Karen Link on Building Resiliency While Coping with the “New Normal”

How have your daily operations changed since March? Whether it’s you had to adapt to working from home, taking extra precautions or trying new ideas we all had to be resilient in some capacity over the last few months. Facing new challenges means finding ways to work through them and bounce back, but what does that mean when we’re defining a new normal?

Karen Link is the Executive Director of Volunteer Alberta and has been working in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years. Having experience as both a consultant and researcher, Karen knows what goes into building a resilient organization and team. She shares her advice and experiences on how to 
  • Define what normal means to your organization and redefine success
  • Build stronger, more resilient teams through collaboration and 
  • New ways to approach funding beyond Government funding 

Official Transcript

In today's podcast, we talk about what resiliency means right now in the nonprofit sector and how you can build it within your organization.

Hello and welcome to Donor Engine's Fundraising Superheroes podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente. If you haven't heard  of Donor Engine we are a true All-In-One non-profit software solution here to help you unlock the power of your data. We have software that helps you manage everything from you volunteers, staff and of course, your donor data.
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There are still a lot of unanswered questions about building stronger and more resilient organizations. Some of us are wondering what resiliency means during these times and how can we communicate that to our donors.
Karen Link is a nonprofit consultant and researcher who has been in the sector for over 20 years, currently working as the executive director of Volunteer Alberta. She has plenty of experience both working with and managing organizations. She joins me today to discuss ways nonprofits can become more resilient moving forward, what that means and how do we communicate that to our donors.

So thank you so much, Karen, for joining us on the show.

You're welcome. 

So from your experience, what does resilience mean in the nonprofits space this definition change for each organization?

You know, it doesn't it's really a resilience refers to the ability to withstand changes, whether they're expected or unexpected, and to be able to turn the changes into opportunities. So you're kind of looking for the silver lining behind things. So with the pandemic, absolutely, there's been a ton of unexpected changes.

So what we're seeing is that organizations who've been able to pivot without losing a lot of momentum have demonstrated resilience and have been able to figure out ways of working around. You know, the current situation, the delivery of services, the ability to generate revenue, how they deal with their staff, how they deal with their clients. So it's really, again, the ability to bounce back and to kind of make the best of unexpected or expected changes in situations.

And the pandemic really did that for us, I know back when it first really began hitting the world hard, I was having so many conversations around what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to plan when there's no plan? And I think resiliency is something that, especially as we go further and further into the kind of recovery process is is huge because we're past that point of the shock and now it's OK. How do we find stability? How do we move forward and how do we continue to grow, even though we're going to probably face challenges for another couple of months to a year?

Exactly. I'll be referring back to some surveys that we've got data from. But nonprofits right now and in Alberta specifically are anticipating a good year still before we see a full recovery from the effects of COVID. 

Oh, definitely, we see even now, like here in Ontario, that the cases are going up and we thought that we were starting to be in the clear and even when I know, everyone I know is doing their best to.

Stop the spread of COVID-19, it's going to it's going up, so it's preparing for the worst, but also hoping for the best.

Exactly. Yeah

So we touched on this a little bit in the previous question, but how is resilience changed amongst COVID-19? Should non-profits begin to rethink how they measure their success?

Well, I think cowbirds for some almost every non-profit to really pivot, and what I mean is they've had to adjust everything from working on-site to many, many are working remotely and still working remotely from in-person to online meetings, from in-person programs and services to virtual program and service delivery. So really, every aspect of how they're working has made them have to change. So remember, we talked about resilience is the ability to withstand the change.

So those who have been able to adjust to new technical platforms, those who can quickly adapt to thinking about how they can still fulfill their purpose in their mandate, even though they may not be able to do so in person, have been thriving, or at least I would say have not lost a lot of momentum.

So the really cool thing, I'll talk about the measure of success, but what I have seen and what we've seen in the sector in Alberta is there's an unprecedented collaboration between organizations, between sectors, public, private, non-profit. So more than ever before, egos have just been checked at the door in favor of sharing resources and ideas and really thinking about how we can support each other.

So there's been more convincing, more thinking, more sharing of learning, more sharing of successful practices.

So it's been kind of exciting for those of us who are change positive. I think the pandemic has really pushed and accelerated the pace of change. The pace of things we knew were coming slowly but surely, like with technology, for example. So I'm not sure that we need to change how we measure success.

But I was thinking about this and I thought, we have to recognize it's a different mindset to be able to plan for a very uncertain future. So you may still want to figure out how have you been having a positive impact on your long-term outcomes? Is that still happening? For sure. For lots of organizations, there was a blip and a downward trend and thinking about how we get back up to those numbers, do we need to get back up to those numbers?

So there are some things that won't like- I'm going to argue that almost nothing will return to normal and there's just a human desire to return to normal.

It's comfortable because we know it. But what is normal going to look like going forward? And is getting back to our former normal. The goal we should be striving for, and I don't really think so. I think we really need to be open to making sure that we are more adaptable and success is going to be about measuring our adaptive capacity. So when you look at adaptive capacity, it's the capacity to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities and to respond to consequences.

So it's all the same thing. So arguably, your long term goals may not change, but in the short term, what we're really seeing is non-profit organizations that can adapt to the changing environment and can function well with a very uncertain future are the ones who are really showing resilience and bouncing back quickly.

Exactly. So do you feel like in the future there's going to be a lot more talk around long term planning as well as short term, like looking at what can we do for the next three, four or five years? And how do we. Bounce back or adapt to a situation like this again, which hopefully never will happen again.

I'm not sure right now. I'm saying organizations are certainly thinking about eventually what will the new normal look like? And I would argue that more importantly, they're trying to figure out how are they going to be able to adjust to the uncertain future. So what is it going to look like if, for example, in Ontario, the numbers are going up in Alberta, they went up a bit and now they're stabilizing again, but they're stabilizing a little bit higher.

It's inevitable. As we try to reboot the economy and kids go back to school, there's more people convening. It's going to happen. So how do we manage that? How do we manage it if there's a vaccine? What about if the vaccine isn't successful? What about if there's another pandemic that's looming in the horizon a year or two from now?

So I think what they're going to be measuring is not only their original mandate and their outcomes but also, as I mentioned, their ability to be able to be nimble enough and to have a variety of scenarios planned so they can pick and choose depending on what happens in the future. But who can predict? Can you? I can't.

No one can predict even watching the news.

It's like I don't even know if they really know what they're talking about at this point because it's all guessing. People are not really sure what the right choice is to be to make are. And like I have family who is in the school system and they have parents asking them, like, what would you do? My mom's like, I don't know what I would do because it's hard, because it's hard to say what's right. But even in the last few months, especially when it started and there was a lot of issues around the economy and job loss, how crucial is diversifying funding sources?

How should people decide what different channels to use moving forward?

Well, it's absolutely critical at this time. So we know that funding for all levels of government is less certain than ever before. I mean, just think about it. Emergency funding during the pandemic is going to have to be recovered somehow. Right now, some organizations are really benefiting, especially from federal funding.

Thank you. To the government of Canada for really jumping in and helping so many nonprofits survive and manage the cash flow. And that's going to have to be recovered, so the long term consequences of current funding being spent is going to have to, you know, we're going to have to pay the piper at some point. So what we're seeing is not only a drop in government funding, but in Alberta, we've got a double whammy with the energy sector, the downturn in demand for oil, and we've got an economic dip as well.

So we have covered we have a depressed economy. So the funding from private sector is also at risk because there's a lot of drop in revenue. And as is the funding from foundations, it's decreased. Well, currently not foundations have been amazing in stepping up and being able to just say we trust you to do what you need to do with the money and we're making emergency funding available. But foundations are they're fed by the interest earned from either private donors, family donors or corporate revenue.

And as there are lower earnings on investment, there's less money available. So it's interesting, we, the Alberta nonprofit network, which is similar to the Ontario non-profit network. A recent survey showed that sixty-two percent of charities in Alberta anticipate that COVID is going to have a negative impact on their ability to raise funds. So that's another way of generating revenue. And I know that's sort of an area that you focus on. So in addition to this decrease in the anticipated decrease in funding from the regular sources like grants from the government and donations from foundations and individuals, there's a real understanding that people tend to be giving less.

So what we're seeing is there's an expectation that there's going to be a decrease of 70 percent or 70 percent of nonprofits expect a decrease in corporate funding. Sixty-four, expect a decrease in private donations, and then 60 to also expect a decrease in earned revenue. So earned revenue is like when people pay or clients or other organizations pay for your programs and services.

So when you asked about what different channels can you use to diversify your funding for sure we're looking at there are efficiencies that can come from shared services and programs you can share staff, people to do similar jobs. You can partner on programs and service delivery. So there are lots of different channels. And we're really encouraging our members to, like, diversify your funding as much as you can. So you have eggs in many baskets and try to get away from the dependency on government funding.

Yeah, because that's definitely something that's been going strong, but like you mentioned, it's not going to last forever. So when people are diversifying their funding, how risky do you feel they should be if they're having a lot of ideas and they're scared to take that step and kind of throw the net out? Do you have any advice for those people? 

That's interesting because we've been talking to corporate foundations and corporate donors in Alberta and there are a little bit frustrated because they said, just come talk to us like we're willing to take a risk. If you are, don't assume that testing something new and piloting something isn't something that we're going to be interested in. So I think there's a lot more tolerance for risk to be risk positive and to really think about what might be possible because never before have we all been forced to adjust to so much change.

And we realized that these super stable systems and processes that have been there for decades can change and we will be OK.

So I think people have realized, oh, I thought that had to be that way and it doesn't. So we're finding, particularly funders outside the government are kind of curious to try to test new things. So I say go for it because you often learn more from failure than you do from success. So this is the time where we got to try new things and we have to learn from each other. So you try something, you share what you tried to share, what you learned to share, what didn't work.

And someone else can take the next step and so on and so on. 

That's fantastic.

Have there been any organizations that you've seen in your area who've taken really cool risks and created really awesome fundraisers or have gotten creative with how they've been funding? Have there been any real-life examples you can share in the show? 

Well, it's interesting, most of the examples I have, because we work a lot with volunteer centers which support community organizations and in other communities, we've seen everything from having online movie nights to drive by ice cream, where you can donate for getting like ice cream treats.

So kind of small things. But when you look at the more traditional fundraising, we've seen a lot of innovative attempts to try to move that online. Everything from festivals who have for example, we have a big heritage festival in Edmonton and a lot of it is around merchandise and trying different cuisine. So instead of being able to convene in a giant park we have in the center of the city, a lot of the things went online and people were encouraged to use skip the dishes or uber eats to deliver food or have the community members themselves deliver food to your door from the different communities where you might want to try some of their traditional cuisines.

Or there was a global marketplace where you could purchase really cool traditional outfits and décor and things like that from the countries that would have normally been represented. So I think people are really trying a lot of things. But my when I was reading through and thinking about what are some of the key things that organizations can do, I think this is the time to revisit your database of both your past and prospective donors and funders.

And I am taking a really informal approach to talk about the gifts you need, as I mentioned before, with both individual and corporate donors, it's really like just tell your story and tell them about what's been a challenge and tell them about what you're thinking. And I think you're going to find that people and companies are really open. So the other things I've had were we've seen success in is leaning on loyal donors, thanking them, sharing the tremendous positive impact their donations have on your ability to serve your clients and talk to them about the impact that the pandemic has had on your ability to to be able to deliver your programs and services and meet the needs of your clients, whoever they were.

All the things we've seen is a real effort to try to convert single gifts to more of a monthly thing so you can manage cash flow more easily or enlisting current donors to fundraise with you go out to their families and their friends and their colleagues to try to increase the donor base. But above all, you know, make a personal connection, ask more potential and current and past donors. Be clear on your goal and just really tell your story well.

It always comes back to the whole concept of storytelling, especially with the year-end coming really close. How important is pushing that story of resiliency in your year and appeals, you know, telling start to finish how COVID has affected you, how you've dated, and hopefully how you overcome the challenges that are faced at the beginning. 

Well, I think telling your story is super important and more effective than ever is other people telling about the impact that your supports and services have because it's hearing from those who are the recipients of the work that you do that has the most meaning anyone can talk about themselves.

But oh, my goodness, how much more powerful it is when someone else talks about the impact what you've got has had on their lives and their family and their own success. 

One of the first interviews I did was with this organization called Baby Go Round in Vancouver. And I remember when I was doing research on them, I went to their website and just as you described, they had a video explaining what they did and they feature one of the clients. And I remember so clearly that she said, you know, this organization helped give my dignity back, helped build me build so much confidence within my family because you actually got to go in and shop for the baby clothes.

And it didn't feel so much as a last resort as it did. Like a shopping, very empowering experience. And I remember that's what made me decide that I wanted them on the show. So I love that you mentioned that, because I think having people like your volunteers who are working right on the front lines of your organization or having your clients to speak up and sharing their personal, genuine and authentic stories is a great way to show your donors that you are more than just an organization.

You're creating a community. 

Absolutely, it's that is your story, other people talking about the impact you've had is your story 

Going back to organizations? And I want to talk a second about organizational leaders and what they can do within their organization to help build resilience because I know everyone is struggling right now, and especially with volunteers and leaders, it can be really daunting to make decisions where when you're not so sure with the conditions that the future holds. So how can leaders build resiliency in their staff? How can they support each other as we continue to fight this pandemic?

It's a really good question. So what's really important, what's been really important for me as a leader is to pay attention to the impact the pandemic has had on individuals, the level of, you know, some people are super excited by change and are very change positive and others are fearful of change. And you need to.

You need to understand that accommodate for that and actually use that to your advantage, because it takes a whole bunch of different perspectives to think about what might be the risk, what might be the opportunities. So to have your folks come together and really kind of look for the gems within a difficult situation and look for the silver lining we're always talking about, OK, that's really tough. And where is the opportunity within that? So try to turn it around is a way of building resilience.

And just in the conversations you have I mentioned before, scenario planning, but we really work on imagining different futures. And so organizations who, you know, imagine what would it be like if the if isolation and social distancing continues for another year, how are you going to respond to that? A scenario around funding? What happens if right now we lose that three hundred thousand dollars that we've been getting for the last 10 years from a particular funder, or how are we going to accommodate that?

What adjustments can we make? So planning ahead, planning with your staff as much as possible, but managing that like being aware of the fact that jobs and having a job and the possibility of not having a job can be quite terrifying for some people as it as it should be. I mean, we all have to be able to pay our rent at the end of the day and put food on the table and, you know, take care of ourselves and our families.

So be sensitive to the fact that there is an overall higher level of anxiety. And I think as winter comes to be open and honest about how you're feeling and how you're responding, so build personal resilience, which helps with organizational resilience and then helps the way we're talking to our clients.

Also, resilience is it's important to be cross training if you haven't already done so, so that if you're at risk of losing a couple of staff members, that it doesn't put your organization at risk. Even the executive director who is your successor. And for leadership, things happen. What if someone actually comes sick? What happens if there's a significant impact on someone's health situation? How are you going to deal with that? So Resilience remembers around being able to adapt and bounce back from change.

It sounds like almost like how organizations came together at the beginning to work and share resources. Organizations should also look to do that within their own staff and leadership, see how they can help support each other. So this way, if somebody does it to take some time off or if there is a sudden issue that somebody else can step in and it's like everyone's on the same page and everyone's there to support and encourage growth.

Yes, exactly.

Unfortunately, that's all the time we have in today's interview. Care Management. Thank you so much again for coming on the show. And for those listening, I have linked Karen's organization Volunteer Alberta, as well as the Alberta nonprofit network in our discussion box, along with resources that they have on their websites that talk about building resiliency within your organization. They also have some surveys that are giving, really telling information. Karen was also kind enough to provide a link to a Canada Helps survey that explains how giving patterns have changed from the pandemic, which I feel can be really important to you and your donor demographic.

As we explained, keeping a healthy database is very important to your strategy. If you wanted to learn more about doing that, please give us a follow on LinkedIn @donorengine and you can also visit us on our website at donorengine.com. 

Thank you for listening and we'll see you next time on Fundraising Superheroes.


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By on Nov 25, 2020, 12:00 AM


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