Five Lessons We Have Learned About Organizational Survival

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A Palm Springs (CA) based women’s assistance program had been slammed by the impact of Covid-19: staff, volunteers and the board were demoralized and confused. The organization had run out of funds and was trying to get out of their office lease. In short, they were preparing to shut down. Covid-19 had almost forced a local senior citizen center to close its doors to high-risks seniors and the executive director realized they faced a deficit they could not overcome. These two organizations, along with five others, attended one of our recent Organizational Survival and Sustainability Masterclasses as all were grappling with the impact of Covid-19.

Since Covid-19 hit, Caravanserai Project has completed its first series of Masterclasses involving some thirty mission-driven organizations from Southern California. Here are the most important five lessons we have learned that mission-driven organizations should consider in order survive during this pandemic:


This is the time to clean up your operations and the way you present yourself. Nowadays, your organization is just a click away and almost everything is on display for everyone to access. A clear, accurate branding and messaging will increase your organization’s chances to survive. It also helps your audience better place you in the current context. We have seen funders wanting to support an organization, but after looking at the organization’s website and finding a confusing mess, outdated information, not sign of any recent 990s or incomplete filings, they walked away refusing to fund it.


Clean up your website; refine and get clear on your message: what you stand for, what you do, who you are, how others can support you. Make sure your 990tax filing is on-time, complete and available. Learn how to hold and participate effectively in on-line gatherings. Be in contact with as many stakeholders as possible.


Building relationships is vital to survival and sustainability, especially person-to-person contact. Have an honest conversation, share your outlook, and ask for help. The worse thing we can do now is to be silent or ignore our changed reality. Your constituents are looking for information and direction from you. After the senior center did a 360-degrees reach out to its stakeholders, it had raised enough money to secure the organization for a least 18 months.


Call your donors, board members, bankers, elected officials and other supporters. Talk to your staff, volunteers and, of course, your clients/beneficiaries. Look beyond your own region and usual group of peers.


Unable to host visits to its site, a chimp sanctuary in Florida recently used cameras on the chimp islands so anyone can go online and follow their favorite chimps. Mental health programs are doing one on one and group work online. The White House Historical Association conducts weekly on-line visits led by curators developing over the last few months a following of over 2000 attendees. The local women’s assistance program mentioned above moved their annual January event online and has secured more sponsors than before.


Rethink your service delivery model and how you interact with your stakeholders. Develop online programs and services built on the strength of the organization.


In a recent report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Who will be left standing?”, author Ben Gose writes about surviving the pandemic. His conclusion reflects a harsh future: “midsize charities face the greatest risks. Their higher fixed costs, like real estate and employees, make it hard for them to be as nimble as small groups, and they often don’t have the healthy reserves and endowments many larger nonprofits enjoy”. To survive, he strongly recommends developing three scenario planning: “a baseline expectation, a more positive outcome, and a dire one”.

First, understand where you are today, including access to cash, your ongoing operational costs, your key risks and opportunities. Then set three points in time – like 3 months, 9 months and 18 months – to build your scenarios. How bad could it be? Will you scale back, redirect, be forced to close? Then do a scenario of the best case. What is most important for your beneficiaries? While avoiding mission creeping, you may want to restate your mission, based on a consistent vision, to better serve needs. The scenario planning will help you be prepared, allow you to seize opportunities and give you more clarity knowing your options.


Start building different scenarios for your organizations, staff, beneficiaries and supporters. Imagine options and alternatives and constantly reconsider your plans.


Understanding and addressing the needs of the vulnerable populations affected by Covid-19 and adopting an equity lens in your work are imperative to achieving meaningful impact. Investors and funders want to know that their support is addressing these issues and you need to not just respond but make these integral in your work.

In some recent work with the Inland Empire Funders Alliance, Inland Empire Community Foundation and others, over 400 hundred nonprofits in California’s Inland Empire region responded to questions regarding how they were serving vulnerable populations and using an equity lens in their outreach. The group found that many organizations did not understand the questions nor had any response. Many seemed out of step and less relevant.


Research, attend webinars (search: equity, justice, culture, humility, Covid impact). Talk to organizations and learn what others are doing. Gather your staffs, boards and volunteers and learn and plan together how you can do outreach. Be proactive in including people of color, women, people of different culture and LGBTQ. Set a model of equity and inclusion. Be able to communicate internally and externally your commitment and plan to respond to questions about your organization’s strategy to support people during this pandemic and create greater opportunity for everyone.

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