September 18, 2014


Leading in and through a recession

Pier C. Rogers

Pier C. Rogers

During difficult times, it is easy to find yourself in non-stop manager mode, getting lost in the tasks at hand as pressures continue to mount. 

What we must realize is that management during difficult times is just not enough. Our board and staff need us, now more than ever, to lead. 

This doesn't minimize the importance of management strategies; they are critical. Here are a few to consider implementing if you haven't already:

  • Know your budget inside and out.
  • Anticipate and see trends in programs and funding.
  • Create budget scenarios - and plan for potential reductions.
  • Communicate regularly with key stakeholders (board, volunteers, funders, etc.), determining the appropriate message for each.
  • Where cuts are necessary, involve staff in analyzing budgets and recommending reductions. Line staff often know the most pain-free ways to reduce expenses.
  • Know and preserve the organization's core. Reduce or eliminate programs that are not critical to your mission before other cuts are made.
  • Use financial dashboards to provide guidance in planning.
  • Always maintain a positive perspective and message.

These short-term tactics will help you survive, but that isn't sufficient. For organizations in sheer survival mode, the impact of the recession will be long-term and devastating. 

These organizations may never return to functioning at 100 percent.  This is why we must first manage through, and then lead beyond the recession.

It's easy to become dispirited in the midst of a recession. It may seem that it will never end.

Any discussion about a turnaround only seems to impact the folks on Wall Street, rather than the people in your community who are still losing their homes, their jobs and their self-confidence.

And right when it seems like it can't get any worse, you find out that your government funding will be cut - again. A foundation funder notifies you that its board has voted to cut funding across all programs. One of your major donors called to say she won't be able to fulfill last year's pledge. And your special event didn't reach its fundraising goal. 

All this, yet you still have a waiting list of clients. How do you possibly stay positive? 

This is when we must realize that while we may be in survival mode, that is not who we are. The one thing we can control is our attitude. 

A member of my advisory board told me how her grandmother had a talent for stretching what little they had. 

They weren't poor, but they were always just barely getting by. There was always food in the house, and whenever extra family members or friends stopped by, her grandmother always came up with a creative way to feed everyone. 

They left with full bellies and warm spirits. The power of this grandmother's resilient spirit, creative culinary talents, and positive attitude made difficult times seem not so difficult.

The message to nonprofit organization leaders is this: In challenging times especially, it's important to inspire others. 

You must go beyond managing to offer leadership to your board, staff and volunteers so they believe you will not just survive, you will thrive. That belief can inspire creativity in amazing ways.

Although we will never go back to the way things were, we will emerge stronger. But planning for that future and believing in its possibilities must begin today.

Pier C. Rogers is Director of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management at North Park University. She also is professor of nonprofit management in the School of Business and Nonprofit Management at North Park University.


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