racial, diversity of thought, and of lived experience, etc. is the single most important movement that will propel nonprofits to reach new heights in fundraising and impact.
Finally: Uniting. You may be aware of the NonprofitAF blog called: ”Stop asking nonprofits to merge.” I agree with much of it. However, it’s really more about the trend in leadership, than it is about efficiencies. What is the trend? Finding ways for your organization to leverage relationships with other organizations to increases impact.
It may not be popular to say this, but there are too many nonprofits. In Central Texas alone there are more than 7,000. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, MANY nonprofits doing fantastic, meaningful work. However, ask any donor, and almost all will share a fatigue from being asked by so many organizations that seemingly do very similar work.
We as nonprofit leaders should be doing all we can to eliminate myopic thinking, and increase collaboration. The sooner we do this, the more we can inspire the community to support what they know is a needed, non-duplicative service. The recent emergence here in the Central Texas region of Austin Together: Powering nonprofit collaborations reflects this movement, and the growing support for nonprofits to find ways to come together.
All I’ve mentioned are structural elements that contribute to a healthy environment, things we can do to help create a vibrant working culture, where people connect to each other, and also see how what they do makes a difference, and see how what their colleagues do makes a difference.
All of this points to the larger truth that we need to realize more than ever: that we are all interconnected. Your success is my success. Your struggle is my struggle, and that we will only succeed as an agency, as a city, a region, a country, and a world, when we realize that it’s not weakness to say we need each other. It’s a recognition of one of the most profound truths: that at the end of the day we are all brothers and sisters. The sooner we act like it, the better our world will be.
David C. Smith, CEO of United Way for Greater Austin, has been in Executive nonprofit leadership for over 25 years in Austin, Texas, leading mission-focused and results-driven organizations to substantial growth. David’s philosophy to nonprofit leadership is that, while there are many factors that go into a successful organization, one common thread through all is reaching out to diverse parts of the community to collaboratively find solutions that create real impact. In recognition of his leadership, David received the Best CEO Award from the Austin Business Journal in 2018.