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Leading a Nonprofit in Difficult Times

During two decades working with and for nonprofits, I've seen all kinds of environments that affect operations.  The first thing we hear, when the economic news is bad, is how difficult it is to raise money.

Here are things to remember, and steps to take, when we find ourselves in difficult economic times such as these.

Nonprofit services are as important as ever, or more so.

There may be more individuals in need of social services.  People may be looking at what's important to them, and turn to cultural institutions or nature to help them through these times.  Pay attention to what you're hearing from your constituents and then make the case for why your nonprofit services are important right now.

History demonstrates that the economy will improve long-term.

You should have a long-term plan in place that shows where your organization is going.  This is a good time to take a look at it, and to remind yourself and your supporters about the vision you have for the future.  When these difficult times pass, you want to be on track to meet your goals.

You can navigate through these times.

Once you put your situation in perspective, it's critical to be thoughtful and ready for any potential impact on your organization.  Start by creating contingency plans to effectively deal with the altered environment.  If, in fact, your revenues fall, where will you cut?  What will trigger the implementation of the plan?  Keep in mind your long-term strategy.  What skills and programs must be retained in order to continue towards your vision once the economic environment changes for the better?  How would cuts be phased in, and what benefits would be extended to outgoing staff?  What would the cost be?  This planning should be completed with your board and key stakeholders and kept in confidence until and unless it becomes necessary to implement.

There is still money available for nonprofits.

Foundations and individuals still have resources and continue to give, even during tough economic times.  Although the focus of some donors may shift, at least temporarily, those closest to you know your value.  You've engaged them during good times, and they believe in you.  Now is the time to connect, to let them know your short-term strategies, and to ask them to continue to support your most critical efforts.

Executive leadership and creativity are key.

Since nonprofits typically run on very lean budgets, the need to tighten the belt even more can lead to the potentially traumatic decisions to cut programs and personnel.  If it's time to implement these strategies, the organization will count on its leaders to manage the changes and move forward as they are implemented.  Being creative to help outgoing staff and those who lose services land well will ensure that your organization is well thought of. 

Just as it's important that these decisions are not made in a vacuum, it's important that staff and board leaders communicate the decisions together, and support each other through the changes.

You are not alone.

The fact is that other organizations have worked through difficult times in the past, and are doing so now.  Surround yourself with peers and supporters.  Talk through the contingencies.  Secure the help you need to plan and to implement the plan.

Understand that your actions now, even those that are difficult, are for the good of your organization.  Taking the right steps will ensure the ongoing and future accomplishment of your mission.

(c) Jan McGowan 2008