Mark Payne: Survival of nonprofits through COVID-19 may help prevent ‘crisis after the crisis’

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The crisis after the crisis would be the death of some nonprofits that failed to forge a path to survive and serve.

As our society adjusts to the unprecedented, agonizing upheavals brought on by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, many Floridians will find themselves turning to nonprofit organizations to help them through the tough times ahead. What must nonprofits do to ensure that they survive so they can continue meeting public needs?

Communities throughout Florida benefit from the meaningful work done by nonprofit organizations in normal times by providing critical services for citizens with particular needs. In this strange and prolonged new normal, the role of key nonprofits is likely to become more important than ever.

In 50 years of serving nonprofits’ own financial counseling needs, our accounting firm has learned that many of them aren’t overly quick to recognize and nimble to respond to tidal-wave events that can threaten their very existence. So how do nonprofits get through this dark and historic period of social isolation and financial turmoil — a combination that makes it so much harder for them to serve their clients while also drying up the donations that keep the doors open (even if virtually)?

First, they need to recognize that they must be willing to take risks and do things that have never been done, or even heard of, in the nonprofit sector. They must quickly adapt to the new reality, from finding new ways to reach clients confined to their homes to becoming creative in running their own business operations.

Nonprofit boards and their appointed CEOs should be conferencing at least weekly until this pandemic has passed, rather than the more common monthly meetings. CEOs should be communicating daily with their staff, using digital tools like Zoom or Skype to engage team members with ideas on how to manage scarce resources. And as the ground keeps shifting under everyone’s feet, boards and CEOs should be developing weekly cash flow projections, contacting vendors and funders to help manage the shortage of cash flow, and reaching out to local banks on deferred payment plans on mortgages and other debts.

Nonprofits with similar missions should consider consolidating limited resources to work for the greater good: shared accounting, IT services and other “back office” functions are feasible.

Let’s do everything that is possible to stay afloat.

Finally, nonprofits must be ready to capitalize on federal legislation enacted in response to the COVID-19 crisis. They should already be identifying aspects of the new laws that can help them through this time — to retain their relevant ability to serve.

Nonprofits should solicit guidance from existing organizations whose mission is to serve the broad nonprofit community. The state capital of Tallahassee, for example, has such local organizations as United Partners for Human Services and the Institute for Nonprofit Innovation and Excellence — other such organizations exist around the state to serve their nonprofit sector.

Most important, nonprofits need to exhibit a constant willingness to change — and change quickly, as necessary. The plans they had Monday may not survive through Tuesday. And they must recognize that what worked for survival back in the 2008 financial crisis will not be enough to make it through this pandemic.

Large numbers of Floridians depend on nonprofits to help them through each day, and that number may well explode in the weeks and months ahead. Organizations within the nonprofit space must act now in order to ensure that they are still around to help our state move forward once this horrendous crisis has passed.

The crisis after the crisis would be the death of some nonprofits that failed to forge a path to survive and serve.

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Mark Payne is a partner in the Tallahassee office of James Moore & Company certified public accountants.

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