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Nonprofits should fall back, regroup

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Margaret Henderson

Margaret Henderson

Margaret Henderson

With budgets for local and state governments in the final stages of being negotiated and approved, nonprofits that sustained their governmental funding levels of fiscal 2010 are what passes for “successful” in this economy and should be thankful for that support.

Many nonprofits, however, have received double-digit cuts, or have been zeroed out of the budget entirely.

These decisions can be hard to understand at both a logical level — “My nonprofit’s services save the government money” – and an emotional level — “People are going to hurt from these budget cuts.”

The community impact from the financial reductions will likely not be immediately visible to most citizens: It might take some time for the primary and secondary effects from the cuts to be noticeable to people who are not aware of nonprofit services in their daily lives.

So what should nonprofit leaders be doing during this time of adjusting, reorganizing, making tough decisions, and delivering the news to those affected?

First, recognize that these changes are more about the economy and political trends than about the need for or quality of your services.

Second, figure out how to identify the good things that are happening around you.

Public servants often stay in a state of reaction, responding to the ever-changing challenges of the day.

Sometimes we do work in a proactive or thoughtful mode, such as when engaging in strategic planning.

Rarely, though, do we make the effort to recognize and celebrate our every-day accomplishments.

We are just too busy to make time to do so, and – in times like these – we might be too depleted, discouraged, or overwhelmed to make the effort.

Here is a simple strategy for honoring those small successes: Ask positive questions.

Questions create attention and focus us. They are our most readily available and powerful tool to change our circumstances, our conversations, and our stories.

In your next staff or committee meeting, instead of going around the table to have people provide updates or just launching into the topic of discussion, pose a single question that will reveal moments of excellence or accomplishment:

  • When a community is economically stressed: Tell us about an act of kindness or compassion you witnessed in the last month among our staff or clients.
  • When an organization has been working in overload: Describe a recent incident or interaction that reminded you why our work is so important to our community.
  • When a community is trying to generate a successful future: What is one new good thing that has happened in our community over the last year?
  • When people are trying to do more with less: Give an example of generous or creative problem-solving you witnessed.

Don’t stop there.  Once everyone has a chance to share an experience, take a moment to debrief.

  • What do these comments tell us about our staff, organization, or community?
  • What strengths, often hidden, do we have?
  • How can these serve us in building stronger relationships, services, or products?
  • How can we remain more conscious of our strengths and accomplishments?
  • How can we use these strengths to sustain us in the next year?

People will find what they are looking for: indicators of success or failure, creative solutions or passive endurance, excellence or mediocrity. Use your meeting agendas to rediscover, organize, and celebrate the good and the strong rather than focusing solely on problems.


Margaret Henderson is director of the Public Intersection Project and teaches nonprofit management in the Master of Public Administration Program at School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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