We host quarterly Executive Forums for Nonprofit CEOs

Innovating During COVID – Lessons Learned from Nonprofit CEOs


I interviewed four CEOs from some of the most innovative and impactful mission driven organizations in the United States about their experiences leading during the pandemic.

They included a local, regional and two national organizations.  Specifically:

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We had an incredible a live panel discussion with these CEOs. The audience asked the best questions.  Click to watch the discussion.

Their lessons learned are documented in the Insights Paper – The Golden Thread: Nonprofits Share Surprising Success Strategies Enhancing Adaption, Innovation and Revenue Growth. 

Here is a sneak peek into some of the lessons learned.

  • All four organizations evolved, either by deepening their focus and/or dramatically shifting their business models.
  • They had banner fundraising years and had demonstrably more impact than ever before in the communities they serve.
  • Each organization is on the precipice of solving some of society’s deeply entrenched challenges.

New and highly effective models for resolving long-standing intractable problems appear to be emerging from their work especially around racial inequities.

Improving racial justice was the golden thread that wove through all four stories.

Success leaves a trail of breadcrumbs.

Here are some crumbs I saw:

1)  Know who you are as an organization. 

Lean into what you are good at, while simultaneously confronting and working with what is happening and changing in the environment.

Don’t sit on the sidelines.  Don’t play it safe.  Don’t wait for things to ‘go back to normal’.

None of these leaders and organizations knew what COVID-19 would bring, but they did not wait to find out.  They immediately began working with the unknown, learning how to adapt and meet the needs of their customers and clients in an incredibly uncertain environment.  This is how they got momentum and were able to take advantage of opportunities in plain sight.

At HIGOL we have seen team members blame their organization’s financial problems on COVID, but the real cause of their financial problems is ‘waiting’ for things to get better.  Inaction can lead to bankruptcy.

2) Focus on what is important and what needs to be done to meet the needs of the community now. 

Make this public and clear to others.

Not only will you know which partners to approach, the right partners will find you!

By clarifying priorities and making them public, partnerships developed that gave these organizations the capacity to scale their work.  In the pandemic, as racial justice and social inequities became a broader concern for the country and their work, the circle of partners interested in each of these organizations’ work widened considerably.  Read the paper to learn about how each leader both created and took advantage of opportunities by focusing on what was needed most in the communities they serve.

3)  Consider your capacity and potential to grow. 

Then create as much impact as possible.

Enterprise and LISC are looking to create change and impact racial justice, affordable housing and economic opportunity in equitable ways on a national level – issues critical to the nation NOW.  Their desire to have this kind of impact is attracting partners at a scale neither had ever experienced before.

Consider, what is the impact you want to have through your work?

4) Be ready to shift when there are obstacles.

Ron Pringle at the Food Shuttle was happy to re-purpose his production kitchen, but once it was clear that their kitchen was not enough, he looked beyond his existing resources and eagerly partnered with restaurants to get the capacity needed.

Too many organizations (and people) are uncomfortable with changing circumstances and the evolving nature of business.  The anxiety of yet another change, another pivot, can feel exhausting and endless.  Yet, it is imperative to get comfortable with change if we are to emerge successfully from the pandemic.

The Truth About Change

Recognizing and accepting that change is endless and ongoing, frees us to be able to respond better.

2020 showed this much more clearly because the change was so instant and overwhelming.

Solutions came when leaders leaned into changing circumstances.  They did not ignore it.   Facing it, embracing it, working with it, they found their way.  

In shifting business models and trying new possibilities, some things will not work.  Some things will work for a while and need to be further changed.  There are no real failures in this process, only lessons learned.

Listen to the panel discussion and hear how Ron Pringle and the Food Shuttle pivoted by repurposing their production kitchen, and then later had to pivot again when it no longer provided the capacity he needed.

This could have been viewed as a ‘failure’.

But embracing this change positioned the Food Shuttle to partner on a much bigger level with restaurants.

Because of this shift, new and increased gifts from donors and institutional supporters appeared.  Ron could not have predicted that.

You too can find a way through changes, through what no longer works to what truly works. This is the heart of innovation.

People, organizations, corporations, foundations will see you are finding new pathways and if your goals are aligned, they will support you in ways you have never imagined.

Want to know more?  Download the Insights Paper or listen to the discussion.  I would love to hear how some of these strategies might help your organization.

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