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Virtual Nonprofits: A Response to the Pandemic

by John Hughes and Frank Wooden

The national pandemic has caused nonprofits, including churches and schools, to create or improve their online presence. Online presence is the new front door to your nonprofit. Meetings now take place over Zoom, giving is online, and having a facility is less important than ever before. Is it time to consider the Virtual Nonprofit?

Pre-Pandemic Challenges

In the last four decades, human service professionals have recognized the challenge clients face: utilizing different agencies to access services, telling their story multiple times, facing differing eligibility criteria, all the while attempting to navigate the challenges of daily life. The silos in the human services continuum of care in any geographic community has stood in the way of people getting the desperate help they need.

Philanthropic organizations and the public sector recognized that human service organizations needed to collaborate to build a community wide continuum of care that would reduce duplication and enhance coordination. They even started requiring groups to work together to receive funding. The concept of collaboration, though noble, forced partnerships among competing nonprofits with diverse missions and organizational cultures. Although, this approach was beneficial and eased the challenges facing clients, it reinforced the idea of a local community-based organization working in a specific geographic area where clients would meet face to face across a desk, staff would be hired from the local community and donors from the region would support the mission of the group.

Pandemic Opportunity

The current pandemic has created a new version of the nonprofit: The Virtual Nonprofit. The Virtual Nonprofit can be defined as: An exclusive group of agencies using technology to expand existing services, enhance capacity, secure funding and leverage relationships to serve more clients. While the nonprofit sector is diverse, there is an opportunity for this type of nonprofit to focus on how to serve the community with minimal infrastructure. To illustrate the possibilities- let’s examine how a fictitious San Diego based nonprofit - The Metro Center- could become a Virtual Nonprofit.

The Virtual Nonprofit can be defined as an exclusive group of agencies using technology to expand existing services, enhance capacity, secure funding and leverage relationships to serve more clients.

The Metro Center is a small nonprofit in a historic African American community in San Diego with a staff of 4 full time staff and a budget of under $500,000. Linda, the Executive Director, has created an innovative pre-employment workshop that helps young people to gain the necessary skills to obtain a job and decide on a career pathway. Linda is an entrepreneur and has promoted the program’s success to local foundations that encouraged her to present at a national conference in Washington DC. After Linda’s presentation at the conference, she was approached by two other Executive Directors- Autie from Virginia and Robert from Philadelphia- who want to talk with her about bringing her training to their communities. Robert has a background in computers and has created a training program for young people to learn coding and computer repairs. Autie’s background was in business before he went into church ministry. He has created a business training program and established a funding pool to help young people start their own businesses.

It doesn’t take long for them to realize that they are all working with the same population and if they combined their unique programs, they could build a continuum of services starting with Linda’s pre-employment training, followed by Robert’s coding and computer repair and then Autie’s entrepreneur training. They agree to follow up after the conference and work through the details on how to implement the ideas.

The critical issue of trusting a new partner is the challenge. It is not uncommon for nonprofit leaders to trust another Executive Director but when the organizations try to work together, the systems, culture and mid-level management struggle to implement the ideas. Working to build trust among organizations usually consist of three tangible steps:

  • Cooperation – working on initial agreements, sharing information, documenting results and challenges.

  • Coordination – building the processes and systems that enhance the partnership and provide the necessary feedback.

  • Collaboration – an authentic working relationship that is infused within each of the organizations, systems, processes, staffing expectations and culture.

Trust can take time and there are challenges that can emerge but taking the appropriate steps can shorten the process.

Trust is not the only issue to be addressed in the formation of the Virtual Nonprofit – ensuring acceptance and access by local residents seeking assistance is paramount. Many community-based organizations have a welcoming environment where local residents and those seeking help have a sense of ownership with the nonprofit. Going to the nonprofit is similar to going to meet friends. Other nonprofits are more sterile and not as welcoming to clients. Before you begin the process of becoming a Virtual Nonprofit, take a hard look at how clients are welcomed and engaged. As Perter Drucker reminds us- the focus of nonprofits is to change lives. If local residents don’t have ownership of the nonprofit and aren’t welcomed the becoming a Virtual Nonprofit is only a professional exercise.

Online presence is the new front door to your nonprofit.

Over the next few weeks Linda, Robert, and Autie designed the National Youth Employment Coalition consisting of the three organizations in San Diego, Philadelphia and Virginia. and they designed a blue print to implement the concept building upon 8 components:

  1. Thinking beyond one community – Becoming a Virtual Nonprofit requires that each of the partners look beyond their individual communities and see themselves as an organization working in three states. Each of the partners continue to maintain close community partners with key stakeholders but they have also expanded their perspective to function on a national level. This change in focus also mandated a change in identity from a small local nonprofit to a national organization.

  2. Multiple points of entry – Robert, Linda and Autie agreed that youth could access the services at any one of the agencies. To streamline staffing, Linda assigned one of her staff to complete all of the intakes and assessments and to provide all of the case management functions to each of the partners. Because of this change, clients in three states are accessing services that historically would not be available in specific locations.

  3. Strengthen Capacity – An unanticipated aspect of the National Youth Employment Coalition partners is that they each have unique skills, knowledge, relationships and experience. The inherent strengths of each of the organization is infused to the partners through monthly all staff trainings.

  4. Expanded Service Array – Linda was able to secure a Department of Labor mentoring grant and included her partners in Philadelphia and Virginia. Linda is providing the technical assistance to each of the partners and helping them to build a unique mentoring program in their location. Additionally, Autie has connected his training program to his denomination which also has affiliates in San Diego and Philadelphia. The faith-based partnerships Autie initiated has not only benefited each of the sites with numerous volunteers but they are also able to access funding from the congregations.

  5. Staffing – The Coalition has also recognized that it can hire people from anywhere in the country. When Robert needed to hire a new teacher to conducted the coding training he hired a part-time college student who lives in Seattle and conducts the training online. The Coalition saves funding on staff by not having multiple intake and assessment staff.

  6. Technology Based – The backbone of the system requires the use of technology. There are a variety of platforms including Zoom, Google, etc. Building a way to share information that is confidential and establishing regular staff meetings online has been a challenge. Robert’s strength in computers and his background in that field has provided a team of volunteers who help manage the IT system across the Coalition.

  7. Fund a system – Funding changes occur on a regular basis however with the Virtual Nonprofit, costs are lower, and the system can increase or decrease as funding is available. There is now the potential of accessing funding sources nationwide. From a contracting point of view, funders find it more beneficial to work with a number of Virtual Nonprofits, increasing the likelihood of improved outcomes and expanded reach. Each of the Coalition partners were able to contact local funders and many were interested in the innovative model of working across multiple states.

  8. Travel is Essential – Despite the benefits of online access to see one another, the Coalition realized it was not a substitute for spending time together in the same city. Over time the Coalition decided that two times a year they would meet in different cities to enhance their relationships and to dream together.

While the National Youth Employment Coalition is one example of what is possible in creating Virtual Nonprofits, the blue print and the 8 components is applicable to a variety of segments including churches, schools and other service organizations. Nonprofits throughout the country, serving diverse populations and geographic area, must come to terms with changing the model to counter the crisis. As Rahm Emanuel, the former Mayor of Chicago said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

John Hughes, MSA and Frank Wooden, MA are the co-founders of Simon Cross, a nonprofit consultancy that has partnered with organizations across the country to help them reach their mission and goals.

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