Monday, June 01, 2009

Sustaining A Mission Focused Nonprofit in Hard Times

The nonprofit sector in the Bay Area is one of the most vibrant in the country. And yet on May 29, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that one-third of San Francisco-area nonprofit groups are worried they may have to shut down in the next year, and 34 percent say they have no more than two months’ worth of operating funds in reserve, this according to a survey by the regional United Way. Another sign of hard times.

The many challenges that nonprofits were already facing have intensified in the last year owing to the severe economic downturn nationally and globally. And if we need to be reminded about how bad things have gotten, today, General Motors filed for bankruptcy.

What's a struggling nonprofit to do? I think there are at least 10 strategies that need to be considered. These strategies will have greatest impact if they are implemented in a coordinated fashion over time -- and they need to be incorporated into your strategic plan.

Here they are:

1. Embed capacity building into the fabric of your nonprofit
2. Build an exceptional board
3. Engage in accelerated strategic thinking and planning
4. Forge partnerships, alliances and mergers to increase mission impact and sustainability
5. Develop board and staff succession plans
6. Build capacity for effective public policy and advocacy
7. Master use of social media
8. Deploy targeted volunteer engagement strategies
9. Review and revise your theory of change
10. Adopt regional thinking and problem solving approaches

CORE STRATEGY #1 Embed Capacity Building into the Fabric of Your Nonprofit

Over the next few months I'll devote attention to each of these 10 strategies, starting with the first – “Embed capacity building into the fabric of your nonprofit.”

I want to begin with a quote from Paul Light:

“Capacity building well done in the nonprofit sector, I believe, is a critical answer to the extraordinary uncertainty we face and also to the tremendous political pressure under which most nonprofits are operating. Capacity building right now is arguably the most important investment the nonprofit sector can make.”

Strong leadership is one of the factors that ensure success in capacity building. Capacity building is a team sport that requires board and staff leadership. Organizations that are serious about building capacity are advised to convene a team consisting, at a minimum, of the Executive Director/CEO, other staff members selected by the ED and board members, at least some of whom are in key leadership positions. This team will have primary responsibility for leading the organization’s engagement in the core capacity building activities. Additional board members and staff can also be involved and this is highly recommended. There are several advantages to this group approach. By sharing multiple perspectives on some of the problems and issues needed to be addressed it is less likely that problems will be misdiagnosed or that key issues will be overlooked. Another advantage to the team is that more people will gain a deeper understanding of critical organization challenges that can be addressed through your capacity building efforts.

We've developed a capacity building toolkit that reflects best practices and lessons learned from the field. The toolkit consists of four tools:

• Tool #1 – Assessment and Benchmarking
• Tool #2 – Capacity Building Action Planning
• Tool #3 – Capacity Building Resource Inventory
• Tool #4 – Capacity Reassessment

Go to: to access the toolkit. There is a description of the four tools along with guidance on how to utilize each of them.

I'll be talking more about capacity building and the remaining nine strategies in future posts.