2 Entries For Your Post-Crisis Sustainability Playbook

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 31st, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Seize the Opportunities

In 1905, philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As it seems the past has been forgotten, here’s a quick trip down memory lane:  

  • September 11, 2001
  • The 2008 financial crisis and recession
  • The 2020 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement
Repeating history cartoon

While each of these events had a profound impact on our entire country, they also revealed an important fact for nonprofits:  economic troubles, troubles that threaten our very existence, have come around before and they will continue to come around. So, why haven’t we learned from them and prepared for “the next time?”

After each economic hit to our sector, people seem to be so happy to have survived that they don’t bother to ask the question of whether surviving is sufficient, let alone enough. There is, after all, the question of quality of life. How well does the mission get protected and polished if the organization is living paycheck to paycheck? When each month is a question of whether you will make it or not,  there are no resources—money, energy, creativity, good will, etc.—to invest in how to get better.  When mere survival is the goal, an organization never gets to the very important question of how do we become sustainable? And it is only with sustainability that we get to polish our crown, metaphorically speaking, as our mission is our crown.

Now is the time for boards and staff to be asking the questions about sustainability. Yes, we are still in a rough period, but if the question of how do we become truly sustainable keeps getting kicked down the road, waiting to find that period of calm, this all-important question will never get addressed. The first question in this process that must be asked is whether your mission is still needed?  If the answer is an honest yes (rather than a yes because we have to self-perpetuate), then the other sustainability questions must be asked and answered:  what do we need and how can we do it?   

Take the time now to do this work.  Many folks already feel out of sorts; adding one more thing to the mix isn’t going to matter, especially if that “thing” has the potential  to address a problem that has been dogging the organization for quite some time.  And now is just as good a time as any, as uncertainty doesn’t shed any less light on the answers than does certainty, and may, in fact, bring some things out from the shadows.  After all, more organizations appear to be having serious talks about mergers and formal partnerships than ever before, so others may be more willing to think creatively than ever before. There is an opportunity here that could make the  difference between life, chronic illness and death for  your organization.  Seize it. 

Character must count

What do you do when there is a board member who does not reflect your organization’s core values? You ask the board member to resign, and if that doesn’t work, you follow the dictates of the removal clause in your bylaws and remove that board member.  Kudos to Bread for the World for seeing to Rep. Ted Yoho’s departure from its board after his degradation of all women through his verbal assault on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and his failure to take responsibility for his actions.  Bread for the World didn’t waste time in taking action. Their response says we took action and we are now moving on with our head held high and our values intact. Continue to believe and trust in us.

Complaints about board members are nothing new.  They run the gamut from mild infractions to truly egregious behavior that is harmful to the organization. And yet, time and again, I hear board members explicitly express their fear of removing a board member for wrong-doings, from a failure to actually do the job they agreed to do violating the terms of their position, such as supporting the mission or breaching confidentiality, to violating core values.  

This fear is rooted in two things:  fear of hurting someone’s feelings and/or fear of losing a donation. First, let’s be very clear:  no board should make decisions based on hurt feelings. The only thing that board members must worry about is the mission: are we fulfilling its promises? Do we have enough money to do the work called for by the mission? What can/should we be doing better to do the best job of  fulfilling  those promises? And how is the bad or wrong behavior of board members hindering and/or harming our ability to successfully fulfill those promises. Playing on the great Groucho Marx, would you want to give money to an organization who had that person on the board?

I keep coming back to the same question:  by virtue of being a nonprofit, do you have a responsibility to stand up for social justice even when social justice is not an explicit part of your mission? Incivility is on the rise in workplaces across American. Perhaps, as we engage in discussions of DEIA, we need to add an R for respect. 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.