Nonprofits respond creatively to change

Greater demand. Fewer funding opportunities. And a complete delivery model overhaul.

Nonprofit leaders are managing all three of these challenges — and protecting the health of their staff and constituents — because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than scaling back or giving up, many nonprofits are using the circumstances to spur innovation.

“Innovation and change are synonymous,” said Wipfli principal Brian Gaumont. Change can be initiated internally or forced by unanticipated events, like the pandemic. Either way, people and organizations that move through the phases of change quickly are more likely to succeed, he said.

Gaumont is part of a Wipfli committee that evaluated nominations for the Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence. The award honors Evelyn Wright Moore, who was a lifelong champion of innovation, learning and community service.

Several of this year’s nominations addressed the pandemic and documented how nonprofit leaders moved their organizations through unprecedented change. “They didn’t just pivot for the short-term; they created things with staying power and that will have indefinite impact after the crisis. They didn’t just survive, they innovated,” Gaumont said.

When one door closes

Two organizations used statewide shutdowns and social distancing requirements to pivot toward new services and delivery models. For example:

Wonderspring Early Education: In Narberth, Pennsylvania, Wonderspring Early Education welcomed kids who couldn’t attend school in-person due to COVID-19-related school closures.

“With school districts opening fully virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents of young school-age children were desperate to find high-quality, affordable care so they could continue working to provide for their families,” the agency’s nomination explained.

Traditionally an early childhood education provider, Wonderspring sprang into action to develop new programming for virtual learners in grades K-5. And by partnering with local agencies, Wonderspring was able to provide meals for the children in its care, in addition to academic support and enrichment activities.

The Moore Center: In March, The Moore Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, closed its in-person day programs because of the pandemic. The agency serves individuals and families living with developmental and intellectual disabilities — a population that benefits from predictable daily routines and familiar faces.

To reach these families, they quickly created a virtual platform for programming and coordinated socially distanced drop-offs for materials and projects. By collaborating with other community agencies, The Moore Center created a voting and citizenship course, martial arts and music therapy programs, among others. Since closing its doors for the pandemic, the Moore Center has offered up to 30 hours of virtual programming each week.

“Families who are working from home are able to work while their family members have robust virtual programming,” the Moore Center’s nomination said. Virtual programming also created a revenue stream that would otherwise have been lost.

Ahead of their time

The pandemic didn’t inspire all of the innovations the nominees submitted this year — but it did illustrate how some nonprofits were operating ahead of the curve. For example:

Community Action Partnership of Central Illinois: Months before the pandemic was news, Community Action Partnership of Central Illinois (CAPCIL) had been working on a mobile app for its clients. Based on research that showed people with lower incomes often had a deficit in critical thinking skills, CAPCIL decided to fight poverty by building up cognitive brain power.

Working with personal development coaches, a certified life coach, a local pastor and the agency’s leadership team, CAPCIL created the “Grow Me” application. The mobile app offers weekly activities and challenges to help individuals exercise their cognitive function.

While the tool wasn’t created for the pandemic, the crisis accommodated CAPCIL’s launch. Through the mobile app, CAPCIL can offer daily coaching and connect with its clients through one virtual tool. In the nomination, CAPCIL said high engagement with the app has already been correlated to a decrease in welfare benefits and an increase in overall family stability. 

SecureFutures: The pandemic sent shockwaves through the economy and reinforced the need for personal money management skills. SecureFutures in Milwaukee was already working on it.

Data showed that teens from underserved communities needed extra support putting financial knowledge into practice. In response, SecureFutures developed the “Money Coach” program to empower “money smart” teens.

The program was designed specifically for urban Milwaukee teens based on obstacles they face and their direct input. SecureFutures partnered with over 100 schools and community organizations to reach teens with financial literacy education, tools and mentoring services.

After the program, 100% of teens reported having a bank account, compared to just 61% before the program. And 93% of teens said they tracked their expenses after the program — up from 27%. Perhaps most importantly, in its award nomination, SecureFutures said participants keep practicing good financial habits years after completing the program.

Innovating old-school

Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean technology.

“Innovation can come through in a variety of ways, not just technology or apps,” Gaumont said. “How you tackle a problem or serve clients can be innovative whether it’s driven by technology or not. The key is finding a new way to move closer to your goals.”

One nominee sought long-term economic benefits by ensuring employability and erasing debt early in community members’ lives:

Sauk Valley Community College: Sauk Valley Community College (SVCC) in Dixon, Illinois, created a program to grow the local workforce, retain the region’s population, and improve the income potential for individuals. All three challenges were tackled through one innovation: the SVCC Impact Program.

The Impact Program created a path for high school graduates to pursue higher education without accumulating burdensome debt. For eligible students, the program covers tuition and fees for up to three years. High school students who graduate in the top 10% of their class can also have their expenses for books paid.

Students are encouraged to register for the program during their freshman year to encourage a “college completion mindset,” SVCC’s nomination said. Graduation could increase a student’s lifetime earnings by up to $600,000, according to an Illinois economic impact study.

The Impact Program collaborates with local businesses and social services agencies to ensure regional workforce needs are being met, and that students gain skills and training they need to succeed in the workplace after graduation.

Innovation excellence

For more information about the Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence, this year’s honoree or past winners, visit the National Training Conference website.  

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