While the worst of the recession appears to be over, nonprofits find themselves attempting to regroup and chart a course through foreign territory.
Having the right skills in the professional toolbox is important, but the overwhelming need for nonprofits right now is leaders with a compass and the ability to read it, experts say.
When the recession hit, among the first budget items cut at nonprofits across the U.S. were expenses related to professional development.
Almost four in 10 nonprofits, for example, had reduced or eliminated travel for staffers by the middle of last year, says a report from the Nonprofit Listening Post Project at Johns Hopkins University.
Rather than investing only in skill-building, leaders today need to be able to look to the future, predict trends, be strategic and collaborate with peers, says Mary Ellen Taylor, senior director of learning and organizational development for Habitat for Humanity International.
“Invest in leadership training, but broader than how to be a good manager,” she says. “Focus on how to lead your organization into the new reality.”
Barry Silverberg, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations, agrees.
“The challenge before the sector is to think long-term and strategically, as opposed to dealing with what’s right in front of us,” says Silverberg, who also is the founding director of the Center for Community-Based & Nonprofit Organizations at Austin Community College.
Organizations tend to focus their professional development efforts on specific areas like fundraising and marketing, a perspective that can be limiting, says Silverberg.
“To me, those are tools that are useful only when you know where you want to go,” he says. “Generally, people need to understand there are no magic bullets. It’s a long-term kind of world.”
And to do that, nonprofit leaders – management-level executives and board members – must define what their organizations need to be and then lead to that destination.
“Acquiring the competencies required to chart the path from A to B, and clearly define the B, is in my mind absolutely essential,” says Silverberg.
But it isn’t easy.
It means clarifying the roles of staff and board members, agreeing on the organization’s values, vision and mission, and facing down the tough choices that confront organizations in times of stress.
Not only does that important work provide a direction, it can focus and unite a nonprofit back on its mission.
“That’s the glue that allows organizations to move together toward a common objective,” he says. “You can’t possibly move together if you don’t know where you’re moving to.”
Much of that work is the responsibility of nonprofit boards, which the recession exposed as a weakness for many organizations of all types and sizes across the U.S.
While board members in general tend to be passionate about the organizations they serve, sometimes they lack the expertise, training and information they need to steward their organizations well in tough times.
And while poorly led nonprofits can sneak by when the economy is growing and donations are on track, they quickly can become overwhelmed when crisis strikes, says Taylor.
“If the board was struggling or abdicated its responsibility during the good times, when things go bad, the organization is going to become even weaker because the board hasn’t been developed to the necessary level,” she says.
And sometimes, when boards are weak, nonprofits create a “shadow governance” where the board’s function is handled by the executive director or an executive committee, says Silverberg.
Nonprofits that do have strong board and staff leadership, however, are better positioned to navigate rocky and unfamiliar terrain.
“Those organizations with strong leadership and a strong board-staff partnership, that have a clear sense of why they exist and what their values are, can make the difficult decisions that keep them true to why they exist in the first place,” he says.
The same holds true for executive directors and other key staffers, who can have trouble adapting to new areas if they haven’t been developing their skills.
While each organization is different, investments in professional-development should be focused on those key positions that will move an organization forward, says Taylor.
And while training and travel budgets have been decimated, it’s still possible to continue the work of learning.
Like many other nonprofits, Habitat for Humanity International reduced and adapted the professional-development services it provides for its 1,500 affiliates around the world, says Taylor.
“We have cut back and we’ve been more strategic about how we deliver training,” she says. “We do a lot more in-house.”
That means finding subject-matter experts within the Habitat family, of which there are many, she says, holding brown-bag lunches and setting up “communities of practice” where affiliates’ employees can learn from each other.
The organization also records its conference-call trainings and posts them online for affiliates to access through Habitat’s intranet.
“A lot of times, nonprofits don’t realize the expertise they have within their own walls,” says Taylor. “How do you tap into and spread that knowledge?”
The organization still provides funds for training, but affiliates and their employees must be clear on how they will use the training and how it will affect their job, and supervisors must be clear on how it will benefit the rest of the organization.
“Whenever I send someone, I let them know they have a commitment to come back and share what they learned with others,” Taylor says. “That way, training becomes institutionalized within the organization.”
Silverberg says that, even if there’s no money in the budget, resources that cost little or nothing are available to nonprofits.
State nonprofit associations often have free or inexpensive information and programs for their members, and the Internet is a wealth of information.
“Time is more important than money,” says Silverberg. “There’s an enormous amount of information that’s out there available for free if people are willing to take the time to search it out and read it.”
Taylor says every nonprofit is different, with its own capabilities, capacity and areas of weakness.
And while nonprofits may have less time and money now than ever before, it’s important to keep moving forward, learning and evolving into their missions.
“People need to get more creative,” says Taylor. “The worst thing would be to do nothing.”