Knowing When To Say Good-bye

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on December 13th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary


As we move to leave 2020 behind (and none too soon), and walk with hopeful caution into 2021, the big question on so many minds is, when?  When will we be able to safely resume our face-to-face way of life?  I know I’ve got plenty of time to worry—and hope.  

Hope that we, as a sector and as individual nonprofits, will not forget the lessons we are learning during the pandemic once it is declared over. It has me so concerned that I keep talking about it, waving that flag, hoping that some will hear me and take note.  

My fear that this won’t be the case is fueled by this very same behavior that I saw after the Great Recession:  no one took the lessons learned during that terrible period and carried them into the post-recession good times to guide necessary behavior change in the boon, “carefree” times. Sadly, some of the lessons learned during the recession are being retaught and learned during the pandemic. (Or maybe I’m being unfair and they weren’t learned and forgotten at all, but never learned. Either way, let’s learn them this round.)

I’m not even talking about the complex lessons, just the easy ones. One such lesson that was quickly forgotten and thus being lesson retaught now is about the importance of having adequate cash reserves and access to a line of credit for emergency purposes (as opposed to the more common line of credit that is regularly used to step in with cash-flow problems, as so many nonprofits use their line of credit).  

Clearly, those rare organizations with the ideal12 months of operating reserves have sweated a lot less that those with six, who have sweated less than those with only three months of operating reserves. And while I do not want to present a reserve fund as the salve that soothes all ills, it is an important piece of protection. Sadly, though, a reserve fund doesn’t happen by simply wanting it; it requires a clear strategy that is implemented and adhered in order to reach the desired goal that is accompanied by explicit directions on when and how the funds can be expended, and then how they will be repaid. But most of all, the establishment of a reserve fund requires recognition of its importance to the sustainability of the organization and a drive to build it.

Two new lessons from our pandemic era that we should not forget:  first, virtual is not a dirty word, nor is it necessarily an inferior surrogate for face-to-face. Countless executive directors and board presidents have told me how great board participation has been since board meetings went virtual. And no wonder.  Instead of adding at least an half hour on to the start and end times of meetings to allow for travel, parking, literal parking lot conversations, board members need only add five minutes. Instead of fundraising events only drawing from a comfortable driving distance, folks can attend from anywhere. Board and staff members can be located  anywhere, as well, as long as there is WIFI. Not the poor cousin of a face-to-face, but an asset in and of its own right.  

So, don’t run quickly back to the “old ways,” as contrary to what too many tend to think, the old ways are not only the best, they certainly are not the only ways to get things done. 

And second, and very much related, in an age where technology rules, do not let your technology and the technological savvy of all staff members be low on the totem pole. Being  a decade (or more) behind the technological times will never be  a good thing. The difference between organizations that missed very few, if any beats, and those who were struggling well into late April and May was the presence of, and facility with, current technology.  

The wont of our sector is to not invest in current technology and to settle for the discards from  others, or computers and systems held together with electrical tape and patchwork systems.  And, equally wrong, are those that allowed staff to choose whether to become technologically competent or not (notice the goal here is simply competency, not expertise). Being technologically current is not an option, but a necessity of the 21st century.

Taking us back one last time to a lesson learned in 2008 (when I began blogging) and (re)learned again in the pandemic is the importance of a board regularly asking the hard question of “does this organization still need to exist?” Waiting to ask it for the first time during a crisis is never good.  And, actually, this question is either one question and done or a series of  questions.  

The first question is straight  forward:  is the mission of this organization still needed? If the answer is no, then the follow-up is readily  apparent:  go through a thoughtful dissolution.  

If the answer is yes, the next question is harder still for many to answer:  is the current organization—the vehicle through which the mission promises are fulfilled—the best and right vehicle by which to do the job, or are there better options? 

Is an organization that has for years hung on by a thread truly the best vehicle to bring benefit to our clients (as opposed to keeping people employed)? Is an organization that is operationally insolvent, despite enthusiastic and dedicated staff, the best way to deliver mission promises?  

In other words, where is the benefit to clients in just scraping by? Are you waiting for the fatal blow of insolvency to be delivered by an external force, such as a recession or a pandemic, rather than having that blow be intentionally and carefully administered by a wise and caring staff and board? An organization that limps along year after year, living month to month never sure if payroll will be met until it happens, is not the best way to help clients—or to run a business.

Knowing when it is time to say enough of a seemingly good thing is hard; I get it.  But I have  had enough of a good thing. It isn’t that I have run out of things to say, as those who know me know that will never be the case. Nevertheless, it is time to hang up my soap box.  

As The Nonprofit Center celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2021, it is time for a new strategy for trying to spark the much needed reflection that is necessary if we want a truly strong and vibrant nonprofit sector.  

And, so, this blog must end. I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from the forced necessity of reading one more article or research report when I was already tired, of thinking about the ripple effects of certain activities when my brain was yelling stop, of attempting to distill the various ideas running through my head into one cohesive theme to offer up something worth mulling.  

So many of you have been kind enough over the years (and nearly 600 blog posts), to send me words of appreciation for what I had to say and/or for jump starting your own thinking,  and I appreciated them all. Actually, though, it is ironic that you have been thanking me because you chose to read what I wrote. The thanks are all mine to give to you for stopping to take the time to read, think and consider what I bothered to write about. Thank you for that privilege.

“And so this blog must end…Thank you for taking the time to read, think and consider what I bothered to write about”

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.