When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United States, nonprofits—just like organizations in other sectors—scrambled not only to meet the needs of their constituents, but also to survive. At Generation Citizen, where I served as CEO through the end of December 2020 and remain on the board, we followed the protocols advised at the time. We prioritized employee health and ensured staff had what they needed to work at home, and we shifted our national civics education programming and advocacy work as much as possible to the virtual world.

But something else also happened in those first few weeks: We felt the energy to shift our organization and the broader civics education sector in a more foundational way. In conversations with other national civics education providers, we saw an appetite for real and deliberate collaboration, including joint distribution models, shared capacity and personnel, and potential mergers. After years of friendly, and not-so-friendly, competition, we glimpsed a moment to rethink the system of civics education.

I believe three elements contributed to this more-collaborative way of thinking. First, there was a real possibility that the fundraising landscape would completely alter and that the pandemic could cause a full-scale economic depression. Organizations feared that donor and public dollars would dry up. The stock market crash in mid-March 2020 contributed to this line of thinking.

Second, the disorganization of the programmatic market for many nonprofits became more apparent. In the education sector, for example, schools and caregivers needed high-quality programming, but were inundated with uncoordinated content and support. It became evident that every organization was out for itself. One funder, who was also a parent searching for high-quality academic instruction, told me he received teaching materials from so many different organizations that he didn’t know where to start.

Third, the pandemic itself provoked a deep sense of organizational humility. In education, virtual classrooms became the norm overnight. The ensuing digital divide, where more-affluent students had greater access to computers and steady Internet connections than poorer students, threatened to make an already inequitable education system worse. Meanwhile, unemployment skyrocketed, and small businesses began to close all around us. It was no time to focus on individual organizational solutions when such huge, systemic problems loomed.

Read the full article about nonprofit change by Scott Warren at Stanford Social Innovation Review.