As 2020 draws to a close, the nonprofit sector continues to face economic and social challenges—ones that won’t immediately recede when the clock strikes midnight on our tumultuous year. The need for innovative solutions persists. And there’s no better time than the turning of a calendar year to think creatively and strategically about how our organizations can adapt and thrive. The world needs our service, resilience, and optimism more than ever!

In many respects, nonprofits face a heightened version of similar challenges they confronted last December, with their urgency intensified by the shifts created by the pandemic. At the same time, new opportunities have arisen. And the pandemic has given us all a chance to stop things that don’t work, and reset and iterate our way forward. While we can’t predict the future with certainty, it’s possible to anticipate and prepare for many changes that have the potential to propel long-term growth.

From our vantage point partnering with numerous nonprofits on organizational change projects, we see at least four specific opportunities in the new year. We offer them below in the form of New Year’s resolutions for your consideration.  

1. Optimize your mix of online and in-person events

Most mission-driven organizations pivoted to online events in 2020—some with more success than others. Now, with the possibility of in-person events dangling like a jewel in the eyes of some event planners in 2021, nonprofit leaders will have some hard calls to make. To what extent do they prioritize continued investment in online events, vs. some form of a return to traditional gatherings and conferences?

Of course, these considerations are made more complex by the uncertainty of demand for in-person events. Given how long we’ve been physically isolated, it’s tempting to want to believe the planet will be vaccinated by March, and that we’ll all be back to business as usual in late Spring. Yet we suggest significantly tempering this enthusiasm. Many have grown comfortable with the ease and accessibility of online events, which have quickly become the new standard. And squeezed budgets may limit the rush back to hotel conference rooms—particularly for businesses and individuals who will not prioritize travel for anything not strictly mandatory.

Instead of a mass return to the events of yesteryear, we expect many nonprofits will focus on hosting a far smaller number of in-person gatherings in 2021, focusing on quality and intimacy for these experiences. They will be highly targeted, emphasizing one-to-one connection among those who are yearning for personal interaction. A relatively high cost per attendee can be offset by deeper levels of engagement among these supporters. 

In addition, we expect a growing number of hybrid events in 2021—larger gatherings that are designed to accommodate both in-person and online attendees. When executed well, these hybrid events can be a smart strategic move; many policy organizations already excelled in them before the pandemic. Yet when they are not properly funded and staffed, organizations risk delivering a substandard digital experience that actually turns off key stakeholders, rather than deepening their engagement. Executives who wish to pull this model off need to understand the risks and invest accordingly.

Meanwhile, online-only events are here to stay. They offer prime opportunities for audience expansion, brand visibility, and affinity building that may not have been fully appreciated before they became the “new normal” in 2020. At the same time, virtual event organizers need to continue finding ways to deepen audience engagement in these online spaces. While digital events will never fully replicate the spontaneity and dynamism of the best in-person experiences, are there fresh ways to enable the kinds of informal, self-selected networking that so many of us prized at happy hours and conferences? As tech platforms evolve, new capabilities will emerge that support this engagement and intimacy—and nonprofits will be wise to identify and use them.

To support the success of all these mission-critical gatherings, some organizations may want to revisit their models for event staffing and planning. In many nonprofits, the events team has traditionally operated in its own silo. Yet now more than ever, successful events require integrating internal expertise across multiple disciplines—including operations, IT, digital communications and production, and fundraising—all with strong executive engagement. Does your current approach to events facilitate this integrated process? If not, what changes would better support your organizational goals?

2. Stay the course on digital transformation

In the past year, our professional and personal lives have revolved around digital experiences like never before: Zoom connects us with friends and family; Netflix and its brethren entertain us; Amazon stocks our shelves and delivers essentials; DoorDash and online grocers keep us fed. These companies specialize in offering convenient, relatively seamless digital experiences—ones that we and many colleagues have likely come to take for granted.

As your stakeholders have grown ever more familiar and comfortable with high quality digital experiences, you’re likely to find an increased set of digital expectations awaiting you at work in 2021. 

Many clients have told us that the collective experience of remote work in 2020 has already deepened their executives’ understanding of the importance of digital transformation—that is, improving and integrating digital technology across all corners of the organization. This is a welcome development! In a world in which physically present in-person collaboration occurs somewhat less frequent, it’s critical that systems and technology help organizations to simplify their approaches, strengthen teamwork, and support strategic alignment of effort across silos. 

While fresh enthusiasm for digital transformation is (in some cases) long overdue, it’s also easy for some executives to underestimate the complexity of making it happen. If you haven’t purposely charted a multi-year path to transformation, there is a tendency for organizations to slip into a reactive, short-term orientation. Most often, this manifests in pressure to implement one-off system upgrades that fail to utilize transformational opportunities to integrate architecture, pool data across systems, and revolutionize capabilities across the organization.

A roadmap for digital transformation helps you set realistic expectations with your executive team, reorienting them towards the big picture. In reality, progress is never a linear path. Too many organizational cultures push managers to sweep disappointments and stumbling blocks under the rug. Yet short-term setbacks are inevitable with any significant organizational change. You still need to transform—it’s happening to you already. A multi-stage plan helps you and your organization to embrace the insecurity and discomfort, while moving at the right pace.

3. Think of your brand as the key to retaining audiences for growth and sustainability

It’s always true that consumers want to feel good about the brands they support. Yet given the levels of fear, cynicism and uncertainty that pervade in the current social and political climate, it’s especially critical right now to offer supporters positive, elevating experiences.

How is your organization using its brand to make audiences feel good about their alignment with the values you stand for? Given the changing ethics of consumerism, status increasingly comes not from conspicuous consumption, but from standing for something bigger than the self. People have a hunger for meaning and purpose—and your nonprofit is particularly well positioned to fill this need.

Pulling this off usually requires a mindset shift. We’ve noticed a growing number of nonprofits are adding the word “Brand” to the job title of their communications leaders. This is an encouraging trend. Yet too few have truly moved beyond a transactional model of engagement, empowering supporters to grow into authentic brand ambassadors. Rather than sticking with narrow, campaign-oriented audience engagement goals (such as attendance and donation behavior), is it possible to create a “shared brand” that invites supporters more fully into the inside of your organization? 

While immediate financial pressures may continue to push organizations towards short-term wins, it’s equally important to start thinking seriously about long-term brand stewardship and affinity building. All Fortune 500 companies know the quantifiable value of their brands. It’s past time that nonprofits did the same, recognizing that delivering a consistent, uplifting brand experience across all touchpoints supports their bottom line (and that employee enthusiasm plays a critical role in driving these brand perceptions).

4. Prepare for hybrid work models—with some employees in the office, and others at home

With the world cheering the rollout of multiple vaccines this winter, a return to the office will eventually be possible for many workers in 2021. Yet considerable uncertainty remains in terms of rollout and timing. What’s more, with differing home situations among colleagues, and varying levels of health vulnerability, it may not be possible—or even desirable—for all workers to return to their previous work routines. Many professionals have grown accustomed to the benefits of working from home, and dread the prospect of readjusting to long commutes!

If your organization expects to reopen physical office(s) in coming months, operations, IT and executive teams need to be planning now to ensure a seamless experience—particularly for those who elect to continue working remotely. If one employee joins their morning huddle at their home office, but all other colleagues gather in a joint conference room, will the remote worker still feel fully included in the esprit de corps of the team? 

This is not only a technical question, but a cultural one. It is incumbent upon leaders to set expectations and give clear guidance to ensure that managers across the organization prioritize the full engagement and inclusion of remote employees in the ongoing work of the organization. Otherwise organizations will risk losing top talent.

The future is what we make of it

In many ways, the past year has been a humbling one, with many of our best laid plans grinding to a halt in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. As we slowly move to the phase that comes next, there is much we don’t yet know. However, our core missions have not changed— and we retain the ability to proactively shape our future. 

We’ll continue helping community members to plan ahead for 2021 by sharing a wealth of insights and advice from mission-driven leaders who we admire in the coming weeks. Stay tuned on the PTKO blog! In the meantime, we’re curious to hear from you – what’s on your resolution list for the upcoming year? Please reach out with us here.

On a personal note, I love the song Don’t Change by INXS—I blast it every Saturday morning to get myself amped for my long runs, these lyrics have taken on new meaning for me in 2020:

“I’m standing here on the ground
The sky above won’t fall down
See no evil in all directions
Resolution of happiness
Things have been dark for too long” 

My resolution is happiness.