Nonprofits are struggling to survive, organizational health tools can offer a lifeline

As we enter the second autumn of the COVID-19 pandemic, our critical institutions that support our communities – the neighborhood nonprofits, social service agencies, schools, cultural and religious institutions and others – have yet to emerge from the precarious position they found themselves in last year. In fact, many are about to face the most perilous stretch yet.  

At the height of the pandemic, many nonprofits and local institutions made a hard pivot to support their communities through an unprecedented time of need. Assistance programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan supported their vital work in 2020. Now, nearly 18 months later, those funds are about to dry up. The health and future of our communities hangs in the balance, as the strength of any given community relies upon the stable functioning and continued growth of the many organizations and institutions that collectively make up its communal infrastructure. 

No single nonprofit alone can support an entire community, regardless of the strength of its balance sheet. As Massachusetts’s largest nonprofit and Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, we have a crucial role to play in assisting the many organizations that make up the community ecosystem so that they are positioned to operate successfully in good times, and weather any challenging periods, including responding to crises, effectively.  

At the start of 2019 we set out to create a tool for nonprofits and other local organizations to better understand their current organizations’ health status and prepare for a strong future. Working with 10 of our historic local partners including Jewish Family & Children Services, 2Life Communities and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston, we gathered insights from CEOs and executive leadership teams to determine how best to capture the data that would most accurately assess the most fundamental parts of their organization to create a clear picture of a given organization’s current health. 

The resulting tool captures critical measures of health within the key areas of finance, leadership, governance, marketing, fundraising and operations.

Already, our community partners are using CJP’s Health Indicators tool and seeing a significant positive impact on their businesses. Jewish Arts Collaborative in Boston (JArts), an organization dedicated to building connections throughout the community through arts and culture, used the tool to gain insight into ways they can include more diverse perspectives in their governance processes.  

Similarly, Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) found the tool to be a useful assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses in discussions and planning efforts with the professional and volunteer leadership.  

Taking a step back, it’s equally important to have an understanding of the overall community’s health so we at CJP and our local agency partners have a clear sense of what issues are prevailing within our neighborhoods, and how we can best support one another to address them. 

To create a benchmark for that assessment, we created the first annual Communal Jewish Organizational Health Report which provides an in-depth analysis of Greater Boston’s Jewish nonprofit organizations prior to COVID-19. The report looked at six specific indicators of organizational health including finance, development and fundraising, leadership and strategy, governance, marketing and infrastructure. 

The information we gained from that first report was incredibly valuable, serving both as a baseline to compare future reports against, and also as a guide outlining what additional resources were needed to support our communal partners in real time. 

One of the report’s key findings, for example, was that the majority of our local institutions do not have a clear succession or contingency plan in place for their CEO or other key members of their executive leadership teams. To help fill that gap in strategy among other needs, we utilized our Leveraging Expertise to Advance Partners (LEAP) Initiative, which offers programming including webinars, workshops and more dedicated to relevant topics such as how to create a succession plan and adequately prepare for a potential change of leadership down the road – be it planned or unplanned.  

We are continuing to find new ways to turn the information gleaned from that initial report into action that empowers our community, and look forward to gaining a better understanding of the pandemic’s impact on the health of our local organizations and agency partners.

On a national scale, large nonprofits across the country should consider utilizing a health indicator tool, such as the one CJP designed, as a model to create their own community-health-gauging systems that will ultimately strengthen the network of institutions that support us all. In doing so we can work to ensure those organizations continue to grow to eventually be able to offer the same support to others in perpetuity. Knowledge is power, and a health indicator assessment empowers organizations with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions that will support their teams, clients and communities for years to come.

As the safety nets put in place earlier in the pandemic by local and federal officials disappear, it’s more important than ever for nonprofits to understand the full picture of their organizational health so they can plan for a bright and successful future. 

Kimberlee Schumacher is VP of partnerships & services and Shani Wilkes is senior director of research & evaluation at Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

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