novel nonprofit economy

We are witnessing the rise of a new generation of donors and nonprofit employees. Brian Solis, Global Innovation Evangelist and Digital Anthropologist, calls this Generation Novel, or Gen N. This is an evolution, accelerated by the COVID pandemic and social upheaval, from what he previously called Generation Connected, or Gen C.

The digital revolution created hyper-connection. And hyper-connection came with its set of consequences. Gen C’s digitally-connected consumers were heavily influenced by the very nature of these experiences. They shaped how they felt, thought and operated in the marketplace. The pandemic hastened digital interactions; the experience evolved. Gen N began to emerge, shaped by constraints like mask-wearing, abrupt work from home transitions, and lifestyle and health traumas wrought by the pandemic. This was capped by massive social divisiveness and upheaval and a civil rights movement. Those who lived through it will never be quite the same. 

We’re living in a new time of disruption, Solis argues, making old ways of doing things obsolete. This may seem scary, but it’s actually a way of modern life. Change happens fast, and we must adapt or die. Old dogs must learn new tricks to keep getting rewards.

What must your organization do now to position your mission to thrive, not just survive, once the threat from the current pandemic has been vanquished? This is a question I broached in “What Will a Post-COVID Nonprofit Economy Reveal?” We looked at problems associated with “status quo” management and thinking. And the difference between “iteration” and “innovation.” And why forecasting for “going back to normal” is not a good business plan. Why? 

We’re living in a transformational – new and unprecedented – novel nonprofit economy. It will never go backwards, any more than civilization moved back to “normal” after the discovery of fire or the wheel. 

 “I think normal was part of the problem to begin with. And I think striving for mediocrity or settling for mediocrity is not okay in a time of both great disruption and also great opportunity for innovation.”

— Brian Solis

So what is the “Novel Nonprofit Economy” – post COVID — and how do you successfully navigate it to reap the rewards you need to keep your mission afloat? Please read my article linked above; let’s then explore further. 

Here are several questions for your consideration. I suggest using these as a brainstorming exercise with your team (executive management; development; board or whoever your key stakeholders are) to develop the raw material you’ll need to create a future-facing strategic plan that speaks to the times in which we’re living.

1. How has your own world perspective changed over the past umpteen months?

You’ve probably experienced some strong emotions.

You may have felt anger… anxiety… appreciation… awkwardness… boredom… confusion… depression… disgust… empathic pain… envy… excitement… fear… frustration… grief… hatred… joy…love… pity…relief… sadness… shame…suffering… surprise… trust… and more.

And these emotions likely informed how you made decisions navigating the novel landscape.

Brian Solis, and psychologists and neurobiologists, uses the term somatic marker to help define this experience and its effects. Somatic marker theory, developed by Antonio Damasio and other researchers, hypothesizes strong emotions guide behaviors and subsequent decision making. In the case of COVID-19, these might include new ways of shopping, living, and a more pervasive digital first mindset. In the case of social and political upheaval, these might include coming together with others to advocate, share music and art, create and offer support (sometimes virtually).

Your donors have experienced strong emotions too.

And it’s likely their behaviors were similarly informed.

2. How have you considered your donors’ changed perspectives in your fundraising and marketing strategies?

And how did this work out? What did you learn that will help you navigate the way forward? Are your results related to external environmental factors or internal strategic ones?

  • Did you raise more money or less? 
  • Did you recruit new donors, or not? 
  • Did you lose more donors than usual, or keep more than you thought you would?
  • What new strategies did you add?
  • What strategies did you subtract?
  • What did you keep doing, but differently?

Whatever you did, evaluation is in order to assess what worked, what didn’t and why. Some of what happened may be beyond your control; most of it, however, traces back to what you decided to do or not do.

  • You may have sent crisis appeals, assuming your supporters would want to help you keep doors open and/or meet new and growing needs. 
  • You may have cut back on fundraising appeals, assuming your supporters would feel strapped, uncertain and wary of commitment. 
  • You may have cut back on marketing communications, assuming constituents wouldn’t want to hear from you right now. 
  • You may have focused more on individual major giving since foundations and businesses were cutting back. 
  • You may have transitioned in-person events to virtual ones, reasoning a half a loaf was better than none. 
  • You may have simply tried to maintain giving at close to past levels, prioritizing more check-ins (e.g., phone calls, emails, mailed notes, texts and social media) with donors to build relationships and set the stage for asking again as we emerge from the crisis.
  • You may have sent a donor survey to find out how your supporters felt about engaging with your mission during this period, and when they might feel ready to re-engage more robustly.

None of these strategies is necessarily good or bad per se. Different organizations will see different results. It bears stating, however, simply assuming how donors will behave is never a good idea

3. How do you imagine your constituents will feel and behave over the next umpteen months?

And how will you find out so you don’t have to assume? 

Ask your supporters directly.

Do this via survey, focus group, or one-to-one interviews. Ask questions like:

  • Which of the following describes your mood over the past 6 months? [Suggest strong emotions; have them pick the top 3 – 5 or check all that apply].
  • Which of the following describes your anticipated mood over the coming 6 months?
  • Which describes your relationship with (name of organization)? [Include options like annual donor, monthly donor, former donor, board member, former board member, committee volunteer, direct service volunteer, in-person event attendee, virtual event attendee, conference call participant, fundraiser, social media advocate, member, program participant, student, patient and client. Suggest they check all that apply].
  • Which of the following will you consider doing in the coming year? [Suggest activities, as appropriate to your nonprofit, e.g., volunteering, attending an in-person event, making a first-time gift, renewing my gift, giving more, committing to monthly giving, leaving a legacy gift, participating in a peer fundraising campaign, purchasing services].
  • Which causes have you supported over the past 12 months? [Pick the top 3 – 5]. It’s optimal to select causes you think may have a relationship to what you do. For example, if you’re a theater program that offers tickets to children, you might include education and youth services as options. If you’re a social services organization, you might include human rights, health care and social justice as options. This will give you hints as to what your supporters value that may overlap with the values you enact.
  • Have you interacted digitally with any organizations over the past 12 months? [List causes related to what you do, e.g. cultural institutions, environmental organizations, human services, journalism, justice and legal, education, international relief, veterans organizations, religious organization, etc.].
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, how much did you enjoy your virtual interactions? [Not at all; Not much; Neutral; Enjoyed; Enjoyed more than anticipated].
  • How much would you prefer to return to in-person interactions? [Not at all; Not much; Neutral; Very much; Can’t wait!].

4. How does your business model incorporate today’s constituent perspectives?

Solis says successfully navigating the novel nonprofit economy will require a “new operating system” in which skills like creativity and innovation will be at a premium. He advises moving from a business culture focused on surviving and reacting to one focused on modernizing and operationalizing for transitions.

What does this look like?

Go back to the very beginning. Pretend you are just in the stages of founding your nonprofit. What would need to be in place before you began to even think about fundraising? Clearly you would need to answer these questions:

  • What is your compelling mission vision?
  • How will you fulfill this mission and vision?
  • What values will underlie your work?
  • What client constituencies will benefit from your vision, mission and values?
  • What support constituencies will resonate with your vision, mission and values?
  • Where will you find these constituencies?
  • What communications methods will you use to reach them?
  • Do you have needed staff and volunteer resources, including plans to train, engage and retain them?
  • Do you have internal commitment and alignment around your purpose among all stakeholders?
  • Do you have necessary facilitating internal systems, policies and procedures and controls?
  • Do you have a written, strategic plan outlining all of the above and delineating priorities?

It may be time for an update or refresh. Especially in light of changed perspectives. Because of the novel economy we’re in, your constituents may be looking for something slightly different. They may experience your brand in a new light. What can you do to connect afresh?

5. How do you adapt your touchpoints model to create a transformative donor journey?

Your supporters are on a journey you hope will intersect with your brand. Consider your brand the entirety of your vision, mission and values rolled into one. Brian Solis suggests a journey model for business that’s eminently adaptable for the social benefit sector. The brand derives strength from the spokes of the wheel. Consider how these can manifest as touchpoints for your supporters. You may have already temporarily adapted to changed consumer habits and demands (e.g. virtual events; safety procedures; support for outdoor activities; solidarity statements). Which of these innovations should become a permanent part of your “thrive” (not just “survive”) constituent experience and dynamic donor journey?  

Image from Brian Solis

‘Customer experience’ and ‘donor experience’ have been a ‘thing’ for a while now. We know when folks have positive engagement experiences with you they will tend to identify more and more with your values. In creating these experiences, or touchpoints, think from the perspective of Generation Novel, shaped by the events of recent history. 

  • How can you align with current donor values to create better supporter experiences?
  • How can you establish trust you fulfill on your mission and care about your donors?
  • How can you communicate renewed vision amidst a time of rapid change?
  • How can you show empathy?
  • How will you communicate evolved authentic purpose and empowered culture, internally and externally?
  • How will you incorporate new demands for safety?
  • What do you need to do to move to a digital first operation that meets the needs of “Gen C” and “Gen N?”

The post-COVID novel nonprofit economy will be a digital first, transformed marketplace that requires a profound and humanist approach. For years, Brian Solis has called this evolution Digital Darwinism: the speed at which companies evolve to survive and thrive in a digital economy. Even before the pandemic hit, Solis wrote that “digital transformation will start to become synonymous with business modernization and innovation.” And now we have global social upheaval layered on top.

Nonprofits are not immune. They, and their constituents, live, grow and/or die — all in the same novel nonprofit economy. Supporter expectations are changing; new technologies are being thrust upon us. Seriously, sit down with your team and use these questions to brainstorm ways to navigate the post-COVID novel nonprofit economy. Ask yourself: “How can our brand become the light people are seeking in a time of darkness?”

Be the light.

The way forward may be uncharted and a little bit scary, but don’t hold fast to fear. Fear is contagious. But so is hope.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.