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Time (again) to take charge: Four practices for an uncertain era

First of all: It’s okay to be worried! To a certain extent, we all should be: With a new and unpredictable White House administration, we have entered a time of real uncertainty. We know that changes are coming in terms of the federal budget and the tax code – not to mention in policies that directly affect our missions – and we have little reason to believe those changes will be favorable to our work. But we also know that we’ve weathered times of change before, and that there are concrete steps we can take to manage, mitigate, and make the most of it.

It’s true that change is a constant, but it’s also true that change comes in waves – at present, it’s clear that we are riding one of the swells, with no way of knowing when it will crest, or where it will leave us. The good news is that the practices you’ve been using to deal with your changing environment will also serve you in a time of rising uncertainty – they simply require more “juice.” In general, the practices you need to lead through change fall into four categories: resiliency, sustainability, alliances, and advocacy.

The practices you’ve been using to deal with your changing environment will also serve you in a time of rising uncertainty – they simply require more “juice.”

Resiliency is being ready for setbacks, and recovering quickly: building a ladder down, rather than being forced off a cliff. That requires a clear strategy, including contingency plans for a range of possible scenarios – a practice that for-profit businesses know well, especially those working under less-than-stable governments. It also requires honing your change management skills, preparing the board for the possibilities, and making sure you have sound financial projections, both to get you through lean times and to let funders know you’re ready for them.

Sustainability is about more than an income statement: It’s about extending your reach, improving your effectiveness, and proving that you’re going to last. Though resiliency and alliances both contribute to sustainability, it depends heavily on resource development, considering everything that means, including the annual balance sheet and cash flow projections documenting how money moves through your organization. Be prepared to think about your return on investment (ROI) and more before you make decisions.

Think in terms of targeted, organic working partnerships that extend your reach, multiply your impact, or provide a more complete set of services for your clients.

Alliances, in this context, don’t necessarily mean a formal collaboration, with all the trappings that implies. Instead, think in terms of targeted, organic working partnerships that extend your reach, multiply your impact, or provide a more complete set of services for your clients. You might connect with a like-minded organization to inform stakeholders about coming policy changes, or to make a joint appeal to legislators. You might share expertise with one agency providing behavioral health services and another providing employment services. Alliances are about extending the reach and impact of your work.

Advocacy is something you might not be accustomed to – maybe because you think that, as a nonprofit, you aren’t allowed. That’s far from true: Though there are restrictions on advocacy, you are only barred from endorsing a particular candidate and spending more than a certain percentage of your budget on lobbying. The truth is, it’s vital to the well-being of your organization and your mission to communicate your policy priorities to lawmakers and to your stakeholders, who can take up the cause for you. Unless you inform them, elected officials won’t know about your worth to the community and the economy, or how public funding and the tax code supports you – much less how pending legislation will harm or help. Reach out to the news media with a compelling story to share, and they’ll also aid your efforts to rally folks behind your cause.

Unless you inform them, elected officials won’t know about your worth to the community and the economy… much less how pending legislation will harm or help.

To help our members navigate the uncertain times ahead, we’ve launched a number of new initiatives this spring. We kicked off with a retooled Nonprofit CEO Peerspectives back in March, and complimentary scenario planning sessions with our Nonprofit Consulting Group team this spring. A workshop series called “Managing in Uncertain Times,” aimed at CEOs and board members, was held in locations around the state. Our Nonprofit Federal Issues Coalition will be distributing news on policy and budgets, convening groups representing nonprofit subsectors, establishing shared plans that make advocacy easy, meeting with donor groups and elected officials (in Georgia and Washington, D.C.), and undertaking a media campaign to engage the public. Sign up to be included, receive meeting and call-in information.

Keep up with us, and we’ll keep you in the know regarding everything coming down from the local and federal government, as well as everything coming up from the nonprofit sector, the grassroots community, our supporters, and those we support.

Kathy Keeley is executive vice president of programs and a senior consultant at GCN.

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