Difficulties Mastered are Opportunities Won (Winston Churchill)

by Julie LeMond

Winston Churchill noted that “Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.” Given the challenges faced by nonprofit organizations in recent years, it is important to focus on the (sometimes hidden) positive effects of the Great Recession in the nonprofit world in order to continue to move missions forward. Compassion fatigue and increased competition for donors have become the most significant challenges facing nonprofits as a result of the Great Recession. Organizations which develop significant donor relations, leverage resources and collaborate with community partners, demonstrate program impact and fiduciary accountability, and promote their cause by linking with current communication trends will not only stand out from the rest of the competition, but will also maintain current stakeholder interest and develop new sources of interest.

This may sound like an overhaul of current nonprofit business protocol, but many organizations have been taking advantage of down time or stalled growth plans over the past year or so to focus on these priorities. Following are examples of ways in which organizations are fine-tuning their operations.

Focus on donors: Successful organizations have re-examined their current development strategies given that wealthy donors have lost their return on investment. Many professionals are currently under- or unemployed and unable to give at previous levels; other donors weathering the financial crisis are still impacted psychologically by the broad-based nature of the downturn and hesitant to increase their gifts.

Solicitors have found they must be more patient with donors who express that “this really isn’t a good time right now” and must develop more creative and personal strategies. They are:

  • focusing on the donor, not just the gift, by building relationships and maintaining contact at times other than “making the ask”.
  • recognizing donors who have given consecutively for years rather than focusing on the size of the contributions
  • asking for in-kind professional services to utilize the time and talent people have when not fully employed.

Think creatively about resources and partners: Donors will support nonprofits’ efforts to invest in strategic planning, leadership development, talent management, program evaluation and other methods of preparing for the new environment. Donors expect that a professional nonprofit would avail themselves of the resources of consultants for professional and organizational development, much the same way corporations and individuals have done.

Organizations are increasingly receiving support for these services through in-kind donations from corporations and through collaboration with other nonprofits. Many corporations are lending in-kind support by offering empty seats at professional development seminars, negotiating vendor contracts, offering printing and IT services and even providing office space. Likewise, nonprofit organizations are learning to trade their services within the nonprofit community. For example, a theater recently provided tickets to a university performing arts department in exchange for IT consultation from the university’s computer science department. Foundations are encouraging this trend by demonstrating preference for multi-agency projects and evaluating the programs funded so that lessons learned may be shared among organizations with similar missions.

Promote effective and efficient activities: In addition to collaboration and transparency, nonprofits are also evaluating all programs and staff duties to ensure they are focused on the core mission. In lean times, there is no support for extraneous projects, or immeasurable or low performing programs. Obtaining the support of discerning donors requires convincing evidence of program impact, including short- and long-term projections with contingency plans and fiduciary oversight. Many organizations have implemented policies which state that if funds fall below a certain amount, a contingency plan must be implemented. This usually involves greater oversight by a committee of qualified financial advisors and possibly accessing a credit line or similar option if available. Fiduciary duties are not limited to finance committees however. Dashboard reports with critical ratios such as receivables vs. payables must be understood by volunteers with math phobia or limited experience with financial information. Board members must understand a report well enough to ask questions in order to fulfill their obligation of care and duty to the organization.

Use trends to your benefit: A fun but important way in which nonprofits have changed their style of business is in the use of social networking. Facebook, Twitter, texting and blogging are all practically free except for the time commitment of staff. The benefits of engaging a community of supporters which grows exponentially is “totally awesome” as they say. Instead of delegating these efforts to the youngest staff member by default, have them tutor a staff member who is familiar with facts, politics, policies and liabilities related to the organization and its mission. Some nonprofit leaders are concerned that they will be overwhelmed by the time commitment, massive response, or exposing their agency to public criticism. The “voice” of the agency initiates conversation among the stakeholders, so it isn’t the same as responding to a million emails in volume or tone. In addition, the fear of public criticism is often out of proportion to the reality of feedback experienced by other nonprofits that have adopted new communication methods. Having legions of supporters immediately and publicly respond to criticism has been found to be more beneficial than having an agency issue formal defensive statements, and builds further support through your supporters own networks and connections.

In fact, social networking replaces some other forms of communication, like a printed newsletter, so time spent on outreach remains relatively neutral. There is also an incredible opportunity for financial gain. The American Red Cross raised $22M in 13 days via phone texting following the earthquake in Haiti. Another organization which hosted a fundraising marathon sent “good luck” text messages to participants before the race and “well done” messages after the race, creating goodwill and camaraderie among participants. Other programs have issued text alert messages related to their mission, such as notices about community events, local incidents, emergency information, or potential changes in legislation. By embracing innovation, your organization can take advantage of opportunities to tap into the power of people and ideas.

Bottom Line:

Be an optimist, seize the opportunities and greet 2011 with confidence and eagerness... "Kites rise highest against the wind - not with it." (Winston Churchill)

Julie LeMond is a freelance writer specializing in nonprofit management issues.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]