In chaotic times, leading an organization or board of directors and being responsible for charting a clear course forward for clients, employees, and the community becomes more crucial — and more challenging.
Mental models or frameworks can be a useful anchor and source of stability. While we cannot predict with absolute certainty how the coronavirus crisis will impact the nonprofit sector, we can use available data to anticipate where and how the greatest needs and challenges will arise. Increasing our general understanding of the state of the sector could provide some mental frameworks to help us all make decisions and deploy resources in this critical time.
So, from the perspective of the data and research team at the Johnson Center, we offer three thoughts on this crisis, grounded in the worlds of project management, disaster response, and solid data.
(For a PDF of this post and its findings, click here.)
A more colloquial version might be, “Embrace the suck.” In times of great crisis — right when we are looking for certainty, even if it’s bad news — events are likely to be unexpected in terms of magnitude, order, and topic. Adopting a mental posture of extreme flexibility is key. Being open about the impending storm in communications with service beneficiaries, clients, and staff is essential for maintaining staff morale, too.
With entire segments of our economy calving away, and the stock market continuing to tumble, nonprofits’ revenue could suffer in three ways:
Nonprofits are businesses. They pay out for salaries and rent, and they make purchases of supplies and equipment, just like any business. In the bigger picture, however, nonprofits serve a broader public mission beyond a typical business. Remember the airline safety briefing about oxygen masks in the event of an emergency? “Always secure your own mask before assisting others.”
While businesses are closing and people are at risk of losing employment, there is likely to be an increase in demand for safety-net agency services, many of which will be met by nonprofit organizations and their staff. But if a nonprofit cannot meet its business obligations, it will not be in a long-term position to assist its community in a time of need.
“[I]n this wildly uncertain economy, smaller nonprofits are more likely to be worried about decreases in annual campaigns and gifts, while larger nonprofits are likely more worried about sharp drops in demand for services or cessation/curtailment of contracts.”
The nonprofit sector is not a monolith — at this moment there are more than 52,000 charitable and noncharitable nonprofit organizations in Michigan alone. We ran a quick analysis of IRS 990 data that we already had on hand for tax year 2015 to determine broad categories of financial threats — focusing in on the charitable sector. The main takeaways from our analysis:
Nonprofits systematically differ on how much they rely on charitable contributions for their revenue.
As expected, a typical Michigan nonprofit relies on contributions for the majority (53%) of its revenue. Digging deeper into the data, however, we noticed two things:
What does this mean?
Funder and boardroom conversations about potential decreases in charitable contributions should be considered most urgent for nonprofits in this order: arts, all other nonprofits (e.g., environment, international), education, human services, and health — and the smaller the organization’s annual revenue, the more important those discussions are regardless of the type of nonprofit.
Nonprofits that rely on programs for the majority of their revenue will experience different impacts over time.
Program services revenue — that is, earned income through direct fees or contracts to provide services to a community — sees effectively the reverse of the findings for contribution income.
How organizations are paid for providing those services is another crucial factor. For organizations where revenue increases with each additional person served, the challenge could be keeping up with a radically increasing demand for services at the present time (or very near future). On the other hand, if an organization’s programs are funded on a fixed-price model, then these organizations are facing huge increases in demand with potentially little to no additional revenue.
What does this mean?
Funder and boardroom conversations about potential decreases in program services revenue are likely concentrated in health and human services organizations from two perspectives: handling increased demand in a fixed-fee world, or quickly scaling up to meet short-term demand … and then preparing to scale back down when the demand recedes.
For all other organizations, program revenue discussions likely hinge more on when customers/patrons are going to feel comfortable about returning to public life than on whether the organization itself is open for business.
Other than for foundations, very few charitable nonprofits receive more than 5% of annual revenue from investment income.
Stock market fluctuations are a direct concern for donors, for example, but most nonprofits will realize any changes in donor behavior as changes in contribution revenue and not changes in the nonprofit’s own investment income.
What does this mean?
Conversations about what stock market fluctuations mean directly for Michigan’s nonprofits are not the most immediate concern.
We’ll explore in a follow-up blog post the effect of investments on foundations, where investment income frequently composes the majority of a foundation’s revenue.
One of the clear lessons from disaster recovery and disaster philanthropy is that needs change over time. Though some disasters are singular events (think tornado, hurricane, or tsunami), others can be more slow-rolling (think the Great Recession or spring floods in the Midwest).
In nearly all cases, however, the recovery is never a single event. Rather, it is a series of stages and processes — much like the five (or seven) stages of grief. (For a wealth of information about disaster philanthropy — including specific information about COVID-19 — visit the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s website.)
“In nearly all cases […] the recovery is never a single event. Rather, it is a series of stages and processes — much like the five (or seven) stages of grief.”
Thinking again of a mental framework, and leveraging the revenue picture from the IRS 990 returns above, we can envision a recovery process that could look like this:
We should stress that none of the frameworks discussed above are mutually exclusive or true for every single nonprofit. They are also quite fluid as this particular disease-fueled crisis unfolds. Instead, we intend them to be useful means of understanding what is likely causing the most financial worry at the majority or nonprofit organizations today.
In the coming weeks, we also plan to use additional IRS data to look at three more potential topics:
As researchers and thinkers, we welcome your comments on this topic and would love to hear in the coming weeks and months what models and mental frameworks are proving useful for your organization. Leave us a note in the comments section below, or contact us at email@example.com.
 Data for tax year 2017 is the most recent full year available, which we are processing now.
 There were 42,776 nonprofits in Michigan in 2015; of these, 32,183 were public charities (as opposed to noncharitable nonprofits – like mutual insurance companies and state-chartered credit unions, etc. — or private foundations). Of those public charities, 21,808 were “active” (meaning they filed at least one tax return within 36 months of 12/31/2015). Of the active public charities, 10,087 reported more than $25,000/year in revenue. We intentionally excluded 259 hospitals and institutions of higher education from the analysis, because most of these institutions dwarf the size of a “typical” nonprofit, and removed organizations that didn’t have detailed information on file with the IRS. That left 9,016 Michigan charitable nonprofits where we could access total revenue and components of that revenue for tax year 2015.