The Privileged Life: Pandemic Survival for Nonprofits

A Guest Blog with Rebecca Henderson

The coronavirus pandemic has put incredible stress on our health, our healthcare system, education, small businesses, families, our economy, and politics. But there’s another entity somewhat neglected in the current crisis—nonprofits. These include charities, professional associations, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), clubs, environmental groups, political action committees, and other community benefit organizations.

Many nonprofits have seen a decline in recent years as the younger generation has grown less connected with them. How then do older leaders pass the baton effectively to the next generation?

I spoke with my delightful friend Rebecca Henderson, a long-time leader/supporter/analyst of local organizations. She is author of “Serving with Significance: A Guide for Leadership Level Community Influencers,” and blogger at Although we have only gotten to know each other recently, we have found we have a lot in common as Christian authors and as community supporters. This week, we decided to “swap blogs” (you’ll find my guest blog at her website above).

Rebecca Henderson

Rebecca has a unique perspective on the current status of nonprofits—here’s our Q&A, with suggestions to help leaders endure this pandemic:

  • Nonprofits seem to spring up all the time, like wildflowers. Not all of them survive, however. What will help create a successful venture?

For a long time, one of my biggest concerns has been duplication of efforts. Right now, I can think of three small nonprofits currently doing the same thing, in three communities within our Tri-Cities. If they combined resources as a regional entity, they might not only survive but thrive. Before starting a nonprofit, check to see if there are others in the area. Can you combine your work? Even if that just means getting someone from your organization on the other boards and vice versa, it will help keep small groups from trying to share the same territory. 

  • Many traditional charitable/social organizations that once thrived are disappearing. Membership across the board has declined, with fewer young people joining them. What are some of the factors driving this? 

If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, organizations fulfill the top of the pyramid: self-actualization. After we’ve met our other needs, we look for ways to achieve our full potential with our talents. Among the larger organizations that have suffered declines, however, few at the top have been paying enough attention to making sure members get self-actualization through affiliation and affirmation—that warm, fuzzy feeling. Survival depends on good “customer service” to members or volunteers or patients or clients…the primary stakeholder groups, the ones who pay dues and bills. 

In his book “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam attributes declines to the advent of television. Before TVs came into the home, there were lots of bowling leagues, clubs, social groups, and other philanthropic teams. Putnam says, though, that people quit going out at night to bowl, walk around the block, or putter around in their yards—places where they would interface with friends. Bowling leagues faded into the background. Our connections with the internet and its media today have done the same thing as television…drawing our attention away from in-person contact.

Also, there are so many more things for young people to do now. In the 1950s and ’60s, after-school activities for girls were limited to Girl Scouts/Campfire Girls/4H, church youth groups, dance lessons, and piano lessons. Now you have cheerleading, band, choir, play practice, school team sports, travel team sports, and more. Organizations are not just competing with a few things…they compete with many other very time-intensive activities. The younger generation of adults coming out of that are not used to being involved in a nonprofit organization.

  • Should organizations modify their structure or programs to attract younger members? If so, how?

Business/social organizations must become flexible and look at other avenues of membership to stem the hemorrhage. Rotary Club opened its doors to women in 1989, a historic leap. Also, Rotary has now introduced e-membership where the attendance expectation can be fulfilled by watching videos of meetings instead of attending in person. Formerly, when Junior League members turned 40, they had to go to a “sustaining” membership, but that has been dropped in favor of building loyalty in the organization. Churches are becoming more flexible, offering services and other options on weekend/weekday evenings to be more inclusive for careers and lifestyles. Now, in the COVID pandemic, many churches have gone to YouTube or meeting outdoors. 

Adaptability, flexibility are the keys. Look at the population you’re trying to recruit, the demographics you want to attract. What’s causing them to have to say “no” to membership? Is there something that can be changed about membership without compromising values or mission? Can something be done through new technology? 

  • How would you encourage young adults to get involved in their community? What benefits would they find? 

Lots of times, all it takes is an “ask.” Just say, “Want me to tell you about my organization?” Also, younger adults should reach out to these civic groups because older members provide mentoring, not only professionally but in community service. 

Take, for example, the young adults who get new jobs and move to the middle of nowhere. They might have a few work friends, but they need others to help if they have an emergency or want fellowship on weekends. Knowing their community leaders and getting involved locally will make their lives better. The more people you know well—in your church, country club, neighborhood—the more likely you are to keep on being a member. Where your friends are, that’s where the fun is. 

What benefits of leadership will they realize? Being part of a larger association helps in their profession and every area of life. Smaller responsibilities are great ways to grow leadership skills…to find out what works, what doesn’t work…to know which personalities mesh well and those who don’t…to learn from other people further along on the same career path or expand career options. You never know when a mentoring relationship will help take your career off to another trajectory. It’s all about networking. 

Take note. Many young people are reluctant to join anything until they see “what’s in it for me.” You need to promote the privileges of membership, what they will receive for their investment of time and capital. 

  • How can older, more experienced leaders find younger people to mentor? How do younger people find leaders to teach them? 

Start in your own population circle of family, friends, and co-workers to see if there is anyone who might benefit from your mentoring. Some organizations have formalized internships and mentor/mentee programs. And some professional jobs lend themselves more to mentoring than others. Be cognizant of what you can give and what someone might be willing to take. Talk with the leaders of your organization—is there anyone currently in the organization who would benefit from your expertise? 

Younger people need to seek older professionals they admire and want to emulate, asking them to mentor for period of time. In any mentoring situation, ask the questions, “What can I do for you, and what can you do for me?” It needs to be a symbiotic relationship.

  • The coronavirus shutdown has wreaked havoc with fundraising for nonprofits. What do you recommend to help minimize the financial impact?

That’s the $65,000 question. For nonprofits that rely mainly on contributions from individuals, COVID has not hurt them much at all. Their donor base is in the habit of sending a set amount every month, and a fair number have contributions directly deducted from checking accounts. Successful organizations are using new financial technology for text-donating, online giving, and direct withdrawal. Instead of in-person fundraisers, teleconferencing and recorded video are good options for distancing and flexible time viewing. All organizations are doing more asking.

The current crisis speaks volumes to the importance of having a well-padded savings account for the organization. And, it speaks to the need for a strategic plan that allows the organization to be flexible, able to turn on a dime. It’s critical to have a budget margin, despite the tax-exempt difficulties in having lots of cash on hand. “Best practices” demand a safety cushion. Some important nonprofits are going by the wayside because they couldn’t get funding quickly enough. But the crisis also forces some to collaborate, merge, and create a new nonprofit. In the process, some staffers and volunteers will lose their jobs/positions. The reality is that you have to look at the organization’s needs for the population it serves, over benefits to self.

  • What are some key questions that every leader should ask in preparing a vision statement for an organization’s future?

“What is the current vision statement?” Can you use this as a launching pad for a new vision?

“Where should we go? And, who are our key ‘competitors’?” You need a “satellite view” to get the lay of the land and identify competitors. You don’t want two groups doing the same thing, dipping from the same well of people and funding. Every community has a limited amount of resources available. You get more done when you cooperate versus when you compete

“How can we be more flexible?” You need to be conversant with new technologies like Zoom. Think outside of the box regarding potential members. Use target marketing to expand your base. One caveat, however—while there’s a lot to be said for diversity, organizations are generally more appealing to like-minded individuals. Recognize that a book club and a tennis club will be completely different in the experiences their members expect. You can’t be all things to all people. 

“How can we meet the needs of our members?” Remember that this is a challenging, stressful time for all of your stakeholders. What upsets people now might not have upset them six months ago. Take things with a grain of salt. Find out what they need. And practice the “golden rule.” The downfall of our society now is that we’re not doing it. We need to return to a greater desire to treat others with respect, caring, and self-sacrifice…to do unto others as we would wish to have done to us. 

Along with degrees in business administration and community leadership, Rebecca Henderson has more than three decades of volunteer leadership experience on over three dozen nonprofit boards of directors, ranging in scope from local to international. Rebecca loves strategic planning, organizational development, and geeky things like bylaws and parliamentary procedure. Among the many organizations that have benefited from her leadership are Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., Association of Junior Leagues, Rotary Club, Ballad Health Foundation, Children’s Advocacy Center, Holston Habitat for Humanity, and her home church, First Christian Church of Johnson City. Rebecca has been recognized with numerous service awards as well. In 2016, she published Serving with Significance, a handbook for leadership level community influencers, and she is currently working on her second book. Rebecca blogs weekly on random topics at

Thanks so much, Rebecca!

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© 2020 Rebecca Henderson and Nancy Canestrari Williams

2 responses to “The Privileged Life: Pandemic Survival for Nonprofits”

  1. This. Is. Gold!!!! After 30 years of involvement with non-profits myself, I love your insight into the strategic needs we currently are seeing. How timely!


    • Thanks! Yes, indeed…Rebecca has a lot of great advice for flexibility right now…as so many nonprofits are scrambling for funding and membership. Hope this will help!


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