Posted: 22 Mar. 2021 5 min. read

The COVID-19 crisis could create many possible futures for the social sector

By Gabriel Kasper, managing director and Justin Marcoux, senior manager (Deloitte LLP)

Uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has been paralyzing for many organizations in the social sector. For nonprofits that have managed to weather the initial storm, continued survival and effectiveness will depend on the ability to adapt strategies and operating models to new post-COVID realities, whatever they may look like. And many philanthropic funders, having decided on an initial emergency response, are struggling to figure out what to do next. 

Over the course of April and May 2020, our team at the Monitor Institute by Deloitte talked with over 80 social sector leaders about how they were managing in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. We found that different organizations are preparing for wildly different futures.

Some leaders drew parallels to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed more than 675,000 Americans and caused unspeakable suffering for about two years. Yet after that crisis, many in the country just moved on. One historian called the 1918 flu “America’s forgotten pandemic,” writing that, “Americans took little notice of the pandemic and then quickly forgot whatever they did notice.” Even today, there are few memorials or remembrances for a virus that killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century combined. Some people we spoke with see the COVID-19 crisis in much the same way: wrenching and painful, but ultimately an event that our communities will move past.

Other social sector leaders, however, are anticipating an entirely different future. They see a Great Depression-level of economic dislocation that could last for many years, alongside a major health crisis that will spark deep changes in how society functions. They see the crises creating huge levels of need in communities while also causing drastic, multi-year budget shortfalls for states, municipalities, and operating nonprofits alike. And the COVID-19 crisis isn’t occurring in isolation. The activism for racial justice taking place across the nation is intersecting with the health and economic disparities laid bare by the virus. To some leaders, COVID-19 may mark the beginning of a fundamentally new era.

No one knows which of these realities (or others) might unfold. But there are a wide range of possibilities in play, and we know that it's never a good bet to bank on a single one. Our experience suggests that when thinking about the future, many organizations don’t open their aperture wide enough and instead operate with an “expected version” of the future that serves as a baseline for their strategies and operations. 

While it’s common to create best-case or worst-case forecasts around that baseline, it’s hard for social sector leaders—who have been urgently responding and caring for their communities and staff—to think about the future in a structured way and prepare to create impact across a range of different, plausible futures that might emerge.

Scenario planning is an approach to thinking about the future that is rooted in the recognition that even in the best of times, we can’t accurately anticipate what will come ahead; but decision-makers can begin to imagine multiple pictures of the future and rehearse how their organizations might respond. 

Our team at the Monitor Institute by Deloitte—the social impact unit within Deloitte LLP—has used scenario planning processes for over two decades, working collaboratively with our colleagues at the former Global Business Network, which helped to pioneer the approach, and developing the resource guide, What If: The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits (written by our then-colleagues Diana Scearce and Katherine Fulton).

We’re excited to launch a new scenario planning resource for social sector leaders in cooperation with New Profit, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and United Philanthropy Forum entitled: An Event or an Era? Resources for social sector decision-making in the context of COVID-19.

In the report, we explore:

  • Prudent Assumptions: Baseline realities that organizations will need to come to terms with—and hold onto—in order to begin moving forward in the midst of great uncertainty.
  • Critical Uncertainties: Factors that are not only volatile in terms of how they play out, but also have a high impact on how the future may unfold.
  • Scenarios for the Social Sector: Four provocative pictures of what the future could look like depending on the severity of the crisis and whether we come together as a nation—or come apart.
  • What to do Next: Advice about how your organization can use the scenarios to build resilience and prepare for whatever the future holds.
  • Takeaways for the Sector: Informed by our interviews with social sector leaders, reflections on what the crisis may mean for the social sector as a whole.   

We firmly believe that in this time of crisis, the social sector has an opportunity to meet the moment and step forward with bold action and leadership. While funders and nonprofits may not be able to control the future, they can influence its trajectory.

We created this guide to help social sector organizations begin to think and talk about the future in a productive way that embraces the many possible scenarios that may unfold. We have found that the most resilient organizations are those that have a broader array of choices and alternatives as the future twists and turns—and our hope is that the guide can help funders and nonprofits figure out how to plan and move forward amidst the uncertainty.

Variations of this post have been published by several social sector organizations.

Gabriel Kasper is a managing director at the Monitor Institute by Deloitte, Deloitte LLP. He was previously a program officer at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and a manager of neighborhood programs at the Berkeley Community Fund.

Justin Marcoux is a senior manager at the Monitor Institute by Deloitte, Deloitte LLP. He was previously at Cambridge Associates where he worked with foundations on investing their endowments.

Monitor Institute by Deloitte

Monitor Institute by Deloitte's multidisciplinary team brings a diverse blend of cross-sector experience, and a balance of analytic capability with sensitivity to the workings of human systems.