The greatest threat to an understaffed nonprofit is not missing out on the opportunity to grow programs or deepen donor relations. It is burning out your high performers. It’s an old story where the successful and diligent are punished with rising expectations and more pressure. Sadly, no good deed goes unpunished.
Yet, in an economic downtown it only makes sense to be conservative with your organization’s pocketbook, and salaries make up a considerable portion of expenses. In these uncertain times, nonprofits are more vulnerable and more risk averse—and so they need their top performers to continue to channel their creativity and resiliency to help pull at the oars and keep the organization afloat.
However, COVID-19 is not something for us simply to “get through” with grit and bootstraps. This crisis demands a new “playbook.” As Crouch, et al. explain in “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup,”
“This is a time to urgently redesign our work in light of what we believe is not just a weeks-long ‘blizzard,’ not even just a months-long ‘winter,’ but something closer to the beginning of a 12–18 month ‘ice age’ in which many assumptions and approaches must change for good.”
Whether you were looking to hire before COVID-19 or were adequately staffed, nonprofits now must work not only harder, but smarter in this economy. The costs of development turnover—especially in this economy—are painfully high. Development staff are investments whose positions have a direct correlation to revenue. As we learn the new rules of doing business and adjust to this new normal, there may be some smart maneuvers to keep you swimming.
If you haven’t already conducted a development staff audit, do so now. Prioritizing donor relations is key right now, so if you must, reconfigure responsibilities so that as many employees as possible are reaching out to donors regularly through phone calls, personal emails, and virtual meetings. Fundraising has always been about relationships: organize your staff accordingly so that they can be effectively deployed to cultivate donor relations.
Likewise, look for ways to internally promote or reward promising employees. Top employees are always seeking prospects to grow and be challenged—use them. They will appreciate being trusted as well as the opportunity to add value by using their resourcefulness and drive to make up for what they lack in experience.
Put off the analytics and side projects, if you must, to spend more resources on donor relations, even if that requires back-office work to be outsourced.
Freezing hiring or restructuring your department to let the dust settle doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t need to get done. The last thing you want is for important work to slide onto the back burner or get placed unrealistically on someone else’s desk, and then completed at the expense of their own and (perhaps) more important work. Partnering with a firm to step into the breech temporarily may be an effective means to keep your department working at full capacity right now. Think of all the work that goes into donor research, grant writing, copywriting, direct-mail coordination, messaging, and even department management. You don’t want to fail to apply for grants just because you avoided hiring a part-time grant writer. The same goes for other areas of fundraising which are your revenue-generating expenses.
The costs associated with hiring, onboarding, and salary/benefits are significant. The benefit of hiring a firm is the immediacy and expert quality of the work. Most importantly, there is significantly less commitment: when you are in a better position to hire, you can simply walk away from the engagement, which is not always as easy with an employee. You may, moreover, have a clearer idea in what you need from an employee when the time comes, having been able to execute that work temporarily.
That said, it may make sense to hire, especially if you need more donor-facing staff. Times of stress often lead to bad decision making, and to avoid having the wrong person in the position, stay true to basic hiring principles. Importantly, remain specific in your job description and avoid comprising on mission and culture fit, which usually comes back with a vengeance. Interviewing is a process that requires a lot of attention and diligence; invite your trusted confidants into the deliberation, and don’t sacrifice being thorough because of current pressures.
If you were planning to hire before the crisis but are playing your cards closer to your chest, that’s not unwise. But if the right person comes along, think seriously about whether you can and should make the investment right now. Staff that reduce inefficiencies or cut out other expenses can help revenue, even in the short run. And donor-facing staff drive your revenue. If you have a real need for more donor-facing staff, that is because you have revenue-growth potential. Consider seriously whether that potential is still there, and then consider seriously whether to take the risk on the new employee. Bold, courageous, and strategic leaders will emerge from this crisis much better than their more timid and less strategic peers.
Take care of your employees. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because employee productivity drops off at a certain point, and even goes so far as to become negative after a certain number of hours—additional work leads to mistakes and reduced morale. It’s not simply a matter of diminishing returns here. While there are many ways to build in support, demonstrating that you take employee well-being into consideration and that you are willing to make decisions to organize the best structure for everyone’s good will go a long way toward deepening trust and good will during hard times.
Having direct conversations to reconfigure responsibilities is worthwhile if it means that your department remains successful in supporting the organization’s mission. You may need to hire, but don’t get sloppy in rushing the process or decision. See where current staff are willing and able to step up or to pivot their roles and responsibilities—maybe they can cut something out temporarily (or permanently), or maybe extra responsibilities will lead to increased efficiencies. Finally, lean on worthwhile consulting and service firms during this time to prevent you from falling behind on what only you can do best.