In 2008, when the Recession began, many of us in the nonprofit sector began to hear rumblings of what we knew was coming down the pipe for us all – reduced funding along with an increased need for our services. Fast forward 8 years and the nonprofit landscape is as interesting (and perhaps volatile) as ever:
Combine all that with technology and communication…the ability to for nonprofit missions to go viral or get with the latest craze and these are interesting times indeed.
I’ll be the first to admit that science has not always been my strong suit; that said, I am fascinated with the theory of evolution and, in particular, the law of extinction which reads:
Failure to adapt to your changing environment leads to extinction.
Since the Recession, I’ve seen boards and agency leadership adapt (and not adapt) in some extraordinary and important ways. Below is a short list of lessons learned from afar on how you can help the threat of “extinction” drive your nonprofit forward into the next stage of your evolution.
1) Demonstrate Your Impact In Meaningful Ways.
If you’ve ever written a grant, you probably just rolled your eyes--and I’m okay with that. Grant applications and funders often ask nonprofits to demonstrate their impact through evidence-based programming both prior to and during receipt of their funding. Impact is the name of the game; outcomes and outputs are only a starting point for agency evaluation efforts. This is old news for many of you. Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask how many of you have asked yourself the following:
Is your agency allowing your funder to lead your program evaluation efforts? How are you taking ownership of your evaluation methods and going beyond the requests of your funders to truly demonstrate your community need/benefit? In what ways are you communicating these in a language that speaks to your stakeholders?
2) Adapt To and Open Yourself Up For Feedback.
Let’s face it. The work we do in the nonprofit sector is HARD work. The day-to-day operations of an organization–no matter the size–can be all-consuming for staff, and sometimes board members. There are proverbial fires everywhere that must be put out. The work we do is also important–almost as much as working to continually improve upon those efforts. Part of being open to feedback also comes from being more transparent with our processes and our work.
How are you soliciting feedback from your stakeholders? What are you doing with that information? How do you share what changes you’ve made or issues you’ve addressed with those that have provided the information? People want to know how they’ve offered value; how are you honoring that?
3) Engage Board Members in Your Evolution.
One of the hardest parts of being a board member is remembering to balance your need to be fully present and informed in your leadership role while juggling your professional and personal commitments outside of board service. It is a delicate balancing act, and when you throw in the prospect of an unknown future for your agency things can become unbalanced, at best.
The point is not to be able to anticipate every issue you will encounter, but to create a board culture that is adaptive and inquisitive, or what BoardSource refers to as “exceptional.” Below are some questions your board can ask to keep examining your work.
Are you familiar with where your nonprofit agency is and is heading? How are you and your board staying abreast of new sector and service trends? Are you and your board asking probing questions at every board meeting? How are you promoting continual learning and board development on your board?
4) Empower The Next Generation.
Whether these words inspire thoughts of board recruitment, donor cultivation, leadership transition, or even Star Trek, chances are your agency isn’t doing all it could to address future generations in your work. The point is not just to acknowledge that NextGen is coming into service with your agency, but also address how you can make that happen in meaningful ways.
What community connections do you have that are helping bring “new blood” to your board room and volunteer pool? How are you specifically cultivating NextGen donors and community partners in your fundraising efforts? What messaging or markets are you utilizing to inform GenXers, Millennials, and beyond about your work and the need for their help to achieve it?
What cross-training and succession planning does your staffing system already have in place? Are there heirs apparent for the key leadership roles in your agency?
5) Face the Facts.
I joined the nonprofit sector to make an impact. I would much rather see the good in people than the bad. I believe people rise to the high expectations you set, even if they don’t meet them. Some would call me an idealist--to a fault. But I think many of us working, volunteering, and serving the nonprofit sector could say the same about ourselves.
We are mission-driven, oft inspired, caring people. That’s a great thing; it also can be a fault when running a nonprofit business. We don’t like to fire people, we don’t like to be forced into collaboration, and we certainly don’t like closing our agency’s doors. But sometimes these are the harsh realities that we have to face, especially if we are putting our mission first–above egos and all else.
How does your board engage in asking the tough questions about your agency’s sustainability? What unconventional and sometimes uncomfortable issues do you address in the board room or as a leadership team?
Some of these may seem like common sense, and I’m okay with that. The important thing for your agency to remember is to be thoughtful about your future. Your operations today may be incredibly important, but they’re nothing without a future to work toward. Here’s to a local and national nonprofit sector that is adaptive, creative, and thriving so we can better serve our community for years to come.
NLC trainer Liz Wooten Reschke has served in a variety of capacities including volunteer, staff, board member and consultant for a number of nonprofit agencies in the Tampa Bay and Key West communities, state of Florida, and the United States. As President of Connectivity Community Consulting, she works collaboratively with clients to create strategic solutions that address a variety of areas including: nonprofit capacity and community building, organizational development, philanthropic advising, training & workshop facilitation, and coaching & mentoring.