Pandemic Response Planning for Non-Profit Arts, Culture, and Humanities Organizations

April 28, 2020

Pandemic Response Planning for Non-Profit Arts, Culture, and Humanities Organizations

The emergence of COVID-19 has presented challenges to every arts institution in the United States. 

In mid-March, 2020, the arts world suddenly stopped. Completely. Performances were halted, museums closed, rehearsals were shut down, galas long in the planning were postponed and education and training programs were cancelled. While the attention of the nation, rightly, was devoted to the growing number of the sick and dying, the arts world, already fragile, faced an existential threat. What do you do when earned income is cut off? 

Once the first few days of closure had come to an end, and when short-term cash issues were on the way to being resolved, the broader challenges emerged: How do we keep people interested in our work if we are not able to show it? How do we keep contributions flowing if this continues for months? When should we announce next season? And - the most important question - when will be able to open our doors again?

Arts organizations may not be allowed to welcome back audience members, exhibition visitors, and students for weeks, months or perhaps a year or more. Even the healthiest cultural institutions - with large cash reserves, endowments, and potent boards - must develop a survival plan in case an entire season is lost.

We believe this plan must address four separate phases with respect to the pandemic: 

  1. Sheltering-in Place: when everything is closed and we work at a distance
  2. The Wait to Re-open: when we are allowed to return to work but not to open our galleries and theaters
  3. Recovery: when we are finally allowed to produce our work for an in-person audience
  4. The Long-term: when the pandemic becomes a memory

The DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland has developed an expedient model for planning in response to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Each process will be tailored to the status and needs of the organization and will include the following components:

Phase 1: Sheltering-in-Place

- A review of cash flow through the end of calendar 2020

- Identification of any short- to mid-term cash needs, and a plan to meet those needs through contributed and earned revenues, crisis-related funding, and, if needed, the judicious application of other organizational assets (e.g. reserves, endowments)

- A plan for programming during shelter-in-place, including online offerings and other means to provide service and maintain visibility

- A communications plan to maintain engagement with the organization’s board, donors, members, subscribers, students and other key stakeholders

- A plan for the deferral or cancellation of major fundraising events during a period of social distancing, and recovery of lost funding as a result

Phase 2: The Wait to Re-open

- The development of appropriate programming and financial scenarios 

- The development of an institutional marketing plan for this period, to ensure organizational visibility

- Strategies to maintain engagement of the board, donors, members, and subscribers during this period

- Determination whether the organization must ‘hibernate’ or can maintain some operations

Phase 3: Full Re-Opening

- A plan for the period of “full” re-opening, including strategies for programming, fundraising, institutional marketing, and board activation

- A full financial plan for this scenario – with allocations for new programming and other investments, as resources permit

Phase 4: The Long-term

- Addressing lessons learned during the pandemic to create additional resilience for the future:

- The value of cash reserves

- The balance between earned and contributed revenue

- The importance of stewarding relationships

- The way to create healthy Board/staff relationships

For more information on this service, including pricing, timeline, and availability, please contact Lucy Pope Doughty, Manager of Consulting Services at 

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Suite 410        Washington, DC 20004        P: 301.314.0963     

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