By Kyla Winchester, posted March 2021

So you might have noticed… *gestures vaguely at world*… that things have been a little different in the past year. From minor differences to big changes, people and companies have been adapting in different ways. My book club is meeting by video, a huge chunk of the workforce is working from home, small stores moved to curbside pick-up, people are getting groceries delivered, households are moving to suburban and even rural areas, and anything that involves more than a handful of people in one place has been put on hold.

Some of these changes are easily reversible—when regional restrictions and our comfort level were such that book club could meet in person a few times last summer, we did. (Don’t worry—we sat in a backyard, very far apart, and were still very careful!) Others are not so easily reversed—Starbucks is closing a significant number of stores. And as Chris notes, of the two in his neighbourhood, there is the big location with lots of seating, and a small one where he can never sit—and they’re closing the bigger one.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

It’s important to keep human nature in mind: humans, our essence, haven’t changed. We are not going to Starbucks stores right now because we’re responding to specific information in order to stay safe. Without commuting to work, without meeting up with friends—of course people aren’t going to Starbucks as much right now. But we will.

Human beings are social, we need to get together. And for Starbucks, human beings have been willing to pay a premium to get a coffee with a friend and sit in the nice comfy armchairs (if you can manage to snag them). But without those nice, big, consistently branded and welcoming stores, will our behaviour revert?

Keep that “un-do” button handy

All of this to say: we need to be flexible. And when we’re planning changes in response to COVID-19, there are two things to keep in mind.

One, we can’t predict the future; we can only make educated guesses on what will stick and what won’t. People are making decisions right now based on how things are right now: moving to the suburbs because commute isn’t a concern; creating a home office (or buying a home with one) because they’re sick of working at the dining room table. Some of these changes might work in the long-term, but it’s hard to predict which: will employers continue to be flexible about working from home? If you carved out a home office, it might be easy to change the space back or do something different with it. However, it’s harder to move back to the city than to un-do a home office.

Human beings haven’t changed

Secondly, our behaviour has changed; our nature hasn’t. We’ve lived through pandemics before: remember in the movie Shakespeare in Love when they closed the theatre due to the plague? It did re-open. We’ve lived though many pandemics before, and yet we still had theatres, parades, concerts, festivals, etc. In five years, I hope and expect that we will have them again.

If you had donor events before, you will have them again. If you had fundraising events before, you will have them again. If you had in-person workshops or tours before, you will have them again. People haven’t changed, so we will always be drawn to social gatherings. The details might change, but the reasons people gather will not: galas work because people like getting together. A company or loyal donor buys a table so they can get together in-person with friends or colleagues, enjoying a nice meal and night out for a cause they believe in—a virtual gala certainly helps us keep the lights on, but your past gala attendees are probably more excited than ever to go to a gala again. A virtual workshop can convey the information, so if that is part of your mission, it’s important to keep doing that; but an in-person workshop gives people the chance to meet and more deeply engage—and a Zoom workshop can’t replace that.

Not sure? Ask your donors

There is an option to help you inform your planning: a survey. Surveys are a great engagement tool with donors regardless, but it could be especially useful now. With in-person events cancelled or moved to virtual, a survey can be a great tool to reach out to donors, supporters, volunteers and/or other people who should be engaged. For the purposes of post-pandemic planning, there could be question about when people might feel comfortable joining for in-person events again, or how likely they might be to do an independent fundraising bike ride, for example, instead of a formal bike ride (with hundreds of other people).

A couple caveats: surveys should be short to not be too intimidating, so balance the importance of what’s beings asked with getting a higher response rate. Secondly, the survey must be carefully designed to reduce bias and maximize clarity, with possibly even impartial readers to discuss how questions were interpreted and can be made more clear. Finally, sometimes people don’t know themselves as well as they think: respondents might answer aspirationally or too cautiously, so while answers can inform your planning, they must be taken with a grain of salt.

Plan with flexibility in mind

It can be hard to remember that the way things are right now isn’t the way they will always be. It might come as a surprise when we return to work and find the closest Starbucks has closed. However, it’s better to think about it now: the alternative is to realize when it’s too late that the infrastructure for in-person events has been completely neglected. As you plan your strategies, your channels, your marquee fundraising for this year and next, keep this in mind. And consider carefully before doing anything that can’t easily be undone.