Things will go back to how they were, right?!

Light Switch

As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all find ourselves asking and considering the same questions: What does life look like on the other side of COVID? When will things go back to “normal?” Will things ever go back?

We consider those questions for our own personal lives, and we also grapple with those questions daily in our role managing and leading mission-driven organizations in our communities. Our ability to be effective (and solvent!) tomorrow is often predicated on getting those answers right today.

At this point, it’s safe to say that there will not be any moment in the future where we simply flip the switch and see everything go back to how it was. Just as we’ve experienced tremendous change over the past 12 months, we can expect the future to bring continued change and evolution in the way we behave, carry out our missions, and live our lives.

One recent resource that has been helpful for me in future-thinking has been this article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR): Creating a Post-Covid Business Plan.

As we attempt to plan for and navigate the future, it’s important to think about our activities and behaviors as falling into one of three categories:

Category 1: Some things will return to the way they were before COVID.

Category 2: Some will return but look fundamentally different.

Category 3: Some are probably gone forever, or at least indefinitely.

*See specific examples of nonprofit activities in each category in the table at the bottom of this blog.

Thinking through this framework within our own organization is incredibly important. When we look at how we manage our internal work with our colleagues, how we connect with our donors and funding community, and how we connect with our clients and the community at-large, we see that it is made up of dozens of different activities, processes, and behaviors which have largely been disrupted over the past year. To be proactive and planful in the future, we need to consider how we will do our work — Working from home versus working in the office; In-person fundraising galas versus online auctions; Face-to-face service provision versus virtual.

So, what drives whether an activity will return/continue, change fundamentally, or go away indefinitely? To that, HBR’s article points us to the social sciences and behavioral economics for some grounding concepts. The authors have identified four factors to evaluate how behaviors might change over the coming year:

    1. Mechanics: Are the mechanics of the behavior habitual and routine or are they difficult, complicated, and inconsistent? The more routine and easier the behavior, the more likely it is to continue in its current form.
    2. Motivators: Does the activity provide significant benefits to participants – financial, psychological, emotional, or otherwise? The more the benefits outweigh the downsides, the more likely the behavior to continue. For example, we’ve suspended many in-person gatherings the past 12 months because the downsides of gathering (contracting and spreading a significant and dangerous virus) weighed greater than the psychological and emotional rewards of being with people in 3D. That weighting of benefit and risk is different for each of us but goes to our overall motivation for adopting or discouraging certain behaviors and activities.
    3. Influences: Are there social, legal, or political influences driving a certain behavior or activity? The greater the influence, the greater the compliance. We’ve all experienced formal, legally-binding influences from public health directives (e.g. closing non-essential businesses, limiting capacities and hours of operation), and we’ve all felt varying degrees of social influence (e.g. – greeting by bumping elbows versus shaking hands, continuing to work from home versus re-opening offices). As we evaluate future activities, identify how influence is being applied to continue or discontinue that activity.
    4. Alternatives: The easier and more painless it is to change behavior, the more likely people are going to follow through. We’ve made a significant shift to video conferencing not just because we were forced, but because it was affordable and relatively painless to do so, which wasn’t the case even five years ago.

It’s important to understand the mechanics, motivators, pressures, and alternatives to the core activities and processes that comprise our work with stakeholders (staff, board, donors, clients). In doing so, we can get at least a little better handle on how we think those activities will play out as circumstances change (or not).

This work is a just a small portion of MNA’s upcoming series, Rapid Planning for Operations and Program Delivery. In this course we will be helping make these concepts concrete so you and your team can make the changes today you need to thrive tomorrow.

Activity Category Evaluation Factors
School Programming for Children 1: Activity likely to revert to how it was before COVID

Schooling, especially K-6, is likely to revert to full-time, in person instruction with limited public health protocols (e.g. masks, capacity limits).

Mechanics: Habitual activity.  It is routine and culturally predictable to send kids to school.

Motivators: High. Not only is in-person instruction more beneficial for children, some consistent form of school-age child care is essential for working parents.

Influences: Building in national politics with considerable pushback from local districts.

Alternatives: Remote learning has proven to be effective for many, but has shown to exacerbate inequities in the education system.

In-person events 2: Activity likely to return, but with fundamental changes

In-person events are likely to return in 2021, but most will be fundamentally altered with technology and public health protocols.

Mechanics: Most established events are tied to tradition and ritual.  However, because they typically only occur once annually, traditions can quickly be lost with more than 1 year of disruption.

Motivators: Nonprofits have high motivation to resume in-person events, which will provide more benefit long-term than their virtual counterparts.  Donors have less motivation to participate, especially if public health is a concern.

Influences: Public health concerns create considerable social influence to ensure events are conducted safely and that content is exceptional.

Alternatives: Again, technology is allowing for creativity in conducting events.  While that will continue, the experience and social benefits of in-person events cannot be ignored.

Large reliance on fundraising event revenue 3: Activity is likely gone for the indefinite future.

2020 has proven to most of us that we cannot and will not rely on event revenue to fulfill core operating budget obligations

Mechanics: 2020 has upended the tradition and habit of fundraising events and an organization’s reliance on that revenue for viability.

Motivators: Organizations are highly motivated to diversify revenue streams to avoid the volatility of event revenue.

Influences: There is moderate social and minimal political influence to continue or event fundraising.  However, internal motivations are a strong influencing factor.

Alternatives: More efficient and effective fundraising methods exist, such as direct mail, peer-to-peer, and even smaller virtual event fundraising.

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