The Black Swan: Practical Advice In Uncertain Times

Mar 12, 2023 | All Posts, From The Partners, Special Topics

By Mary Moss.

Do you know the phrase “black swan” – a rare, unpredicted occurrence with widespread consequences? It was popularized in a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published around the time Susan and I started our business just before the recession of 2008. Our firm has faced extreme uncertainty in nonprofit management and fundraising before, and 12 years later we can offer advice and experience to help you navigate the rough waters of today’s black swan: coronavirus. Clients are implementing this advice already, and we believe it is helping.

Nonprofit Management

1.  Stay calm and be flexible. As a nonprofit leader, you need to instill confidence in others that your next steps are thoughtful and informed. This is an evolving situation; listen to the news, stay informed, and do the next right thing. Be ready to make changes to your calendar, meeting schedules, events, and programs.

2.  Identify how the situation affects the population you serve. Many people will have a more difficult time protecting themselves and their families. Some will not have easy access to handwashing stations or doctors. Many will feel overwhelmed that they have no choice but to work while sick because they cannot lose a paycheck. What can your nonprofit do to help?

3.  Connect donors with the heightened needs related to your mission, and keep moving. Review and revise your fundraising plan and talk about what you can do, not what you cannot. Doing nothing yields nothing. People need not stop supporting your mission at the time you most need them. They will be inspired.

4.  Develop ways for people to learn more about your mission. Volunteers and donors are staying close to home – people are cancelling trips and may be receptive to new ways to use their time. What can you do to reach out and educate people about your service? Are there ways they can safely help others during this time?

5.  Communicate. Make sure your stakeholders know how your programs are being affected; no one can help you if you do not tell them. If you are going to make changes in your programs or fundraising calendar, let everyone know.

Nonprofit Fundraising

6.  Make a decision now on spring and early summer events. Special events have been hit hard, and the uncertainty of how to reschedule them looms large for many nonprofits. Before you sink more time and money into an upcoming special event, look carefully at all the angles: public health concerns, volunteer leadership, sponsorships, logistics, and attendees, as well as the financial risk. Is your event indoors or outdoors? You want to model what the country is being asked to do, which is not to put people in a risky situation. Many of our clients are already looking for fall dates, knowing full well that they will have to re-evaluate this situation constantly. Now is when many underserved populations need support more than ever. If an event is cancelled, ask people to consider making a gift instead of automatically sending refunds.

7.  Stay the course with annual funds. It’s business as usual; keep calling, mailing, and asking.

8.  If you are in a campaign:  Are you at the beginning, middle, or end? Each stage will demand a different response. If you are at the beginning, check in with your potential lead donors – are they still with you? Hold off on launching anything until the news settles down. Use this time to build a stronger plan. If you are in the middle of a campaign, communicate with your donors about how you are proceeding. If at the end, push hard to finish the campaign, assuming donors are still with you. Do not stop what you are doing, but be sensitive in how you do it.

9.  Consider putting your energies into work that you can control. In the 2008 recession, many organizations worked on strengthening their internal operation by refreshing their development plans, embarking upon strategic planning, or doing an organizational assessment. Those back-burnered things on your “to-do” list could be moved to the forefront now.

10.  Expect volatility in the markets. You cannot control the stock market issues, but great need will inspire donations (witness over $1 billion to coronavirus causes). As in the recession, wild swings in the market do make donors feel uncertain about committing large sums when their portfolios are in flux. Be flexible. Approach each fundraising conversation with care, and do not make assumptions about whether donors will still support you or not. Ask them.

11.  Practice extreme stewardship. Your donors care about you, your organization, and the people you serve together – so stay in touch. Remember, this new-found time can be your friend! Write personal emails and make phone calls.

Be patient and optimistic. No one knows how long it will take to change the course of the black swan, and it will take time. In the meantime, follow the CDC guidelines: Stay home if you are sick. Wash your hands, keep a social distance, encourage remote work practices where possible. Take care of yourself as you are taking care of others. Susan and I, and our talented associates, weathered the black swan of 2008 alongside our clients, and we will all get through this one. Let us know how we can help you through this uncertain time, adjusting your goals to meet the circumstances.