COVID19 Has Disrupted the Nonprofit Sector – Is Innovation Next?

interruption, disruption, innovation

by Dr. Alicia Schatteman, Acting Director


Nonprofits have experienced an unprecedented disruption and, what feels like, overnight.   Forefront, our state nonprofit association, conducted a survey of Illinois’ nonprofit organizations about the impact of COVID-19 in March 2020.  A total of 1,376 responses from across the state were received.  You can read the executive summary here, and access the full report here.  Most importantly, 83% of responding organizations are already experiencing major impacts to their programs, services, and general operations. They have seen disruption to their ability to provide services (77%) and to their ability to generate revenue (78%). COVID19 is affecting all aspects of every nonprofit regardless of size, type or mission but it is affecting them differently.

Immediately, the pandemic in some cases completely stopped their ability to provide services and prevented gatherings of individuals.  Nonprofits sent employees home, and some nonprofit employees sheltered in place with their clients such as homeless shelters or nursing homes.  Other nonprofits canceled events such as galas, concerts, museum openings, school programs, and many other activities.  So anticipated revenue evaporated.  Staff had to pivot quickly to keep their employees safe and possibly still provide services like transportation, food, childcare, housing.


COVID19 not only interrupted our lives, but it is also disrupted them.  We couldn’t imagine just how much our lives could and have changed in such a short period of time.  Nonprofit business models that once looked reliable with diverse revenue streams, now are a distant memory.

The whole purpose, a nonprofit’s mission, is being questioned; are we an essential service, how do we ensure our staff and the people we serve are safe, how do we supervise remotely, how do we provide services to individuals who can only shelter-in-place. These and many questions like them are likely questions every nonprofit has had over these last few weeks.

Nonprofits have had to hold up a mirror to question their own values and purpose.  What we once thought was important, isn’t.  Turns out we were just used to looking in the same mirror and maybe those things aren’t important anymore.


In a recent article by three nonprofit scholars published in Nonprofit Quarterly, the authors made five recommendations to improve their resilience. Engagement is #1. Those organizations that have been the most creative and adaptable have connected even more with their stakeholders then they did before social distancing was even an idea let alone common vernacular.

We need people more to come together towards a common purpose of saving lives and reducing the spread of the virus.  For sure, we will suffer huge losses with severe economic consequences but nonprofits are used to adapting and being resilient through huge adversity.  For sure the world has changed and will continue to change.  None of us can predict what that will look like in the future.  The nonprofits accept the ambiguity, bring people back to the changes we all want to see in society, I am optimistic that we will learn from the lessons of COVID19. We are seeing and will continue to see amazing creativity and innovation as a result of what has happened already.

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