Mission is the reason your nonprofit exists. But survival comes before mission!
Your first mandate is to keep the ship afloat. A century-old wreck reminds us that not all ships fulfill their mission. Only if your organization is solvent and functional will you be able to adequately deliver on its promise to society. Then – and only then – will be you able to do the good work you set out to do.
Times ARE tough. Perhaps when they were most needed, some nonprofit managers and organizations have already failed. Others are failing now.
BUT NOTE THIS: some managers and organizations will flourish specifically because of the way they make use of the nation’s economic austerity and uncertainty.
You can do the same! Here are some tips to protecting the brand during tough times. We can all agree – from observation or from direct experience: leading a nonprofit is becoming harder. An austere economy adds new burdens and greater uncertainty. Revenue streams are threatened. Demand for service increases. Nonprofit boards and executives face greater competition for resources, for volunteers, and for market position.
As consultant, employee and director I have been through several cycles of organizational stress caused by threats to the revenue stream. This will surprise you: I learned to regard the threat as my Administrative Pal.
My Pal provided incentive that could not be ignored by the organization and provided political cover that would be accepted. So My Pal made it easier to update and upgrade and adjust. He allowed me to bite bullets I had merely been gumming, to tighten-up operations and to abandon soft practices that always evolve during good times.
Astute nonprofit managers, the ones who have been in the saddle for a couple decades or more, are most likely to understand this principle. They know it is time to declare the nonprofit equivalent of Total War. They have become aggressively focused, far more than before — on financial stability, mission relevance, enhanced marketing and energized fundraising.
They know two things: this focus makes some colleagues, volunteers and directors uncomfortable AND it also protects the organizations those folks love.
My Pal can become Your Pal. Consider these two tasks and another two we’ll introduce in next week’s post:
Confront Dysfunction: Many of this blog’s readers have at least one employee, one board member or one volunteer whose performance is inconsistent or even substandard.
In good times a nonprofit manager can choose to do as I have often done – live with moderate dysfunction, expecting it will stay contained and not harm the brand. Not now! Teamwork, morale and results become extra important in stressful times. That makes weak links stand out while good colleagues try to accomplish more work with fewer resources and less reward.
Here’s your risk: they can begin to feel wounded by the substandard performance of those who “don’t get it.” Sensitivity over this contrast can grow – and quickly threaten morale and productivity. Finally, the brand suffers.
No colleague can be allowed to undermine morale and undercut productivity. Not at the staff level. Not at the volunteer level. Not at the board level. But, in tough times, motivated by Your Pal, you have a much easier shot at dealing with the weak links without actually going to the mat:
In times of organizational stress, your coaching responsibility becomes more critical. It is easier for you to informally but visibly moderate performance of the entire team. You do that so the indifference or inability of one does not undermine the enhanced effort of the others. Sit down with those who don’t meet your expectations. Have that conversation you’ve been avoiding.
It’s not easy to do this. But in tough times it is an ethical obligation of stewardship. Handle it effectively and those who have the capacity and the will to improve will do so.
Management Tip #1: Remember this: you have to reach these folks before chronic behavior becomes acute and acute behavior leads to crisis. Take that first step and maybe you won’t need to take a second and more damaging steps that can lead to termination.
Update Marketing Messages: The societal and economic environment changed greatly in the last few years. Have you thought about a communications tune-up to make your messaging better reflect society’s current values and concerns? Maybe you should take an hour to review your standard marketing messages, positioning statement and perhaps even your mission statement. These are branding assets that most nonprofit execs don’t visit often enough.
See if you should tighten your messaging practices – frequency, content and delivery format. Make sure you are communicating who you are today and what you do today to those who need to receive that message today. By updating your communications cornerstones you can clarify your mission, reassert your brand and protect your niche as the nonprofit marketplace becomes increasingly stressed and competitive.
Management Tip #2: When society and the economy are under excess pressure, market perceptions shift. Affinities may wander. Some brands become blurred or damaged. If you don’t have a graphic standards policy in place, better get on it. This simple tool is so important I wrote about it twice before:
Bottom Line: In good times the two tasks I suggested – updating marketing messages and controlling dysfunction – are matters of discretion, the kind of activity you will undertake when it feels right and you find the time. During a period of economic uncertainty, these tasks become more urgent, more necessary and more productive. Ignore or delay them and you may add to the burden imposed by the economy. Not all nonprofits will survive this era. Make sure yours does.
Embrace Your Pal. He will help you bite those bullets.
Coming Next: two more tips about staying afloat in rough seas. We’ll be writing about how and why to protect your organization’s credit relationships to avoid cash-flow problems and why you need to avoid the common down-market slide.