Planning in the Time of COVID-19

| by Staci Barfield

This past week has been unlike any other I have experienced. While it reminds me of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other unexpected events that have rocked our world, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a different type of uncertainty, anxiety, and feeling of surrealism. Collectively, we are in fear for our health and that of our friends and family, the stability of our jobs and the economy as a whole, and our inability to project when things might go back to normal, or at least some kind of new normal. Rather than come together physically for support and comfort, we’re adapting to an environment of phone calls, video conferences, and virtual hugs and happy hours.

Last week our team shared some thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic. As we’ve all witnessed, the situation is a moving target. In just a week, businesses have closed and school shutdowns have been extended. Along with the rest of us, nonprofit leaders are facing HARD decisions.

As consultants, our team is spending a significant amount of time working with our clients, past and present, to help them understand what these changes mean for their organizations and the people they support. So many of those we work with are on the front lines providing food, shelter, healthcare, and other direct services. Other clients are the foundations, associations, and second-line organizations that provide the backbone for the nonprofit sector.

The questions we are hearing from our clients and partners are WHAT DO WE DO? DO WE CONTINUE TO MOVE FORWARD WITH (fill-in-the-blank)? While there aren’t any quick solutions, the answer usually begins with assessing where you are, determining where you need to be, and setting a path to get there. In other words, you need a plan.

A client I am working with to develop the next iteration of their strategic plan asked if I thought we would get valid stakeholder feedback if we sent out a survey or conducted (virtual) interviews during this time. My response: “This is probably the most real feedback you’ll ever get.”

Crisis has a way of putting priorities in order. Undertaking a strategic planning effort now will likely call out different, but very real, initiatives on which the organization should focus. A threat that we never saw coming is now front-and-center on every SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, and each organization has to determine how it’s going to respond.

A strategic plan should set a consistent direction, but it doesn’t have to be static. For those who are in the middle of executing an existing strategic plan, it may be prudent to re-evaluate priorities and adjust where needed, but there is no need to scrap your plan and start from scratch. For those in need of a strategic plan, this might be a good time to undertake the effort, assuming you have the bandwidth to do so.

A good strategic plan weighs environmental factors and defines how to move forward in light of them. Given that, the plan will always lay out the right next steps because it is a response to a specific point in time. Planning during crisis can help us hone in on mission and vision quickly, and clearly articulate core values that govern how we operate as a team and what behaviors will make us successful. Unexpected situations like the one we are in now highlight gaps so we can decide what actions to take to address them.

There’s no doubt that strategic planning for a lot of nonprofits will look different now than it did just months ago. Rather than growth goals and new programs, I imagine we’ll see more emphasis on technology upgrades, personnel policies, and crisis communications. We’ll talk more about maintaining strong donor relations, building a healthy reserve fund (and when to utilize it), and mitigating risk. While these may seem tactical, they are by default strategic if they help your organization achieve its objectives.

There is no single right answer to the questions about what to do to move forward. But, in my opinion, laying out a plan is a pretty good start.

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