Nonprofit Leadership in the Age of the Coronavirus: Four Key Principles

Anika Rahman
6 min readApr 8, 2020

No words can sufficiently describe the scale of the loss and grief caused by the novel coronavirus. Its human toll is unimaginable. Millions of people have lost, or will lose, their jobs. At least 300 million children around the world are missing school. Cities have become ghost towns. As human beings, we are all struggling to adapt to this extraordinary reality at a deeply personal level. We are also concerned about how this pandemic will reshape our future.

Yet, I am inspired by our collective will to care.

We know of daily acts of heroism by doctors, nurses, healthcare providers and first responders. I am deeply grateful for the scientists and public health professionals who are relentlessly focused on learning more about this virus and creating a vaccine. In many countries, these practitioners and researchers are either nonprofit or government employees. I am equally grateful for our workers who ensure that stores are stocked and that other vital services continue.

I am also optimistic because, despite social distancing, we are witnessing how nonprofits are coming together to help our communities, especially the most vulnerable. We are a crucial sector that provides much needed services, develops innovative solutions, and monitors governments and the private sector to hold them accountable.

But nonprofits face existential challenges. How do we survive and adapt in the face of a pandemic that is causing profound social and economic damage? We are in the early stages of responding to the novel coronavirus. There is still time to fortify our organizations for what lies ahead.

As every experienced leader knows, there is no playbook for such an unprecedented crisis. Based on the limited experience and learning from past calamities, four key lessons emerge about what leaders need to prioritize now.

Lead and Communicate With Compassion

Leadership always matters. In times of crisis, it matters even more. In this pandemic, leaders need to keep their fingers on the pulse of how their people are feeling. The potential for exhaustion and burnout is only too real. Real leaders need to respond in real time to these human concerns with compassion.

Real leaders connect with us, display kindness, inspire us, acknowledge challenges, present hope and lead with strength. They rally us. They understand our fears, including anxieties regarding job security. Yet, they remind us that we have a collective mission, and they maintain our morale by reinforcing the importance of our work. Strength can also be amplified by expressing gratitude for what we already have.

Equally importantly, leadership requires constant communication. Just like hand washing in the age of the novel coronavirus, we need a continual flow of information. This means deploying all media and platforms at our disposal to share hope and the solutions we are advancing.

Without question, leading in these times will involve making myriads of tough choices. Perhaps the most difficult will be decisions balancing a concern for all people, communities and staff with financial challenges. While there are no easy solutions, leading with heart and being transparent will ease the difficult journey that lies ahead.

Appreciate People’s Current Capacities

People lie at the heart of all of our work. The greatest asset of any organization or movement is its people. During this pandemic, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our community, comprising our colleagues, our staff, our boards as well as all external stakeholders. This is our immediate concern.

But focusing on people means more. It means a deeper appreciation of the limits of people’s capacity to work during the disruption caused by the novel coronavirus. Most people are distracted by worries about the health and safety of their families. Social distancing is also taking a toll. In addition, people are working while simultaneously caring for children, family members and their homes. Even if some organizations have the capacity to enable their staff to work virtually, most did so in response to the crisis and were not necessarily already prepared to do so. It will take time to adapt to our new reality and to refine our virtual tools.

A concern for people also means making contingency plans in the event that some become sick. Nonprofits must be proactive in ensuring that their policies lessen the burden of such illness on their staff. Finally, we should engage in succession planning at all levels of an organization. These plans need not be made public, but they are an essential part of a business continuity plan and a means of mitigating risk.

Assess Finances and Plan Ahead

This pandemic will cause seismic economic loss and hardship. While some organizations and individuals maybe be better able to weather this tsunami, almost every nonprofit will face the prospect of declining resources and trade-offs. Contingency planning must be a top priority.

Nonprofits need a deep understanding of their financial situation and to engage in scenario planning for both the short and long term. Each organization needs to know its financial situation, including its assets and its financial runway. All financial discussions should be based on assessing various revenue streams, including a review of associated overhead costs. Funding from foundations is likely to be most stable in the near term while contributions from major donors and governments will likely be reduced.

An organization’s financial resilience can be enhanced by a number of steps. These include: preserving cash; renegotiating contracts; seeking bank and government loans, including subsidies; seeking board expertise; and leading conversations with donors to keep funds flowing, including pledges. This period may also be a time to consider investing in a particular revenue stream that will likely yield the best results and/or in diversifying revenue.

An organization’s financial challenges will likely be greater the longer the disruption period caused by this pandemic. A key strategy to mitigate this situation is to begin limiting costs even in the short term. While it will be easy to reduce some costs such as travel and related expenses, cuts must be based on an organization’s priorities and current deliverables.

Adapt Institutional Priorities

In this novel coronavirus world, we have to be flexible as we consider how to advance our mission in the face of rapidly changing political realities and significant financial headwinds. Even with the best of financial planning and leadership, we cannot escape the inevitable — we are not likely able to do all that we had planned. In addition, the pandemic will highlight specific problems, and each organization will need to consider how to respond to such emerging issues. For example, we can already surmise that this pandemic will increase focus on health, science and inequality and will exacerbate the problems of marginalized communities such as refugees, survivors of domestic violence and migrants. How will each nonprofit seek to incorporate and address these matters? If we avoid this inquiry, we run the risk of being tone deaf and, perhaps, of appearing irrelevant.

Key questions arise about an organization’s overall plans. What are our mission-critical activities? How do we modify our current strategic plan to reflect this pandemic? What is the impact of the various corona-virus related policies and services on people and communities? What can we do about this? What are the criteria and the processes by which we will make these decisions?

Nonprofit organizations have an extraordinary ability to serve and advocate for all, especially the most vulnerable. We are often society’s conscience. Now, in the age of the novel coronavirus disruptions, we need to fulfill our mission even more effectively. To do so, we need visionary and compassionate leaders who are rooted in an understanding of their community, yet pragmatic about financial realities and organizational priorities. It is only by combining heart with head that we will ensure that nonprofits are an even greater force for good.



Anika Rahman

Empowering People for a Just Society. Champion for human rights, repro rights and health, gender justice, social justice, climate and DEIB.