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What Will A Post-COVID Nonprofit Economy Reveal?

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The onset, and the resilience, of the novel Coronavirus has been a gut punch for the world. Individuals, governments, and businesses – for-profit and nonprofit alike – are struggling in these disruptive times.

What must your organization do now to position your mission to thrive, not just survive, once this current threat has been vanquished?

Brian Solis, digital analyst, anthropologist, and global influencer offered some advice in a recent keynote at Nokia’s Real Talk 2020 conference: “This Is Not The New Normal Or The Next Normal: That’s For Everyone Else.” I’d like to add my thoughts.

The Normal or Status Quo Economy is Problematic

Staying in the same place is seldom a good idea. Usually, if you don’t grow and adapt you die.This is why Solis says “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 a great opportunity for innovation.

Solis makes a distinction between iteration and innovation. He says the combination of the two can lead to disruption – making old ways of doing things obsolete. This may sound scary to you, but we live in times of disruption. Always. When’s the last time you used a typewriter or kept donor records on cards in a shoebox? (Believe it or not, that’s how I began; I even sometimes miss those shoeboxes, but… it was necessary to move on).


Iteration is about doing the same things (or the same things as everyone else). It may mean investing in new technologies to improve efficiencies, but it’s a transactional shift, not a transformational one. You’re trading one tool for another to do essentially the same thing, maybe somewhat better.

For example, using Zoom for virtual meetings and events is an iterative adaptation. You’re doing fundamentally what you’ve always done; just using new tools because the old ones are not currently working. It’s a good adaptation, but it won’t move you out of status quo territory.

When you use new tools they may seem innovative to you. That’s not the way to judge innovation. Ask if the change will seem innovative to your customers. If everyone else is doing the same thing, the answer is likely ‘no.’


Innovation is creating new value or unlocking new value. It’s offering something to the customer – something they value — that previously did not exist.

For example, if you’ve started holding major donor visits via Zoom, this is iterative; it also becomes innovative if you keep it in your toolbox post-pandemic and make it a viable option for donors who prefer to connect that way. The added value that you unlock? Perhaps:

  • You can carry large major donor portfolios.
  • You can reach more broadly geographically.
  • You can justify hiring additional major gifts staff.
  • You qualify more prospects, meet with more donors and generate more gifts!

There are scads of innovative technologies on the horizon. Solis points to 5G, augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, robotics… about 30 different technologies looming that will usher in a Fourth Industrial Revolution. He wants everyone to reimagine ways of working and delivering on your promises, by both iterating and innovating

The Novel Coronavirus Presages a Novel Economy

It’s important to adapt in order to survive.

“Novel Economy is essentially inspired by the Novel Coronavirus because like the Novel Coronavirus novel itself just simply means new and unusual. These times are without precedent, but more importantly they’re without a vaccine for businesses alike. They are without a playbook and they are without a checklist or case studies that we can just follow forward.”

— Brian Solis

While the world searches for a vaccine to combat the virus, you’re seeking to inoculate yourself from the fall-out of multiple, unprecedented disruptions. No doubt you’ve been trying new things, reading articles, attending webinars and just generally seeking out wisdom about how to adapt to these unprecedented times. That’s good. In fact, Since March I’ve had a special section in my biweekly “Clairity Click-it e-newsletter headlined “Tips for Not-So-Normal Times.”

Learn; begin by staunching the bleeding. Then, when you’re able to breathe and look around, don’t just sit back. Begin your search for new opportunities.

The Novel Economy Starts with Surviving

Of course, you must first work out business continuity. In the midst of a novel crisis, you’re not in “normal;” you’re in “survival.” The Bee Gee’s song “Stayin’ Alive” is your theme song. You’re likely going to have to do some new and unusual things because what you did before just won’t be available to you.

While you’re innovating, consider how you might adapt what you’re learning for the next nonprofit economy. Figure out how to not just adjust for the novel economy we’re in, but to consider the post-COVID nonprofit economy that lies ahead. The world will look different, so think carefully about investing in the skill sets, technologies, operational systems, and increasingly digital business model that will stand you in good stead when we enter the next phase – where the rules of the game will have changed.

The Post-COVID Revolutionized Nonprofit Economy is about Thriving

In a post-COVID world, the nonprofits who thrive will be those who’ve figured out how to innovate the way forward. They’ll have unlocked new value by rethinking business and operational models. The organizations who sit tight and simply try to resume doing what they did before will move to what might be called a “new or next normal.” But you’re better than that.

While for-profit businesses focus on much-hyped new technology, where should your nonprofit turn its gaze?

Don’t worry you must throw the baby out with the bath water. There are plenty of tried-and-true fundraising practices that will still work for you, even though the water needs changing. The point of adaptation is doing so where it is required; not changing for the sake of change. Most fundraisers are primarily looking for a strategy that will raise money, not a strategy that will radically change the way fundraising is done. In an opinion offered on Plymouth’s Critical Fundraising blog, Ian MacQuillan wrote about how innovation can be viewed as a continuum from incremental, through radical to transformative.

It’s not unusual to hear proponents of innovation misappropriate [Charles] Darwin. “Innovate or die,” they say, whereas a truer interpretation of Darwinian principles is “adapt or die,” since the motivating force of evolution by natural selection is adaptation, not innovation. Organisms adapt to a changing environment; but they don’t innovate a new body design just because they haven’t done anything new for a few million years if they don’t need to (ask the shark, which has become the top oceanic predator using a body plan that’s remained pretty much unchanged for the past 350 million years, because it is so well adapted to is environment).

Consider new possibilities. Generally, what makes your constituents thrive will make you thrive too. What does often make sense for most charities is incremental innovation. Variations on a theme. But, again, not just variation for variation’s sake. Rather, variation that will be reasonably expected to improve upon the original idea based on (1) what is known about why it worked in a current or previous setting, and (2) why it might work differently in your setting—moving forward.

The Thriving Nonprofit Economy is Experiential

‘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.

Customer experiences are more important than ever before. In fact, Salesforce just released its state of the connected customer report. And in it, it says both business customers and also consumers – 80% of them combined said that experiences are as or more important than the products or services you sell.

— Brian Solis

Use the new technologies you’ve discovered, and will be discovering, to deliver more and more personal, engaging, and meaningful experiences. To your donors, board members, volunteers, clients, members, and staff. Yes, your staff! Think big and bold. Get outside the box of what you’ve always done. For bonus points, get outside the box of what everyone else (at least those in your neck of the woods) is doing.

Keep in mind the pandemic accelerated digital transformation. Necessity is the mother of invention. Take advantage of what’s been foist upon you. As necessity falls away, hopefully sometime late next year, you’ll need to become your own mother. What can you imagine? What might you invent?

Imagine Your New Nonprofit Experiential Economy or Culture

Disney calls the art of imagining the possible “Imagineering.” In Disneyland’s first few years, Walt and his Imagineers were interested in expanding Main Street USA as part of a partnership with General Electric. They envisioned ‘Edison Square’ to showcase GE technology, but the technology available was not advanced enough for the show Disney envisioned. The project stalled, but they went on to partner on the “GE Carousel of Progress” for the 1964 World’s Fair. It showcased the evolution of home appliances and technology and was an experience that forever bonded me to Disney (probably GE too if I’m honest). My mom generously catered to my desire to board the ride more than once, and to this day I remember (and sometimes sing!) the theme song: There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.”

“This is phase one of the Novel Economy. This is stuff that we’re doing right now, that was 10 years out because we had to do it. We had to make incredible shifts. And now that we saw that we can do the impossible, now the whole world is our oyster. What can we possibly do next?”

— Brian Solis

There’s something really optimistic and positive shining through here. The idea behind the Disney-G.E. partnership was to give audiences a nostalgic experience, looking at the past and reminding folks how quickly technology develops. Customer experience is an incredible differentiator and competitive advantage.

What about what you do holds nostalgia – yet also points the way ahead — for your audiences? How might you piggyback on that to deliver on both the nostalgia and a forward-thinking agenda? Disney imagined the future; then built it for today.

EXAMPLE: Arts organizations pivoted significantly when they had to close their physical doors last spring. Many have been offering streaming performances re-imagined for the novel world in which we’re living. Some are one-person theater shows or filmed inside with a few cameras, minimal staging, and strict COVID protocols. Dance companies have performed outdoors. Museums have hosted online tours, talks, and demonstrations. Aquariums have turned cameras on penguins roaming the halls. These are all remarkable adaptations given the very physical, communal nature of these organizations’ missions. Can what they’ve built for today become part of their future as well?

Create a Transformative Experience Center

Theme parks are experience centers; so are nonprofits. Think of your entire organization as a transformative experience center. Two decades ago I first encountered Penelope Burk and learned about “Donor-Centered Fundraising.” It transformed my understanding, and practice, of fundraising. I learned transactions – one-off donations, events, publications, etc. – are mere steps along a journey. Much better than selling a single product, or securing a one-time donation, is the holy grail of giving constituents ongoing experiences that make them want an ongoing affiliation with you and the like-minded community of which they envision themselves a part.

  • Your donors should want to give to you again.
  • Your volunteers should want to volunteer with you again.
  • Your staff should want to stay in their jobs.
  • Your board should want to give and get.
  • Your members should want to renew.
  • Your ticket buyers should want to re-subscribe.
  • Your patients should want to refer you to their friends.
  • Your students should want to become loyal alumni.
  • … and so on, all based on the wonderful experience with which they were provided.

Allow me to share my philosophy for special events, which has always sprung from Disney: Give people fun, emotional experiences that are more than they expected. A big, inviting welcome. Magical moments throughout. A big, cathartic closing. A fond farewell. Lots of appreciated goodies all along the way. An experience folks will remember so they’ll want to come again. And even share with all their friends.

Every member of your team has a role to play in being part of your creative and generous culture. The team is celebrated. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No one says “that’s not my job.” Everyone gives credit to others, and everyone regularly asks each other “how can I help you today?” Creativity is encouraged; failure is allowed. Mistakes are learned from.

“[C]reativity is more important now than ever. We need to imagine things that don’t exist today and we weren’t trained to be creative or innovative in the roles that we’re in today yet that’s exactly how we have to think as a technologist, as a designer, as a programmer, as a strategist, as an executive.”

— Brian Solis

Donor Service: Is Yours a Cost or Profit Center?

Look at each of your internal and external constituencies and imagine the experience you’re delivering to each of them. 

  • What was it pre-pandemic? Did you perhaps skimp a bit in an effort to keep costs and overhead low? This is a typical trap to many nonprofits and, over time, it’s a killer.
  • What is it mid-pandemic? Did you cut costs even more? Or did you perhaps reach out more personally in an effort to connect? Was there a benefit from that experience?
  • How do you imagine it might be better post-pandemic? A recent article from The Agitator asks Does Your Donor Service Deliver “WOW!”? This is the type of experience I’ve been encouraging you to deliver throughout this article, and there’s no better time than the transition period we’re entering.

This is a time to work on your culture of philanthropy (or gratitude, customer service or abundance culture, or… whatever you wish to call it). Where are you showing the love? Where have you lost sight of the true meaning of philanthropy as “love of humankind?”

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