Many nonprofit arts organizations are nearing the end of their fiscal year (June 30) and are staring a good amount of red ink in the face. I expect to see some stunning and saddening announcements over the next twelve weeks as seasons close up, audits are completed and management and boards consider whether their organizations are going concerns.
With that in mind, I’m revisiting some good materials I’ve been fortunate to read this past year, chief among those is an article called “Surviving Hard Times: A Guide for Cultural Organizations” by Paul Ideker, Principal, Ideker Associates.
Credit to him for what follows, blame to me for errors in paraphrasing.
First a key quote:
“The groups that come out of the challenge successfully will be those that rise to the occasion with renewed dedication to their mission, hard work, and solid strategic thinking about how to get through these tough times.”
I feel that rededication to the core mission of the organization, innovation born out of scarcity, and solid strategic thinking and communication are all key to survival.
Can I boil it down further? Focus on what you do best. Spend less and innovate more. Have a plan and be very clear with everyone on what it is.
OK, back to Ideker:
Stay on your donors’ radar screens.
Find every excuse to talk to your donors about how important they are and how important and successful you are. Don’t always ask them for money, show them what their money does, and they’ll decide before you even ask them.
Stay visible in tough times to the press and patrons.
Tell them what you’re doing to address these tough times. Now is not the time to disappear or hunker down. Now is time to show your best practices and that you are a market/industry leader. Even if you are having real trouble, showing that you are trying to address it will reassure donors, keep them from speculating, and might even draw some assistance.
Increase the transparency of your organization.
Along the lines of don’t hunker down. Don’t be secretive. People need to know where the money is going. Nonprofits rely on the public trust. Earn that trust with open, honest communication and multiple access points for people to lend a hand.
Review the strat plan assumptions, the clarify the core mission, communicate it, and stick to it
This is not likely to be a short term downturn. Best take another look at those growth assumptions. Don’t start anything new. Stick to your core mission, your core competencies, and shore up your weaknesses. What’s the one reason people give you money or buy tickets? That is your core mission.
Stabilize leadership, both board and key staff
If you’ve got a good board and staff, reinforce them any way you can. Engage them in the problems at hand. Break down communication barriers. Budgets don’t accomplish things, people do. An informed, engaged, dedicated person can do more with less.
Be proactive in fundraising.
Everybody will have a hand out. Get in there and fight for it. Have a good message and a good team. Ask for help and show how it will have a positive, measurable outcome/impact. Don’t wait to find out bad news. Go actively looking for support and you will find out who needs to sit this year out.
Remember its not all about you.
Thank people. Ask for advice not money. Get people to talk for you about how important you are. Ask what you can do for your patrons/donors. Pay attention to the big picture. Know your place in it.
Here’s some added things I’ve learned from others:
Show Your Face. Show Compassion.
Now is not the time to be officious (is there ever?). Get everybody in the room together for good news and bad. You might have layoffs or furloughs. Get out front. No emails. Meet in person. This goes for internal as well as external communication. There should be only be closed door meetings if you must legally have one (personnel issues for example).
My personal opinion is that everyone should know everything all the time. Work backwards from that premise.
It is impossible to talk too much about your core mission and ideals
Seriously, everyone should know what you stand for and what you are trying to accomplish. Then all you have to do is tell them how they can help you get there. This goes for staff, volunteers and board. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what’s going on. Most companies are not so large that you could not meet with everyone individually, and you certainly could do so regularly as a group. Not only should you be able to justify your existence, so should all your people.
Don’t forget the “little people”
Every little bit helps, every little bit hurts. Your receptionist can have a greater effect on your bottom line than your CFO if you are not careful, or if she is. That intern might have the hookup you need to solve a problem. Everyone can contribute, anyone can blow a budget line. That little old lady might want to be a angel to you. We hit a ticket sales goal this year when an artist walked up and put us over the top by buying a ticket on closing night to see a friend in the show. You cannot afford to piss anyone off right now. And with social media blooming, one angry customer can literally “go viral” on you, sapping attention and resources from the important core mission.
There are some rough times ahead. The team that sticks together, stays on the objective, communicates well, and supports one another will survive. I have often compared leading a non-profit to leading a scout troop. Pick your own metaphor, but stick to the notes developed by far more experienced and smart people than me, and you are far more likely to get your troops through the forest in one piece.
To all my colleagues and any friends I may have in the non-profit world: Good luck and best wishes.