Non-profits and the recession

13 05 2009

Today’s blog takes a detour from spirit, politics and life to the world of non-profits, specifically: How non-profits can share this American moment of recession. It was spurred by a Q&A for non-profit Board development that I saw in Slate. It’s seasoned by my own work these past 18 years with a variety of wonderful non-profits (see below).

Boards The Slate piece gives a few good pointers on this topic and directs readers to folks who can offer more insight (I particularly like the ideas of individual job descriptions for Board members and the 28-page primer). To this, I’d add one suggestion: Ask each Board member to identify three, specific concrete objectives for their individual service over the next 12 months. The first absolutely, positively must be related to their fiduciary responsibility and should include both what they will give…and what they will get. This is one place where size does not matter–what you want is 100% participation and engagement. In these times, if you sit on a Board and are not willing to contribute–and ask your friends to contribute, you should get off the Board. But, it’s not all about money. Ask each member to also state specific things they can do to advance the organization’s mission. Maybe it’s operational help (e.g. budget, legal, personnel), programmatic (e.g. outreach, benchmarking, design) or external (e.g. events, media, marketing). Whatever it is, ask for specific commitments–not “I’ll sit on on the marketing committee”. The result will give you a more engaged (happy!) Board AND a stronger organization.

In addition, here are three things I’ve seen help non-profits survive the recession (and be poised to thrive once it’s over):
Be bold. The economy may be contracting, but that doesn’t mean your vision should. Most non-profits seem to respond to the recession with fear…a gripping fear that smothers boldness. That’s exactly the wrong response. Lean times mean cutting your fat, not your heart and soul. Show donors and others that you’ve gotten rid of the services that others can do just as well–or, here’s a bold statement, even better than you. And then, go for the gold in making a compelling, ambitious case for what remains. And remember to believe–passionately–in what you’re pitching (people, like dogs, smell fear, trepidation…and spin!!) Bottom line: people are desperate to be inspired (it’s what got Obama elected). So, give them what they want…and your clients deserve.

Be relevant. You don’t want to let recessionary fear define you, but you do want to show-clearly, specifically–how you’re responding to the recession in terms of service delivery. How has the need for your services changed (and, when you’re dealing with the worse recession since the Depression, there’s not a single non-profit that hasn’t been impacted)? What has been your response? What are the long-term implications. Scratch to go below the surface here. Maybe you start with, “Because people are losing their jobs, we’ve seen an X% increase in demand for Y”. But don’t stop there. Get to the root of what’s causing that increase–beyond job loss–and chart a long-term vision that will serve your clients long after the recession recedes. Find 1-2 clients (you don’t need an army) that epitomize the short- and long-term impacts of those stories and pitch them to your local media, elected officials and donors.

Be grateful. Everyone’s panicked about their budgets today (with good reason). But when is the last time you said “thank you” to your donors? Not as a postscript on your umpteenth appeal, but a simple letter or call where the ONLY purpose is to say “thank you”. There’s a line in fund raising that people like to be asked to give. They do. They also like to be thanked. It’s a lost art in America, so stand out in your donors mind by saying “thank you”…and meaning it. And reminding them of the value-add their contribution makes to your organization–historically, but, especially in these tough times. Then…wait a few weeks and ask them for more!!

About me: My marketing communications business has helped dozens of non-profits over the past 18 years–in the worlds of health care, social justice, the arts, research, business…and even religion. We’ve helped clients raise in excess of $25 million, create their brand, expand their positioning and build organizations that can sustain internal and external change. Want to know more? Contact:




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