Doing the Harder Right

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 8th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I don’t know about you, but this pandemic has me thinking about things I’ve never really bothered with much before.  Commercial real estate is an example   Sure, I noticed when new office or retail space was being built or refurbished or when a client would mention the need to look for new space.  But in the past couple of months of remote working, I am increasingly  worried about the future of commercial real estate. Have we paved paradise to put up commercial buildings that will now stand empty? 

Thus, while I am concerned for those who work in and/or own commercial real estate, I also want to push nonprofits to think about their need for office space versus their operating budgets in our new world.  While the knee-jerk reaction to “have an office” had diminished some well before the pandemic, there has always been an aura surrounding the notion of an office, a title on the door, a Bigelow on the floor type of thing.   

Somehow, that physical space was what denoted success, and the bigger it was and the nicer it was, the more successful that business was thought to be.  Well, times have changed and window dressing may just not be the best way to spend money.  

Even before the pandemic, a number of for-profit companies had started downsizing their physical footprints, questioning the need to have a specific space in a building for every employee, especially when many employees were out of the office as much as they were in.  Obviously, technology and the successful rise of coworking spaces, such as WeWork and Impact Hub, have contributed.  And while there are many nonprofits who take advantage of coworking spaces, the question remains:  does your nonprofit really need an office—a physical space where all of the players come together every day from nine to five?

As you think about your need for office space, don’t think of the first several weeks of our time of isolation, as that was less than ideal.  For many, there was no time to think, to plan, to identify what they had and what they still would need to be an organization working successfully remotely.  

But now, in the eighth week for many, think about how it is working, where you’ve noticed some improvements could be made, what may be actually working better, and then think about moving forward without a physical office.  Even if you had to buy computers for employees or provide a monthly stipend for using their own computers, or for their personal monthly internet fees or cell phone fees, would you save money that could be used elsewhere or simply be saved?   

Even if you had to buy everyone coffee or breakfast in a public place to hold face-to-face staff meetings or rent space for a board meeting, would you save money?  We have proven in degrees greater and lesser that organizations don’t need a physical, co-locating space for employees to be successful, while we know that as nonprofits we can’t afford to waste a penny.  Thus, the important question that every nonprofit should be asking is whether office space, in whole or in part, is currently a good use of limited funds.

Consider these additional options.  The collaboration continuum covers an array of options from minimally invasive, like sharing space, to the most dramatic, which is dissolution.  Surprisingly, and in far greater numbers than after 9/11 or the 2008 recession, nonprofits have already made announcements of their dissolution.  

While I am all for pruning back the sector, it should be done proactively and, thus, intentionally; never reactively, which is what I fear may be happening now.  There are options along that collaborative continuum that could, and oftentimes even should, stave off dissolution.  These options, however, require hard work, diligence, even truculence, and definitely time.  Dissolution, though never an easy decision to make, and always done with sadness and feelings of guilt, is, in the end, the “easier” road, once the decision has been made.  

Of late, we have been asked to make some very tough decisions about our organizations and the people with whom we work and serve.  There are, no doubt, many more such decisions yet to be made.  I would ask that each of us, regardless of where we are on the organizational chart, commit to doing the hard work that is required to investigate options and make the best decision, shunning the “easier” out.  To quote a portion of what’s known as known as the cadet’s prayer: “May we all have the strength in these tough times to do the harder right rather than the easier wrong…”

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.

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