[Governance Matters] In an Economic Downturn, What's a Nonprofit Board to Do?

Bridge in Tacoma by Flickr user David Sadler (Creative Commons)

NYU Professor Paul Light spoke at the state conference for nonprofit board members organized by The Nonprofit Center in Tacoma, in my home state of Washington, on October 30th. He bluntly described four possible futures for nonprofits in the midst of a sharp economic downturn:

  • Wait for a miracle. “Believe it if you must, but know that the recovery is going to take a long time to reach far into the nonprofit community.”
  • Wither. Shed programs and activities in a random way that causes the least disruption today. “Do that if you want, but don’t be surprised if opportunities come along and you’re not ready to pounce.”
  • Winnow. End low-impact programs. Mothball activities that might be revived when times change. Look around for someone who might take over your work. Hunker down.
  • Rejuvenate. Take a hard look at everything you do. Preserve core value for the community you serve. Identify your organization’s value proposition and focus energy on doing those things that answer the question “Why us? Why do we exist?” Make tough choices now and you’ll see productivity go up and morale—believe it or not—improve. “Have faith in the possible and pride in your organization. Help your organization to improve through meaningful and deliberate change.”

If it’s the fourth future that appeals, then there are four things Light suggests the board needs to do, today, tomorrow, and, in fact, whether times are tough or flush.

  • Scrub down the organization.Examine the organization’s services and activities through an orderly review that emphasized productivity — not, for heaven’s sake, efficiency. Make a resolution to be more nonprofit-like, to focus on commitment to serving people and the community, and to being sure to do it well. (Light wrote a whole article a few years ago on what it means to be “nonprofit-like.”)
  • Find evidence of success.Talk among yourselves about your “brand,” your “value proposition,” your “theory of change.” Then look at the reports you receive at your board meetings. Review your website and your publications. Do they deliver evidence of your success? Are there areas that may need attention?
  • Pay attention to the tools. Are you wasting your most valuable asset—the wisdom that people bring to work with them everyday—through “economizing” on furniture, staff development, computers and communications? “When I teach nonprofit management,” Light said, “I don’t want my best students to make site visits. If they see the abysmal working conditions too many nonprofits offer, they’ll never want to work with you!” Board members should take the lead in assuring volunteers and staff have what they need to be productive. The undertow from concern about “overhead” is strong. Staff need help to resist it.
  • Broadcast your pride.Nonprofits are making a positive impact every day in the daily lives of people in our communities, in our nation, around the world. It’s hard work done under great stress. Make sure to thank—personally when you can—the people who do it, and their counterparts in other agencies and organizations throughout the community.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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