Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Overcoming Current Economic Challenges

What are key ingredients for succeeding in these tough economic times? What will increase the chances that foundations will award your organization a grant? Some corporate and foundation leaders made loud and clear suggestions at a seminar* this past Friday. Three major themes cut across their remarks:

1. Focus on what is “mission critical.” Identify the activities absolutely essential to your mission. Get rid of the rest. Focus on core values. If others can do something as well as you, maybe you should let them. Don’t be drawn off mission by “seductive RFPs.”

2. Form strategic alliances. Collaborate with others in whatever way makes sense. Be willing to give up your independence. Speakers questioned why multiple agencies should provide the same services, why they should all spend money on fundraising intended to support delivery of the same service to the same population, why they should have independent “back room” operations duplicating one another’s efforts.

3. Board members, step up and take charge. Boards must take ownership of the tough, high-level decisions. Staff can then move ahead, based upon those decisions, to operate the organization as effectively as possible. Most organizations have “800 pound gorillas” and “sacred cows”. Board action should eliminate these and support executive directors to move ahead. As Ellen Luger of General Mills said, “Be open to new ideas; don’t just think the old way.”

Organizations who incorporate these themes into their planning and action will: (a) increase their impacts; (b) improve the economics of service delivery; and (c) appear more attractive to corporate and private funders (all of whom are experiencing decreases in their endowment income and other sources of revenues).

The worldwide economic downturn will continue for a while. The current recession will include the deepest slide in economic indicators since World War II. State Economist Tom Stinson stated that economic recovery similar to the rebound from the recession of the early 1980s will not occur for two reasons: first, no “pent-up demand” exists to get money flowing to end the recession; second, demographics are not in our favor – older people tend to save, while younger people spend. In the 1980s, the ‘baby boomers” were young; now, they are older and more concerned about saving for retirement.

Significant recovery for nonprofit organizations will lag the overall improvement in the economic environment. Recovery for nonprofits will likely take at least two years, if not more. Full recovery will perhaps take 10 years.

Jon Campbell, CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota mentioned something he learned from his father: “When things seem as bad as they will get, they are likely to get a little bit worse.”

Let’s heed Campbell’s words, not to foster pessimism, but to keep us vigilant. We can, and will, overcome the pressing challenges we face – if we keep ourselves informed, communicate and support one another, and open our organizations to opportunities to carry out our work in creative and effective ways. Wilder Research looks forward to addressing the challenges of our times, alongside our for-profit, nonprofit, and government colleagues with similar interests in improving our communities.

*Seminar: “UNITED FRONT: Engaging Nonprofit Board and Executive Leadership Facing Unprecedented Challenges”. Friday, March 13, 2009. Minneapolis. Sponsored by Greater Twin Cities United Way, General Mills, and Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Thanks to those three organizations for offering a forum which provided objective data on current economic conditions, along with wise counsel on strategic approaches for dealing with these conditions! (Opening panel included: Jon Campbell, CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota; Mayor Chris Coleman, Saint Paul; Suzanne Koepplinger, Minnesota Women’s Indian Resource Center; Ellen Goldberg Luger, General Mills Foundation; Mike Opat, Hennepin County Commissioner; Jon Pratt, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits; Tom Stinson, Minnesota State Economist; Christina Wessel, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Genius and Hard Work that Our Communities Need

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed the music of Thelonious Monk on Friday; the concert reminded me how fortunate we can be, usually just a few times in our lives, to witness artistic genius first hand. I felt the same way while sitting in the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park, experiencing a live performance of King Lear, with James Earl Jones in the title role; the same as well seeing Zero Mostel as Tevye in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Master performers have an ability to take current models and conventions and work them into new forms. They challenge themselves and others – and they motivate others to challenge them. (Marsalis and his colleagues try to “arrange music too hard for one another to perform”.) Top performers have an ability to work with others. They seek ideas from others. They search constantly, both by themselves and in collaboration with others, for new ways of doing things.

We can learn a lot from observing brilliant people. I’m always struck by the combination of intellectual assertiveness and intellectual humility – groundbreaking efforts to achieve new ways to understand and to act, yet with great awe and all-encompassing appreciation for how little any of us, even geniuses, can really know and do.

As we face the issues our communities and our nations currently face, I hope we can develop our collective genius in a way that incorporates the traits of great performers like Marsalis. For example, we desperately need to change our system of health care. Will we just produce more of the same, bogged down by old ways of thinking and stymied by the baggage of the past? Or can we rearrange some old parts and create some new ones, to redesign an accessible, effective, equitable system? Can we arrange something “too hard to perform” and then accomplish the work and preparation that enables us to perform?

If and when “stimulus money” flows into our communities, will we seek to plug holes and maintain the past? Or will we creatively identify opportunities that will leverage the effect of the money, building on the energy and genius of our residents?

Top performers make difficult, complex efforts look simple. We can’t deceive ourselves. As Marsalis pointed out, sometimes practicing “18 or 19 hours in a day” is necessary. Similarly, to get our communities and economies back on track, we will need to work diligently. Quick, simple, and “politically correct” approaches will fall far short of what we need. We must challenge one another, give up turf, compromise and orchestrate some new music.