The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives, with dramatic implications for the social sector. Just as needs across our communities multiply with the strain of new emotional, financial, and healthcare challenges, nonprofits themselves are reeling from both operational constraints and imperiled funding streams. Understandably, many have been focused on their very survival.

Now, more than a month into the crisis, organizations are starting to look forward to how they can adapt their crucial work amid both the current shutdown and what promises to be a prolonged period of tumult. Most experts believe that it will likely take at least a year or two for a vaccine to become widely available. All the while, state-by-state restrictions will likely continue to evolve, while the effects on the social fabric and economy are only beginning to be appreciated. In this era of extreme uncertainty, a new core competency will become the key success factor — agility.

In the immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations have found ways to stay connected and provide some services through videoconferencing and other online tools. This is an important stopgap, but we can’t stop there. Simply migrating from offline to online isn’t exactly “innovation.” While it may be an alternative, is it an alternative that works well to address the original need? A virtual environment comes with its own plusses and minuses, which must be appropriately harnessed. Some intangible benefits of informal personal interactions may be lost, but a frictionless online experience holds the potential to open new pathways.

Faced with a program that can no longer be delivered in person, the most obvious response is to translate an existing intervention into a virtual format. But, social distancing is only one of many factors to consider, and new needs continue to emerge from the loss of livelihoods, closure of schools, and psychosocial effects of isolation. Online interactions also come with their own limitations as well as new opportunities. Rather than starting with the current solution, it’s important to reorient to the original problem being solved and how it can be best addressed under the current conditions and with new platforms.

Is there an ongoing problem no longer being addressed given stay-at-home restrictions (e.g. youth gang involvement, previously mitigated by recreational activities)? Are there new problems that have surfaced among existing beneficiaries (e.g. new financial or emotional strain that makes it more challenging to adopt healthier habits)? Are new populations experiencing related problems that your organization is well suited to address (e.g. sudden unemployment leading to more food insecure families who are seeking assistance from food banks)? Focusing on the problem, and not just your programs, will ensure the most important needs are met.

Read the full article about social innovation by Ann Mei Chang at The Bridgespan Group.