Posted by: Don Linnen | 6 February 2009

Hope to Fill Your Glass

On Christmas night just a few weeks ago, Ray Suarez asked: “When will the muscles in the back of your neck relax?”

During the 25 December edition of The Newshour on PBS, Suarez was talking to three exceptional leaders in the nonprofit world. The panel was composed of the development manager of the Salvation Army, the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and the president of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. It could not have been a better summary of the challenges facing nonprofits during the current economic crisis.

You’re best served by reading the transcript of this excellent interview. What follows is my summary and a few comments.

The glass is half full: it’s a bad time for all charities, but social services giving for people in need has increased a little – just not enough to meet the growing demands.

The glass is half empty: If you’re not involved with social services, hang on. The arts, the environment, and other parts of the public sector are incredibly important, but they will be in line behind the basic needs of people.

Charities lag the economy. The economy lags the market. The market has yet to turn around although there are small hints of new life. This means there’s a “long row to hoe” during this new economy.

That row may last longer than many charities can stand. There are only so many ways to become more efficient and creative. Assuming the only people left on your bus are the right people, it is going to be a short bus ride if you cannot afford gas and tires.

People and foundations are prioritizing their giving. Corporations are barely thinking of giving. Nonprofits must prioritize their spending. Tension is increasing between donors and service providers.

It’s tough to ignore the passion of the servant’s heart, but the reality is either:
a) don’t cut back on services and close the doors this summer or
b) scale back and try to make it to the end of the year. Depending upon how long the row is, you may well get to do it all over again next year.

Faith is an important element here. Yes, God will provide and can stop a locomotive. But He gave you the brains to get off the tracks before the train comes. Now is a time, not just for prayer, but for some thought leadership.

Forward thinking nonprofits will be looking for more partners, collaborators, volunteers, and even mergers. Is it all about you and your nonprofit – or is it really about who or what you serve? As with every crisis, there are opportunities.

Can some administrative services be combined with other nonprofits in your sector or geography? Is there someone willing to create an administrative outsourcing business for nonprofits? At what cost? Who can help peer organizations get past egos and come together to serve the common good?

The response to Suarez’s question was that it’s time to shift nonprofit thinking to the “new normal” (my words). There is an immediate need for survival. You must manage through this week and this month.

But the row may take many months to hoe. What are your plans for the new economy that does emerge next year – or the year after next? Are you ready to consolidate? to share resources? to share responsibilities?

The new economy is the new normal. There is help for the asking. Is it time to add some partners to your paceline?

There are answers to all these questions. There is hope – it is not a new concept.

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