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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

What strategies can nonprofits implement to successfully navigate disruption?

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While the COVID-19 pandemic may be unprecedented, it is not the only disruption nonprofit leadership will face. Perhaps we will never again see such simultaneous disruption to every aspect of business and personal life, but this is the perfect time to examine strengths and weaknesses specific to organizational resilience. Instead of viewing resilience as an outcome, it is important to understand approaches that generate positive results.

“Incorporating [resilience] qualities into an organizational system equips it to systematically adapt to disruptive challenges. Using resilience as a process, nonprofit organizations can have the capacity to continuously respond to challenges and provide uninterrupted and valuable services,” write Hope Witmer and Marcela Sarmiento Mellinger.

Witmer & Mellinger’s qualities for a resilient organization include: commitment to mission, improvisation, community reciprocity, servant and transformational leadership, hope and optimism, and fiscal transparency. Many of the challenges through the pandemic were not new and will exist long after. Strategically adopting organizational resilience principles will lead to prepared, capable and more sustainable organizations. The following recommendations are based upon present dynamics with expected future significance.

Objective: Intentionally develop organizational resilience attributes

The S. D. Bechtel, JR. Foundation offers three free guides for nonprofit use. These guides lead organizations through a self-examination process to plot a customized course for the future:

The Bechtel Foundation’s seven resiliency factors are:

  1. Purpose Driven (commitment to mission and values)
  2. Clear eyed (realistic and persistent)
  3. Agile (future-oriented, inclusive planning, and adaptive management practices)
  4. Open (intentional communication)
  5. Empowered (embraces shared leadership)
  6. Self-renewal (space created for rest and rejuvenation)
  7. Connected (supported by relationships, institutional links, and community networks)


Train and develop leadership attributes. In their research paper on nonprofit organizational crises, Gilstrap et al. offers six leadership characteristics for disruption including team players “who are strategic, transparent, quick to respond, composed, and prepared.” Leaders must make sense out of a crisis (sense-making), strategic in communication (sense-giving), and view setbacks as temporary and surmountable. Optimism should be identifiable as part of organizational culture. Servant and transformational leadership styles are particularly suited to disruption challenges, with mission-driven approaches that are collaborative, with a focus on team goals. These leadership styles are relational, not hierarchical. They engage personnel with a collective vision, an attribute of resilient organizations.

Enhance staff connectedness. Include staff in resilience training and preparation. Connectivity among an organization’s personnel can help assuage burnout in demanding times. Infrastructure must create physical and emotional safety for activities. Employers must listen to staff, offer flexibility and allow hybrid work options as possible. Seek and create opportunities for staff to find added meaning and connectedness to their work. Move voices in definition of impact and success will develop a more resilient and cohesive organization ready for the next disruption.

Involve multiple voices. An organization’s culture and leadership are most effective through vast engagement. Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) considerations should remain at the forefront. Improved DEAI efforts increase cooperation and improve collaboration. Involve more voices to generate new ideas and greater synergy, better reflecting the totality of a stakeholder community. All stakeholders have a voice in the Bechtel resiliency factors. Focus on creating training opportunities for employees and volunteers to improve skillsets and to find new ways of supporting the underserved. Enhanced virtual options improve accessibility.

Engage and reengage volunteers. A commitment to mission is inherently altruistic and attractive to volunteers. If volunteer levels are to return to pre-pandemic support, organizations will need to be creative and inventive, assimilating fresh approaches to further engage episodic and casual volunteers and individuals who remain socially distanced. Remember volunteerism offers the potential to enhance well-being. Volunteers may be interested in personal or professional development, or simply the social aspects of volunteerism. Enhance recruitment of volunteers by offering remote and virtual opportunities, communication of needs and embracing interest in addressing equity.

Maintain a contingency fund. Plan for increased investments in staff and infrastructure, including technology. Traditional guidance points to the importance of fiscal transparency, but there is not a singular rule for maintenance of operating reserves. Government support during the pandemic is not available in isolated emergencies. Determine the appropriate financial cushion and work to create, replenish, or maintain reserves. Consider renegotiating lines of credit to enhance the financial cushion available in times of need or opportunity.

Vicki MacFarlane is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and a member of the international Nu Lambda Mu Nonprofit Honor Society. Vicki is the youth programs director for the Colts Youth Organization and director of the Colts Drum & Bugle Corps. Holding a bachelor’s in music education from Wartburg College, she spends her summer months traveling with 200 youth performing in stadiums across the country. An Iowa native, Vicki resides and works along the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, with her husband, Jeff.

Learn more by enrolling in the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate from the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Management Institute. This is an exclusive learning and networking experience just for executive directors, senior-level managers and emerging executives of nonprofit and public organizations. Gain the confidence, skills and networks you need to successfully lead your organization into the future. Scholarships are available.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog