You think your company has it rough? Don’t go crying your recession woes within earshot of non-profit firms. As budgets get scrutinized with an eye toward sheer survival, charitable dollars are invariably axed in the first cut. Many income-drained non-profits now feel as deserted as an ark on Mt. Ararat.
Under these pressures of falling funds the knee-jerk response for any company is to slash personnel and projects, and to realign its goals. But as a warning against this reaction, the New Jersey chapter of the Partnership In Philanthropy offers its new course, “You Can’t Shrink to Greatness,” a one-day workshop taught by veteran non-profit consultant Barbara Lawrence of Somerset on Tuesday, March 31, at 9 a.m. at the PSE&G Training Center in Edison. Cost: $50. Visit www.pipnj.org. This program is designed for non-profit executives and board members. “Preferably a team of one each,” notes Lawrence.
Lawrence’s expertise has been forged over a varied career as a staff worker, executive director, and board member of several non-profits, as well as many years in the for-profit realm. A native New Yorker, Lawrence has worked most of her adult life in New Jersey.
After obtaining her chemistry bachelor’s from the University of Vermont in 1965 she took her graduate chemistry work at Yale University. She entered the workforce just in time to join a large pharmaceutical company in the burgeoning field of information retrieval. “It was great fun,” says Lawrence. “We were pioneering the first tools for data retrieval systems — inventing as we went.”
Her first taste of the non-profit world came with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where she arranged meetings and seminars for the professional engineer members. She then became a senior vice-president for Peterson’s Guides. Lawrence then returned to the non-profit sector, becoming executive director of Princeton’s Newgrange School and Education Center. Four years ago she stepped out on her own, working as an independent consultant for non-profits. Today she helps companies both individually and through close work with the Partnership In Philanthropy.
“What is needed more than anything,” says Lawrence, “is for non-profits to figure out where they stand based on information, not emotion.” With this premise, she sets out a logical procedure for recession survival.
Fighting panic attacks. Nightly, the news heaps gasoline on the flames of recession fears. With near-relish anchors broadcast to millions such items as the Japanese economist who estimates that 45 percent of the world’s wealth is now gone. The fact that this pundit has confused value with actual productive wealth never gets passed on. So donors hoard their dollars and non-profit heads run around desperately brainstorming survival schemes. To stave off this frenzy of slash-and-burn retreats, Lawrence suggests non-profits take an industry and individual assessment.
“The actual facts of the overall donation situation remain unclear,” says Lawrence. “Almost every group is taking some hit.” Foundations are required by law to give away a certain amount of assets annually. Many of the large ones, such as the Dodge Foundation, are dropping their donations closer to this legal minimum.
For the smaller family foundations the data is not yet in, but the feeling is one of severe belt tightening. The one hopeful trend comes from individual givers who, while donating less, are overall still giving to their favored non-profits.
Holding customers. Based on this immediate data, every non-profits strategy should be to hold onto existing good customers. “Call your group together, and craft an accurate story to present,” says Lawrence. “Make it inclusive and explain everything you are doing.” Outline this year’s specific operation plans to this customer; lay out the projects. If you are cutting, explain why, factually and unemotionally.
Don’t imply urgency in this talk; present the facts and let the customer infer the need. Plain talk speaks more powerfully, and presents the non-profit as a group which has control of the situation. “People don’t ever respond to begging,” says Lawrence.
Focus on mission. It’s not the staff, not the projects, even the funds raised. It’s the mission that is the most important thing in a non-profit. “Concentrate on that mission, and work solely to perform as much of it as logistics allow,” Lawrence says.
Of course, facts of funding may severely curtail mission programs. But the world is not on your shoulders alone. Your stated mission might be to keep central New Jersey children safe, and your current projects might extend through Mercer and Middlesex counties. In response to funding cuts, you might be able to partner out the Middlesex programs to other charities and keep working directly with Mercer. Now is the time to share not only resources, but the mission burdens.
Funding tool kit. For extending the mission beyond the funding of immediate good customers, fresh approaches will be needed. As a first step, Lawrence recommends dealing from exact numbers. “Tally up your base-level operations, then assess your current income and projected giving for the year,” she says. “This provides you with a concrete shortfall number, and that becomes your target.” With the target figure and date in mind, let the brainstorming begin.
But beware. Brainstorming tends to become emotional. Everybody wants their ideas selected. But with the date and numbers before him, hopefully the moderator can guide toward a selection based on actual need. “Often very good ideas may be placed in the parking lot for later,” say Lawrence. A dinner dance might be ideal, but the staff cannot adequately arrange and publicize it in a month. So save it, and make it a Harvest Gala.
Saving staff. Morale is the first victim of recession. A frightened staff will spend more time E-mailing resumes than doing productive work. “The very worst thing to do is have the executive director huddle behind closed doors with the board and let an aura of secrecy prevail,” says Lawrence. Telling the staff the exact situation, letting them know what options are being considered, and asking them for their advice, all keep workers focused on this job and the needed solutions.
Lawrence recalls a downsizing period with one of her previous non-profits where she laid all the cards on the table. The people took the news somberly, then one declared that it was time for him to dust off his resume and move on. Another volunteered early retirement. While not every downsizing will end in such altruism, good feelings can be maintained by being up front.
The final vital tools remain passion and energy. Lawrence cites more than one director who refused to listen to his board, who damned the numbers, and by sheer dint of will just pushed his company over the top and got all the projects achieved.
Such is the core of non-profits. No one’s suggesting that you ignore the facts, but with the sharing of that initial passion and energy that sparked the group initially, almost anything just could happen.