Actions Nonprofits Can Take In Response to Covid-19

As news of the coronavirus is startling, and the United States’ response appears stunted, nonprofits are reeling trying to manage the impact of this unprecedented pandemic. As the virus continues to spread across the country, the coronavirus is more than a public health crisis but also an economic crisis as it threatens the sustainability of nonprofits’ staff and stakeholders, as well as the organizations themselves. As of this writing, nearly 20 states have “stay at home” orders with dozens of cities and counties shuttering nonessential businesses, including houses of worship.

The coronavirus has created a perfect storm for specific organizations, including faith-based nonprofits. This often invisible sector, steps into the gap of serving low-income constituents, many of whom lack health insurance and have a deep distrust of the government.  Most nonprofits’ core fundraising models rely on special events and in-person solicitations. Many faith-based and community-based nonprofits raise over 70% of their annual revenues during religious holidays, including Ramadan, Easter, Passover, and Christmas.[1] These same organizations are stretched financially, with limited, to no, reserves.

Beyond hygiene and social distancing protocols, what practical steps can nonprofit boards and leadership take to balance their mission of service while surviving this new threat? In response to the storm, nonprofits must plan, anticipate, communicate, deploy, and continually assess and improve.


Nonprofit boards and their leadership have to address difficult issues and decisions during a period of disruption like a national pandemic. In response to this crisis, they must provide steady and adaptive leadership. Key action steps:

  • Determine the board’s role and how it will engage on critical issues.
    • Review your nonprofit bylaws and your state’s sunshine laws to determine whether a virtual board meeting and voting are permissible. Options include Zoom, Nonprofit G Suite, Microsoft Office 365.
    • Adopt “practical” prudence during this national emergency.
    • Anticipate different scenarios, determine how the board will vote, and record all decisions made, noting the departure from the traditional meeting practices.
  • Assess and Strategically Plan
    • Develop a Business Continuity Plan.
    • Determine what personnel and financial resources are necessary and available.
    • Review policies and procedures to assess if they need developing or enhancing.
    • Collaborate with staff and stakeholders on potential responses to the coronavirus.
    • Develop financial austerity measures with best and worst-case scenario forecasting.
    • Review all contracts, services, programs and for each determine compliance, cancellation, or suspension status or the ability to scale back for 60 – 90 days.
    • Focus on mission-critical activities
  • Communicate consistent, coherent and factual updates to staff and stakeholders.
  • Protect the health and safety of staff and stakeholders in the work environment.
  • Adapt Fundraising Plans.


While the nonprofit executive director or president is primarily responsible for operational planning, the board is traditionally accountable for strategy, risk management, financial stability, and providing feedback. As this body develops and reviews strategic plans, it should:

  • Assess how the effects of a prolonged pandemic can impact the organization.
  • Decide on what supports the board will need to make sound and sage decisions, e.g., legal, financial, human resources/capital, and technical expertise.
  • Determine the organization’s greatest strengths and vulnerabilities.
  • Develop messaging to employees, stakeholders, donors, and the media.
  • Engage perspectives from employees, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations.
  • Continually conduct periodic assessments and share findings with employees and stakeholders as appropriate.
  • Boards and staff should not criticize themselves or others for not having a business continuity plan! It’s okay. Directors and leadership can develop a doable and durable plan AFTER the crisis. Boards should keep notes on action steps they take during this crisis for future guidance.


Set the tone from the top.  Although the board and leadership should not be the primary source of information regarding the coronavirus, it is helpful for both to quell the anxieties and fears of employees and stakeholders.

  • Provide periodic, factual, coherent, consistent, and empathetic updates.
  • Post links to your local health departments or chambers of commerce websites for updates.
  • Designate who, what, when, and how the organization will provide employee, stakeholder, donor, and media updates and by what medium or platform, e.g., talking points, FAQs, policy statements shared via email, video mail, video or teleconference call, text, social media, and website, etc.


The health and safety of employees, volunteers, vendors, and agents within a nonprofit’s control or work environment are paramount. They are a nonprofit’s greatest assets. Poor management and communication during a crisis can heighten liability and risks.

  • If possible, implement a remote telework policy for nonessential personnel. (Seelinks below)
  • Confirm employees have the technology to perform their duties remotely.
  • Review your sick leave policy and enhance any flexibility. (See links to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.)
  • Inform employees how the organization will communicate with them and how often.
  • Encourage de-stressing activities to help with not only physical health but also mental health through employee assistance programs. Also, promote other activities such as lunchtime walks, virtual coffee breaks, passion podcasts (cooking, sports, travel, book clubs), streaming faith-based or inspirational services or gatherings, and health and fitness apps.
  • Conduct personal wellness checks via phone calls, texts, Zoom, GroupMe, What’s App, Instagram, or Facebook groups.
  • Ensure the safety of employees and volunteers.
    • Develop a matrix of essential and critical services.
    • Determine how many personnel are needed to implement the service.
    • Train and educate employees and volunteers on service delivery and safety precautions.
    • Provide employees and volunteers with safety equipment and supplies to limit exposure and mitigate risks, e.g., masks, gloves, social and physical distancing while volunteering (food banks preparing food bags and leaving them on tables for pick up by beneficiaries).


Nonprofit boards and leadership should assess and discuss fundraising goals and potential shortfalls. Fundraising has always been about relationship building. How do you court, cultivate, and retain donor relationships during a worldwide health crisis that requires keeping a physical distance?[2] Nonprofits should provide stewardship and demonstrate to donors how their generosity is critical for sustainability and impact. The principle of “generosity” may resonate with donors.  Although they or their families are not the direct recipients of their gift, by encouraging donors to support the common good, we all can benefit.

  • Develop a fundraising plan in light of the coronavirus spread and prolonged social distancing. After 9/11, charitable giving increased, and during the Great Recession[3], fundraising only slightly decreased. Lessons from the past demonstrate that donors do give during times of economic uncertainty if nonprofits develop creative ways to engage them.
  • Do continue to make the ask! Fundraisers must adapt from in-person solicitations and special events to virtual events using Zoom, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Giving Tuesdays, LinkedIn, or other social media platforms. Consider crowdfunding platforms, e.g., Kickstarter, GoFundMe,, Causes, etc.
  • Dial for dollars. Set up calling trees to contact donors.
  • Demonstrate actual impact through storytelling, annual reports, and personal testimonies.
  • Drive revenue through creative approaches. If applicable, provide in-demand goods or services that can support the community’s need during the public health crisis, e.g., food, clothing, medical supplies and equipment, translators, facility leases, etc.
  • Draw upon all of the nonprofit’s resources, not just revenues – reliable staff, dedicated volunteers, and engaged board members. Evidence from donor sentiment studies consistently ranks the passion, believability, and boldness of the fundraiser as the top reasons they donate.[4]
  • Diversify revenue streams to include foundations, corporations, and high net-worth individuals, domestic and international donors.
  • Don’t go it alone. Establish short-term partnerships with local community organizations, private industries, or houses of worship. This approach lessens competition and focuses on community-centric vs. donor-centric fundraising models.

Just a few weeks ago, it was unimaginable that nonprofit organizations could be so far away from executing their mission and engaging their philanthropic partners.  But remember, there are a variety of resources to assist you with connecting with your community using thoughtful and creative ways of serving your constituents while sustaining your organization.

Nonprofit boards and nonprofit leaders are under tremendous stress, so it is essential to balance the leadership challenges with self-care. We are all in this together!

[1] See IUPUI Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, Insights, Virtual Gathering, Real Community

[2] Recommendations vary based on your organization’s size, mission, and jurisdiction.

[3] According to the Growth in Giving Database (led by the AFP Foundation, the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, Philanthropic Service for Institutions, et. al.)  fundraising increased after 9/11 in certain sectors and only decreased by 8% during the Great Recession December 2007- August 2010.   There was no social distancing protocol.

[4] Bentz Whaley Flessner Insight, 7 Strategies for Fundraising in Times of Economic Uncertainty, 2019