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Technology, Data, Capacity, and Hiring:

Leaders from Nonprofits and Associations Weigh In

Astriata Round Table
October 5, 2022

How are nonprofits and associations handling talk of a looming economic recession?

What lessons did they learn from the pandemic? If they could go back in time, what would they do differently?

In September, marketing leaders from nonprofits and associations in the Baltimore area came together for Astriata’s Executive Roundtable Meeting to answer these and other questions—and share tips on running effective organizations in the humanitarian and healthcare sectors. Here, we share highlights of the conversation.

Proceeding with caution and pragmatism

Efforts to fight inflation, not only in the United States but also worldwide, are leading to claims of an impending global economic recession. So far, however, the seven executives at our Executive Roundtable said they’ve scarcely noticed any significant changes in their operations or in the actions of clients, members, or customers. “Despite concerns about a recession, my clients are moving forward in an ambitious manner,” shared the leader of a strategic advisory firm that works with nonprofits, privately-held companies, and private foundations. “They’re focused on growth and scale, though they’re proceeding cautiously” and taking the time they need to gather evidence and make informed decisions.

Many of her clients start the process of “growing and scaling” with an organizational assessment that helps them figure out what works—and what doesn’t. “Five years ago, people would have glossed over that step,” she said. “But today, the assessment is serving as a comprehensive and honest look at what’s happening internally,” with clients taking a pragmatic approach and asking questions like: What will it take to support this effort? Do we have the capacity? Can we really pull it off? What are the tradeoffs?

“There’s a desire now to acknowledge and embrace the uncertainty, whether with the economy, labor market, or pandemic, and to be prepared for whatever comes our way,” said the co-owner of a strategic consulting firm for nonprofits organizations. “Nonprofits have typically struggled with uncertainty” but want to overcome that and find ways to build in flexibility—and durability.

For a Roundtable participant who runs a nonprofit trade association, business is proceeding as usual yet with added vigilance. “My members are cautiously optimistic about what the year will entail, but they’re also holding back from hiring that extra person or purchasing that extra piece of machinery,” he said. The federal funding pipeline is taking longer, he added, “and members want to make sure they have reserves to weather the next year.”

A participant who runs a healthcare startup (and offers coaching and consulting services to other startups) also sees shifts in funding streams. “Healthcare tends to be somewhat resilient, even in the face of economic certainty, but people are worried about what’s happening with the economy around the world, and they’re worried about the continued conflict in Ukraine,” he said. The result is “a retraction in investment dollars, [with investors] becoming much more selective.”

Making technology and information seamless and accessible

Improving how we use technology and access information are becoming a priority among nonprofits and associations, participants shared. “Many of our clients are really concerned about accessibility and asking us to do audits to make sure they’re compliant,” said the founder of an organization helping nonprofits and associations improve usability and engagement through UX testing and web development and design. Likewise, clients are creating “digital road maps” to plan how they’ll use technology over the next few years. “Ultimately, they’re trying to make the technology experience more seamless on both the internal side for employees and the external side for users,” she said.

Other participants attested to doing exactly that—taking a look at how they can better integrate technology and make their websites and other digital assets more inclusive, user-friendly, and engaging.

“We use far too many software systems and platforms that exist as silos,” shared the head of marketing at a nonprofit. “Our goal is to integrate them to increase ease of use and accessibility.”

With much of the workforce continuing to work remotely, the smooth use of technology is all the more important, participants agreed. Another priority is to optimize technology by better utilizing the data it can generate. Yet finding employees with expertise in data science doesn’t happen easily. “Our clients are finding themselves inundated with data and in need of marketing automation solutions and employees who can put the data to good use,” shared a participant who runs a business development consulting organization. Often, they struggle to find good data analysts—there’s a real gap in that skill set in the labor market, he said.

Learning from the last year

When asked what they would do differently in the previous year, participants shared a broad range of lessons learned. “I’d take another week of vacation,” one leader joked, before adding seriously that she would be more selective about the proposals she submitted. “I spent time writing proposals for work that wasn’t really the best fit,” she shared. “I wish I’d been more strategic and thoughtful.”.

“I would have hunkered down less and spent more time meeting with people face-to-face,” said the leader of a healthcare startup.

The CEO of a creative agency said she would have been more selective about hiring decisions, given the time and investment involved in onboarding and training. “A wrong hire can really cost you in the end,” the leader of a strategic advisory firm chimed in. Another executive noted that for small and midsize businesses, hiring a marketing or business development professional with strong experience can be challenging. “Small and midsize businesses often can’t compete with big companies on compensation, but they can offer other advantages that include flexibility, a strong culture, leadership opportunities, and the chance to learn and grow,” he said.

“Especially since COVID, more people are searching for meaningful careers and looking for companies and organizations that share their values,” another executive said. This bodes well for nonprofits and associations.

Looking for other tips on building and growing your organization or association? Read our blog post, “Optimize Your Website to Attract Top Talent.”

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