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April 6, 2021

Nonprofit Boom and (Almost) Bust in Pandemic: How Did Some Flourish?

By Michelle Fishburne

Which nonprofits boomed and which (almost) busted during the pandemic? It's not necessarily intuitive, which is what I discovered as I interviewed nonprofits all over the country over the past six months. Here are two examples:

The Georgia River Network absolutely flourished during the pandemic even though they had to cancel their biggest paddling event ever, which would have brought in a substantial part of their needed revenues for the year. To be frank, things looked dismal for the nonprofit last March. And yet in 2020, they grew their donor base, their fundraising went through the roof, they hired a new employee, the staff became more connected, and their advocacy efforts grew deeper and wider roots.

How did they do it? Pivot, innovate, pivot, innovate. They were creative and nimble and they were willing to experiment and take risks. They also mastered the "when you have scarcity, look for what you have in abundance" technique, which I will address in my next article. For an insider's view of how it all happened, read my Who We Are Now interview with their executive director, Rena Ann Peck.

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On the other end of the boom-bust spectrum is the Barberville Pioneer Settlement. Located in sunny Florida, this outside venue is a living history museum with farm animals, an old schoolhouse, cabins, a cute old country store, a gorgeous barn, blacksmithing, woodworking, rope making, and a fun-photo-opp pillory. It's easy to social distance, most of the things to see are outside, and it's in sunny Florida, which has been a fairly open state throughout the pandemic.

Also, it is a great destination to take kids on a day trip, and we know there were tons of families on the roads last summer and on the weekends trying to find outside activities for their kids. A pretty good combination for surviving and maybe even thriving during the pandemic. And yet they are struggling.

How can that be, with such a great set-up to weather the pandemic? The answer is they did not lean into pivoting and innovating and experimenting. Prior to COVID, their revenues relied heavily on public school field trips, with about 2,000-3,000 elementary school kids visiting each year. Since September 2020, they have had only 150 field trip visitors, mostly homeschool groups and Scouts.

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Had they read "Who Moved My Cheese," they would have known they needed to "get out of their comfort zone" and explore other opportunities, try other avenues. There was plenty they could do, starting with partnering with the always-full Barberville Yard Art Emporium right across the street, which always seems to be swarming with visitors. A brainstorming session at the front-end or even middle of the pandemic would have done them a lot of good, especially if they had started by creating a list of what was scarce (i.e., public school field trips) and what was abundant (e.g. families with tons of time looking for places to take the kids outside, people from all over Florida pouring into the yard art emporium across the street every day, and free post-as-much-as-you-would-like marketing through social media).

Coming up next: How Do I Get Out of this Chicken Suit: Using Abundance to Thrive in the Face of Scarcity

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