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The unpredictable present: Questions and answers for “Leading Through Change”

At this moment of increased instability—with an unpredictable new administration in the White House looking to trim the federal budget wherever it can—it’s okay to be worried, as long as it spurs you to think, prepare, and take action. Recently, we held an event with GCN members at the offices of King & Spalding, featuring a discussion about “Leading Through Change” with myself and GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor. Tackling the subject of uncertainty, and ways that you can navigate it, we covered four overarching practices that will serve you through times of change: resiliency, sustainability, alliances, and advocacy.

Hopefully, you’re already familiar with those principles and a few ways to execute them—you’ve probably had a number of experiences with each, especially if you made it through the recession that began in 2008. The trick now is to put more effort into each, and get the people who support you to follow suit.

For more on those four practices, look for my article in the upcoming issue of Georgia Nonprofit NOW; attend our workshop, “Managing in Uncertain Times,” touring the state starting in April; or drop in for a face-to-face consultation during our Scenario Planning Fridays, taking place 1 to 4pm on Friday afternoons through April 28, and free for members. Of course, you can also contact us at GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group directly, either by email ([email protected]) or over the phone (678-916-3082).

In the meantime, here are a few of the questions we fielded from the GCN members attending the “Leading Through Change” discussion, along with our answers:

How do we get board members to understand the level of uncertainty we’re facing? No matter what you tell them, you might have board members who dismiss the present moment as unremarkable, saying, “We made it through the recession, and we’ll make it through this.” The best way to get board members to understand is to help them discover the severity of the challenge themselves. Instead of lecturing, start a conversation about their role as stewards of all your assets—including not just your finances, but your brand and visibility, your support network, and the public policies that benefit your work.

Given the challenges we face, what are the opportunities we should be looking for? Don’t think that the sky is falling: The fact is that there is always an upside. For instance, civic engagement has risen dramatically, giving you the opportunity to recruit champions who wouldn’t otherwise have known about you. In every period of change, there are always counter-cyclical movements and organizations experiencing an upswing while we are on the downswing: Look for ways to partner with them, even if it seems counter-intuitive.

What kind of collaboration models work for smaller or less-formal alliances? Think about alliances in the broadest of terms: How are we alike? What is the easiest joint action to carry out? Where can we make a dent? It might just be about communicating: coming up with a consistent message about the challenges we face, and informing clients, donors, or media contacts about them. You might also partner with a policy school to recruit students willing to put together an advocacy plan, either as volunteers or interns.

What are some of the broader talking points we can use when speaking with policymakers? One important message is the economic impact of the nonprofit sector. We’re bigger than the construction and telecommunications industries, representing 10 percent of private employment nationwide. In addition, every nonprofit job created leads to two new jobs in the for-profit sector. In terms of local economic impact, the numbers can be even more impressive: In Augusta, nonprofits represent 14 percent of economic activity.

Do we need a dedicated media relations professional to engage the press? If you have one, you’re in a powerful position to create alliances: Find like-minded organizations who need a voice, and you can become the backbone for that group. But it is far from necessary: Newsrooms are looking for fodder all day long, and they want to hear from you. (For instance, I made one call to a reporter doing stories on refugees, pointing to Brian Bollinger at Friends of Refugees. He’s gotten two news stories out of that one call.) We do media training with WSB-TV every year in preparation for Georgia Gives Day; check out our reports from the 2015 and 2016 events for some valuable tips, and be sure to attend this year’s session.

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

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