What’s Normal About the New Normal?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 8th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I hate current hot phrases and this one is no exception:    the new normal.  If the current economic conditions—by which I don’t mean the level of unemployment, the number of home foreclosures on the books, the lack of agreement as to how we got where we are and hot to get out, but rather the reduction in credit availability, people’s fear of unemployment and their hesitancy to spend money on anything other than essentials, and more—are, in deed, the new normal, why haven’t nonprofits moved on?

It seems as if the nonprofit sector has adopted this phrase, but not the suggested outlook that should accompany taking that phrase into one’s lexicon.    Rather, I am still seeing nonprofits reacting to the now as if it were a passing something.  They are not paying attention to the well being of their staff, instead choosing to freeze salaries (many for the third year in a row), cut benefits, expand workload, and more.  They are grabbing at any money that seems remotely related to the mission (to wit nonprofits scurry to apply for stimulus dollars despite the short term “respite” that stimulus dollars were supposed to bring, that have in fact created other problems) just to get through the next fiscal year without a deficit (or as small a one as possible).  They are abandoning strategic plans and being reactive instead of following the thoughtful course charted in that planning process.

If, however, organizations truly believed that these leaner, more cautious economic times are in fact here to say—what the phrase the new normal suggests—then I should be seeing very different behavior.  Instead of abandoning strategic plans that were developed through a thoughtful, reflective, data-driven process, I should see nonprofits sticking to that plan after a careful review of the “new reality” in which the plan will be implemented.  If the priorities identified in the original process were good two or three years ago, most of them are still good now for the organization and the fulfillment of its mission, though the time frame may need to be adjusted, or the scale ramped down a bit.  A few may, in this “new normal” seem incredibly naïve, but I’d argue that’s not the case; it may simply be a matter of adjusting the scope of the prize while still eying that prize.

Instead of chasing dollars that you know from the outset:   a) have a have a short shelf-life with little to no chance for re-application or funding from new sources and b) stretch you (I’m being kind) from your mission, nonprofits who have accepted the new landscape should be having heartfelt and mission- and data-driven conversations on key questions.  Key question:  What is it that we are currently doing that are truly our core competencies and we should keep and what programs should we jettisoned as they are draining focus, energy, resources, etc., from that which makes our organization sing?  Key question:  What are the resources, from human to financial to material, that we really need to execute those programs that we are keeping at a level that makes us excel well above our competition?  What is it we will need going forward, as opposed to what is it that we need to do to keep what we have?  Key question:  what changes do we need to make in how we assess and protect the financial health of our organization so that when the “new normal” gets hit by a small or large quake, which we know it will at some point in our future, and threatens us with a “new, new normal” we will be in a stronger, better place than we were this time around?

Unfortunately, I am not seeing the indicators that nonprofits are accepting current times as our new state of being.  Instead, I see organizations continuing to act as if this were a passing phase, one that must be survived in order to reach the bright times on the other side. (Did your children ever watch the video series?  It is fiction and the dinosaurs don’t roam the land anymore.)  Survival mode is a short-term strategy adopted for a temporary situation.  We don’t go into survival mode for a long-term state of affairs.  For that, we need a sustainable, long-term mode of being.

It is time nonprofits started charting that course.

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.