The Years of the Asterisks

I, and Propel, are in a lucky position to get to work with hundreds of nonprofits every year. As a partner and colleague to nonprofit leaders, I am often asked, “What’s happening in the nonprofit sector, what trends are you seeing?” I have wondered the same thing myself a few times in the last few years because we learned quickly that the pandemic was going to and did impact organizations from various subsectors differently. The answer changes day-to-day as leaders adapt and work toward recovery together.

Plans that nonprofits laid out before the pandemic can be replaced by stories highlighting the gutsiness of leaders. Stories of boards giving nonprofit executive directors emergency powers over their organizations so they could make decisions and keep staff safe, or food banks quadrupling the amount of people they served, small culturally specific organizations doubled or tripled in size to offer relevant information about the pandemic to their communities, and arts organizations pivoted to virtual events or made the hard decision to cancel shows and lay off staff.

But identifiable trends are hard to come by, at least the kind we have on spreadsheets. I love a good chart showing a line moving up or down over time, and then digging in to find the data that explains the direction. A few years from now, we’ll look at a chart and try to make sense of some wild swings, and 2020 and 2021 will always have asterisks next to them on the chart. But while there aren’t overall trends to guide us, there are always stories to learn from, stories of adaptability and leadership. And what remains true across all sectors is that nonprofit leaders are committed to their work, and they led with everything they had. They hold a vision for the here and now in sight and do a lot for their communities

Recently, my friend and colleague Ruth McCambridge and I had the honor of speaking together at the 2022 Nonprofit Finance & Sustainability Conference and sparked discussions for leaders by subsector about what they have seen, learned, and accomplished over the last two years. Along with stories of adaptability and gutsiness, we also heard that leaders are tired. It is hard to live and work in a world where you constantly adapt – I think of it as a muscle we have toned over the past few years. It is strong, but without rest, that muscle is tired.

Some of the other themes we heard in the discussions are illuminating about the nonprofit ecosystem: the depth of relationships that nonprofits had with their community, and in many cases, their peers; the wakeup call for nonprofits as employers understanding the financial and emotional burdens carried by their staff; and the frankly surprising responsiveness of foundations and government funders when everything changed.

After this prolonged period of this radical adaptability, we’ll have a chance to synthesize the data and the stories into some lessons and maybe even some trends. But I am hopeful that this year there will be time for rest and reconnection – that the things we have done in our recovery show up in the acts of our reimaging and relationships. I am excited for this sector, for the leaders who are emerging, and what they can do.

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